Pesky pi­geons make de­li­cious din­ners – and great broth, too

The Observer Magazine - - Food & Drink - Pho­to­graphs JONATHAN LOVEKIN

The wood­land pi­geon is a scoundrel and a thief. We might as well eat it. Scourge of al­lot­ment hold­ers, farm­ers and gar­den­ers, the wretched birds can spot a cab­bage seedling at 200ft. They had my cro­cuses last spring. Ex­cept that is more likely to be its dis­tant and dis­tinctly un­de­li­cious Lon­don cousin. I first came across Serve-You-Right Pie in Mar­garet Costa’s Four Sea­sons Cook­ery Book . Made with beef, ba­con and the breast and leg meat of the pi­geon, it has long been on my wish list. “Tiny bones are mad­den­ing in a pie,” says Mrs C quite rightly. Mix­ing so many an­i­mals un­der the same crust is not my bag so I would use the bird alone, its meat made to go fur­ther with leeks and mush­rooms.

The breasts are lean and there­fore dry. The skin rarely crisps, es­pe­cially if you have mar­i­nated the meat with olive oil, bay leaves and gar­lic. The an­swer to both co­nun­drums is to cook the breasts briefly and off the bone, ei­ther on the bars of a grid­dle or in a shal­low-sided pan with but­ter. I in­clude crushed ju­niper berries for their aroma of gin-and-tonic, though I ac­tu­ally think they smell more like the orig­i­nal Eau Sau­vage.

The bones are pure trea­sure. Bring them to the boil with wa­ter, bay leaves, cel­ery, onion and plenty of pep­per­corns, then lower the heat and let them sim­mer for half an hour to a clear and sub­tle broth. Bol­ster the pale liquor with slices of steamed pump­kin, sautéed mush­rooms or, as the ul­ti­mate de­li­cious re­venge, some of your home-grown cab­bage.

Pi­geon with chard, pears and ju­niper

There is a sur­pris­ing quan­tity of meat on a plump pi­geon breast. Cooked rare and sliced thin, you need just one bird per per­son if there are other good things on the plate. Greens, of course – soft folds of spinach or earthy chard, or sweet, but­ter­soft­ened cab­bage leaves, are con­tenders. A spoon­ful of sauce, deep­ened with meat juices, soft­ened with cream and given a kick with a sharp fruit jelly is both tra­di­tional and rarely bet­tered.

Serves 4

pi­geon 4 pears 3 but­ter 30g olive oil 2 tbsp young chard 250g ju­niper berries 10 dou­ble cream 125ml red­cur­rant jelly 2 tbsp

Re­move the breasts from the birds, re­serv­ing the car­casses for broth. Cut the pears in half length­ways and then in half again re­mov­ing the cores as you go. In a large fry­ing pan, warm the but­ter and oil over a mod­er­ate heat then lay the pears in sin­gle layer and let them cook un­til light gold. Turn and lightly brown the other side, check­ing that the fruit is ten­der be­fore set­ting aside. Keep the pears warm.

Turn the heat up, place the pi­geon breasts in the pan, adding a lit­tle more but­ter if nec­es­sary and fry un­til golden, turn­ing once. Re­move the pi­geon to a small bowl and cover with a plate.

Let them rest for 10 min­utes. Re­serve the pan with its cook­ing juices.

Trim and wash the chard. Put the wet chard into a shal­low pan over a mod­er­ate heat, cover with a lid and cook for 3 min­utes un­til the leaves have wilted and dark­ened slightly. Drain and set aside.

Crush the ju­niper berries us­ing a pes­tle and mor­tar. Warm the pi­geon juices over a mod­er­ate heat, then stir in the cream, let it bub­ble briefly then stir in the red­cur­rant jelly and crushed ju­niper.

Put the rested pi­geon breasts on a chop­ping board and slice each into two hor­i­zon­tally. Di­vide the chard be­tween the plates, add the pi­geon breasts and the pears, then spoon over the ju­niper sauce. ‹

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