Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Pheasant salad with pear, chestnut, spiced seeds and rosemary salt

Isn't it just so annoying when you have four pheasant breasts in the fridge for dinner, but only three people to feed, so you have to come up with a way of using that leftover pheasant?

Yeah, I didn't think so. 'Leftover pheasant' is probably not the most likely thing you'll have in your fridge. If you do, though, we are kindred middle-class-food-lover spirits and should clearly be friends. However, should you happen to come across some pheasant breasts in the butcher, buy them on impulse, then stash them in the freezer while you figure out what on earth to do with them, this recipe is for you. It would also work if you happen to have roasted a whole pheasant and have some meat left over. Failing that, it would work with chicken. But humour me, and go with pheasant - we don't eat enough game in this country, and it's such a versatile and under-appreciated meat.

I've never cooked pheasant breasts before. All my pheasant cooking adventures have involved a whole bird, the most successful of which was a wonderful roast I made a few weeks ago. I smeared the bird in seasoned butter (salt, thyme, rosemary), layered the breast in streaky bacon, then roasted it until the bacon and skin were crispy. I served it with mash, greens, and the most incredible gravy made by deglazing the cooking pan with sherry and adding redcurrant jelly, rosé wine, and fresh blackberries. It was the best gravy I think I've ever tasted; a vivid dark purple, with delectable tart little morsels of berry that went so well with the rich meat and salty bacon. If you're stuck for pheasant recipes, I'd urge you to try this. I was a bit apprehensive as pheasant can be quite dry (I usually pot-roast it with cider and apples to avoid dryness), but roasting it can be very successful as long as you're generous with the butter and the bacon.

And if you're not generous with the butter and the bacon, life is clearly not going well for you. Sort it out.

Pheasant breasts are a much less scary option than a whole pheasant - they're much easier to cook, less prone to dryness because they can be cooked quickly, and more versatile when it comes to recipes. They can be used in the same way as chicken breasts, but provide much more meaty flavour. They're also not very expensive; at around £4 for a pack of four, they're probably cheaper than chicken breasts. 

While I always used to cook my game on the bone, recently I've come round to using just the breast fillets instead (as you can see in my recent recipe for spiced grouse with roast grapes). Most game birds have hardly any meat on their legs anyway, so you don't end up eating them, and hacking your way through a whole bird is not the most harmonious dinnertime activity. It makes it hard to glean that perfectly balanced forkful of mash, meat, gravy and veg if you've got to manipulate your way around leg bones and breast bones and bits of cartilage first. So if you see pigeon, pheasant or grouse breasts in the butcher, I'd snap them up while you can. I even found goose breasts recently, which I'm indecently excited about cooking - watch this space.

This salad is made special by the addition of two things: spiced seeds, and rosemary salt. The former are simply pumpkin and sunflower seeds toasted in a little olive oil in a hot pan before being tossed with cinnamon and nutmeg. The spices seep into the oil and the seeds turn crunchy, golden, and wonderfully aromatic. They add a beautiful warmth and depth of flavour to the salad, plus a lovely crunchy texture. 

Although the use of cinnamon and nutmeg in a salad might sound strange, you only get little bursts of it, and it makes the dish really special. For other recipes you could experiment with the spices - I think a combination of paprika and chilli would make the most incredible spiced seeds to scatter over a roasted vegetable salad, or cinnamon and ginger for sprinkling over a bowl of warming porridge with chunks of apple or pear. 

The rosemary (and garlic) salt is another excellent find of mine from JustIngredients. It adds a wonderful fragrant salty crunch to anything you sprinkle it on. Here, the rosemary and garlic work well with both the pheasant and the pears (pears and rosemary go wonderfully together), and the coarse grains of salt add another texture to the salad, as well as the saltiness to make all the flavours much more pronounced - the combination of rosemary salt and sweet caramelised pear is fabulous. I can't wait to try this salt over a roast lamb or pork joint, or sprinkled over a focaccia dough before it goes into the oven, but it's also good for anything that needs a little flavour boost.

To pears caramelised in a little butter and the remnants of the seed-toasting spices, I added cooked green beans, the pheasant meat, some thyme, the rosemary salt, the spiced seeds, and some sliced chestnuts. This was all tossed together over a high heat to warm through and allow the flavours to mingle slightly. While you're doing this, appreciate the lovely muted autumnal colours - golden spice-flecked pears, jade beans, russet chestnuts, and bronzed seeds. To garnish, add ruby-red pomegranate seeds - both for colour and a little sweetness - and a little more salt. 

Although this isn't perhaps the most orthodox combination of ingredients, it makes sense. Game goes well with fruit, as it provides a sweet foil to its rich meatiness. Game also goes well with chestnuts, which perform the same function, as well as contributing their delicious fudgy texture. Rosemary and thyme work well with almost all meat, but also pears. Cinnamon and nutmeg are warming autumn flavours that are a perfect match for both game and pears. Add all this together, with the fresh crunch of green beans, the snap of toasted seeds and the juicy bite of pomegranate seeds, and you have a salad that is as interesting to eat as it is delicious.

Although this basically arose from what I had in the fridge, it surprised me at being so much more than the sum of its parts. You have everything there - sweetness, saltiness, crunch, softness, meat, vegetables. It's nourishing yet substantial, perfect for colder weather when you want something a little healthier and more interesting than soup and bread, or a toasted sandwich. If you want to make it even more of a meal, add some cooked couscous or quinoa, or serve with good crusty bread.

Worth hunting down pheasant breasts for, I think.

Pheasant salad (serves 2, easily doubled):

2 cooked pheasant breasts* (see below for cooking instructions)
2 large handfuls of green beans, topped, tailed and halved
Olive oil
2 tsp pumpkin seeds
2 tsp sunflower seeds
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
A knob of butter
2 small pears, cored and thinly sliced
A couple of sprigs of lemon/normal thyme
1/2 tsp rosemary and garlic salt
80g cooked chestnuts, halved
Seeds from half a pomegranate

Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook the green beans for 5 minutes or until tender but still with some bite. Drain and set aside. Slice the pheasant breasts into thick strips.

Heat 1tsp olive oil in a non-stick saucepan or frying pan, and add the seeds. Toast over a medium heat until they turn golden and start to pop, then add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir to coat the seeds, then remove from the pan and set aside. Add a knob of butter to the pan and add the pears. Cook over a medium heat until they start to caramelise (around 5 minutes). Add the green beans to the pan, then add the leaves from the thyme sprigs, the rosemary salt, the chestnuts, and the pheasant slices. Toss everything together over the heat for a couple of minutes, then divide between two plates. Scatter over the pomegranate seeds and a little extra salt and thyme, if you like, then serve immediately.

* To cook pheasant breasts, sear in a hot pan with a little oil for 2 minutes on each side, then place in the oven at 170C for 8 minutes. Remove, season, and leave for 3 minutes to rest before serving or slicing.
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  1. "kindred middle-class-food-lover spirits" - brilliant! I think at this time of year you can get

  2. Wow, sounds amazing - I saw something similar at a butchers in Yorkshire the other day, loads of furred and feathered carcasses all dangling around the outside of the shop. It caused quite a stir! Merry Christmas to you too!

  3. Thanks Alicia!


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