Look at those pigeon breasts. Don't they look like something you'd pick up in a neat vacuum pack from the butcher? Already filleted and trimmed and arranged so all you have to do is chuck them in a pan? All the hard work done for you?
Would you ever guess that they were the result of some extremely amateurish home butchery, mainly involving the hacking of pigeon flesh from bone using a small paring knife and - towards the end, out of frustration - a pair of kitchen scissors? Note to self: there is very little point in buying whole pigeons and not getting the butcher to take the breasts off for you. There's about as much meat on the rest of a pigeon as there is on my little toe.
Kitchen carnage aside (there was a definite Lady Macbeth moment once I'd finished), these plump, juicy pigeon breasts - once separated from their owners - were the perfect choice to showcase a very special ingredient I picked up at the Feast East food festival in Cambridgeshire a couple of weeks ago.
You may have heard of the Gourmet Spice Company. They make all sorts of intriguing and unusual delights like lavender sugar, saffron and orange infused oil, citrus salt and fruit vinegars. Wending my way through the labyrinth of gastronomic delights at the festival, my attention was caught by their stall, proffering a comprehensive range of flavoured balsamic vinegars.
You might not think about balsamic vinegar much. It's probably just one of those things in the cupboard (if you're like me you'll have at least three bottles, because for some reason balsamic vinegar seems to be the mandatory gift for someone you know is interested in food. Note to these people: for future reference, I'd love a KitchenAid ravioli-making attachment. Thanks). But when you're confronted with a dazzling array of flavours ranging from peach & nectarine and pear & cinnamon to fig & date and chocolate & vanilla, I bet suddenly balsamic vinegar is just the thing you've been looking for.
With that single glance at the little ramekins lined up, containing glassy pools of rich, dark goodness, whole wealth of culinary possibilities opened up to me. I stood there for a good five minutes, first trying a couple, then realising it was inevitable: I'd have to try the entire range.
The chocolate & vanilla vinegar had a gorgeous cocoa richness that I really, really wanted to try out in a sweet-savoury dessert. The fig & date was just begging to be used in some kind of Middle Eastern fusion cooking. Knowing that it would be a little bit extravagant to buy the entire range, I eventually settled for the blackberry and rosemary balsamic, a bestseller for good reason. It has a subtle sweetness from the berries and a beautiful fragrance from the rosemary, both of which couple really well with the fruitiness of balsamic vinegar (which is aged for four years to develop its complex flavour). I thought it'd be the most versatile in the kitchen, though I'm still longing to try the others.
I have multiple ideas for the uses of this vinegar, and I'm still in the mood for experimenting with it in the near future. This pigeon recipe arose from my love of pairing fruit with meat; blackberries work very well with game, and I've used them with pigeon before. Rosemary also couples well with red meat like venison; in fact, I was originally intending to use venison steaks but the butcher only had pigeon, so I settled for that. I thought the sweet-sour vinegar with the intense gameyness (why is spell checker telling me that isn't a word? How else is one meant to describe the pungent, iron-rich, earthy, slightly muddy taste of non-domesticated fauna?) of the rare pigeon would be perfect.
I also had multiple ideas for how to serve the pigeon, all involving just salad and/or various vegetables, until I realised I'd be eating this after an intensive kickboxing class. Naturally, then, I turned to risotto.
I've made mushroom risotto with pigeon breasts before, using wild mushrooms. I figured a comforting, starchy base of creamy, earthy rice would provide the perfect foil to the tanginess of the pigeon, which I planned to glaze in the balsamic vinegar and a little honey. I also decided to add chestnuts to the mix, mainly because mushrooms, chestnuts and game are a happy and inseparable trio in my head, and also because their sweet fudginess (again, apparently not a word, but it's the perfect description of a chestnut so in defiance of the Blogger spellchecker I shall leave it be) would give a little lift to all those deep flavours. I found some porcini mushroom stock cubes lurking in the larder that I've been meaning to use for approximately a million years, so they made up the stock for the risotto. They're amazing - instead of having to buy expensive dried porcini, soak them and use the liquid, you can just use these cubes. If you don't have any, just use chicken stock augmented with the soaking liquid from some dried porcini, which you can then add to the risotto, or use chicken stock on its own.
OK, I just have to ask this quickly as a (related) aside: am I the only one who thinks porcini mushrooms smell exactly like cat biscuits? Answers left as comments on this post, please.
A smattering of thyme and sage to evoke a pleasant woodland aroma, a little salt, a splash of white wine, and twenty minutes later I had a beautiful rich risotto. The pigeon breasts I marinated for a couple of hours in a mixture of the rosemary and blackberry balsamic, a little honey, some rapeseed oil and some salt and pepper. I pan-fried them briefly on each side, then deglazed the pan with more balsamic and honey to make a gorgeous jet-black syrupy sauce. This was poured over the pigeon breasts sitting atop their mound of risotto, where it pooled in the gaps between each individual grain of rice, delivering a delicious sweet-sharp surprise with every mouthful.
As I suspected, this entire dish is just a perfect marriage of flavours. You have a really wonderful combination of rich, rare meat (I like my pigeon basically raw, though you can cook it a tiny bit more if you like - don't go mad, though, or you may as well eat a wooden spoon) with its sticky, tangy glaze, fruity and herbal and tangy. Then to counteract and balance this, you have creamy, earthy risotto with the dense bite of sweet chestnuts. Of course, you could use normal balsamic vinegar and add a little rosemary to the marinade and the glaze, if you're not lucky enough to possess some of this fabulous infused stuff. But if you're anything like me, you'll want to head over to the Gourmet Spice Company website and get your hands on these really unusual vinegars. They suggest using the blackberry and rosemary one in a goat's cheese salad, or drizzled over strawberries, both of which I imagine would be amazing. (Incidentally, I should probably say that I did in fact pay for the vinegar myself and am writing about it purely because it's great and I want to share it with you, not because I've been asked to.)
So there you have it. A fairly standard mushroom risotto, given an unusual and delicious twist with the help of one extra-special ingredient. And a pair of kitchen scissors.
Blackberry & rosemary glazed pigeon with mushroom and chestnut risotto (serves 2):
4 pigeon breasts (or buy two whole pigeons and cut the breasts off/ask your butcher to do this)
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
4 tbsp blackberry & rosemary balsamic vinegar (or normal balsamic with 1 tsp chopped rosemary)
1 tbsp honey + 2 tsp honey
Salt and pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
250g chestnut mushrooms, finely sliced
A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 tsp dried sage/chopped fresh sage
150g risotto rice
1 glass white wine
1 litre porcini mushroom stock (or chicken stock plus 200ml soaking water from 15g dried porcini, mushrooms chopped and reserved)
100g cooked and peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped
1-2 tbsp truffle oil (optional)
Finely chopped fresh rosemary, to garnish.
First, marinate the pigeon breasts. Mix the rapeseed oil, 2 tbsp of the balsamic, the 1 tbsp honey and a good grind of salt and pepper in a small dish, then coat the pigeon breasts in the mixture, cover with clingfilm and leave for as long as you can in the fridge (I left mine for about 2 hours, but overnight would be fine).
Next, make the risotto. If you're using dried porcini, soak them in 200ml boiling water for half an hour before cooking, then make 800ml chicken stock and keep warm in a pan. If not, make up the litre of porcini mushroom stock and keep warm in a pan while you start the risotto. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan or saucepan and fry the onion and mushrooms over a high heat until the mushrooms have released all their liquid and are starting to turn golden brown and sticky. Add the chopped porcini, if using. Add the garlic, thyme and sage and cook for another couple of minutes on a lower heat until the garlic has softened.
Add another glug of oil and the risotto rice, stirring to coat it in the oil. Cook for a minute, then pour in the wine and wait until it has been absorbed before adding a couple of ladlefuls of stock. Stir over a medium heat and wait until all the liquid has been absorbed before adding another ladleful. (If using porcini soaking water, add this first then carry on with chicken stock).
Proceed in this way for 20 minutes or so, stirring often and checking the rice for doneness - it should be tender with a little bit of bite remaining. You may not need all the stock. At this point, stir in the chestnuts and check the seasoning.
When the risotto is almost cooked, get a non-stick frying pan really hot then add the pigeon breasts, skin side down. Cook for 2 minutes then flip over and cook on the other side for another 2 minutes. Remove to a plate and cover with foil while you make the glaze. Turn the heat down and add the remaining balsamic vinegar and the tsp honey. It should bubble away - stir it well and let it bubble until it's thick and syrupy.
To serve, pile the risotto onto two plates, drizzle with the truffle oil (if using), then put the seared pigeon on top. Spoon over the balsamic glaze, garnish with fresh chopped rosemary, and serve.