When people ask me what my favourite thing about food is, I have an instant answer. Cheese, I say. (No not really). What I love most about food, and increasingly notice the more I indulge and explore my passion for this most fundamental of human drives, is that it's a brilliant social tool. Food can bring even the most unlikely people together. I first became aware of this when I spent two years in the Oxford University Royal Naval Unit during my undergraduate degree. Among the many arduous tasks this involved - sailing warships, trying to cook in a metre-wide sea-tossed kitchen while holding a sick bag to your mouth, shoe polishing, cleaning the ship's toilets, the unpleasant itch of mass-produced uniform, swabbing frozen decks without gloves in the middle of January - was the requirement to attend a fair few fancy dinners with various important naval personnel (OK, so not that arduous, really...until I tell you that I had to both wear and therefore learn how to tie a bow tie). Oh good, I thought. Small talk. My favourite.
So, there I am, in a somewhat awkward and uncomfortable social situation. What do I do? Imagine you're Elly. Wearing a bow tie. Itching in your uniform. Waiting to be told off because your haircut is in the 'danger zone', therefore slightly too long to be acceptable to wear down. Do you:
a) ignore whoever is sitting next to you completely and instead focus on the hot Royal Marine captain sitting opposite...oooh such shiny buttons...
b) absolutely take advantage of all the free wine and all the inevitable ludicrous behaviour that will entail, only to then be told by a naval officer that you are 'pleasantly psychotic'
c) make conversation about the food?
That's right, readers. All of the above.
I can't count the number of times I've been in a potentially boring or awkward social situation and have, both literally and metaphorically, reached for food to help me out. What I love about food as a conversation topic is that absolutely everyone has something to say about it. Even if they're not as geeky as I am (most of the world) when it comes to all things culinary, they've probably got an opinion on people who are, or at least a fond (or unpleasant) food memory to share. They are likely to have a view on fast food outlets, or on fancy Michelin starred madness. They, surely, will have a favourite food. Even if they have no interest whatsoever in what goes in their mouth, that can be an interesting conversation point too: why do they not care? Do they find that strange? Do they not wish they were more interested?
I've had so many fantastic conversations with people I initially thought I might struggle to talk to, all on the basis of food. These talks have taken turns I never anticipated, and many have given me all sorts of interesting ideas about the world of gastronomy. It's a tired sentimental cliche that food brings people together, but that really is my favourite part of what I do.
On new year's eve, I received an email from a reader, telling me that he loves the blog and asking if I'd like a brace of pheasant he'd shot a couple of days before. A couple of hours later, I found myself holding two beautiful dead birds in my arms - a far cry from the plucked, tied pheasant I normally pick up from the butchers, these looked as if they might just get up and run away. They really are the most magnificent animals, and I spent a good few minutes stroking them before my boyfriend started giving me funny looks and I realised I should probably go and put them in the garage. No, apparently I was not allowed to cuddle them on the sofa. They hung there for a week while I plucked up (no pun intended) the courage to attempt to turn them into something edible, having never encountered an animal carcass before. Well, at least not one that I planned on making into dinner.
As it turns out, the process was a lot easier and less messy than I anticipated. I chickened out (AGAIN no pun intended sorry) of plucking the whole birds to roast, partly out of convenience but also because roast pheasant can be quite dry - I thought I'd cut off the breasts to cook separately so they stayed nice and juicy. That also saves on the tedium of hacking your way through a whole pheasant carcass while trying to eat it. I plucked the feathers off the breasts and legs of the birds, which was immensely satisfying and a lot easier than you'd think, although I think I will be finding feathers in my kitchen/clothing/hair/mouth/sink for approximately the next five years. I took the advice of the internet and did this inside a bin bag, but they still got absolutely everywhere. If the weather were warmer, I'd have done it outside, but alas, this is Yorkshire.
Then I used my expert butchering skills (read: a semi-sharp knife and a sturdy pair of scissors) to cut the breasts and legs off, and again I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was and how I somehow managed to avoid completely mangling these beautiful birds. I'd gone from two dead animals on the kitchen table to a few chunks of meat ready to be transformed into a meal. No mess, really - I just put the rest of the carcass (bones, wings, head, organs) into the bin. It's difficult to express the amount of satisfaction I obtained from this exercise. I think it's so important to be in touch with where your food comes from; it's all too easy to take this for granted when we pick up nice pieces of trimmed, packaged meat in a supermarket or butcher and completely fail to make the connection between this and the animals we see running around in fields. You hear so many stories these days about children who have no idea that beef comes from cows, who are completely detached from the reality of where their food originates.
I put a picture of the pheasant carcass on Facebook, and almost immediately had several comments from people, all along the lines of 'ew that's GROSS'. I know this was largely light-hearted, but it made me think, and it made me irritated. If you eat meat, in my opinion, you should be able to, if not kill and skin your own food, at least look at a picture of it with its head still on. To do otherwise is, in my opinion, irresponsible and naive. It's like those people who demand the heads to be taken off when they are served fish in a restaurant. If you're going to consume an animal, at least show it the respect of acknowledging how it came to be on your plate. That was the main reason I said yes to accepting two dead birds into my house: I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable at how disconnected I can feel from my food. I don't live near anywhere I could go fishing, and I've never been shooting. I buy my meat and fish from the butchers and the fishmongers down the road, where all the hard, gory and visceral work has been done for me. It's only right, I figured, that I get back in touch with what goes into getting meat on your plate.
Enough moralising. You probably want to know what I did with the pheasant. I seared the breasts in a hot pan, skin side down, splashed in some white wine and put them in the oven for ten minutes. I cooked some green lentils in stock for twenty minutes then stirred in some finely diced carrot, onion and celery that I'd sweated in a pan over a very gentle heat for 20 minutes until soft and sweet. The pheasant sat on a bed of these lentils, accompanied by roasted cherry tomatoes (lentils can be quite earthy, so need something with a bit of sharpness to cut through them) and a delicious tangy salsa verde-style green sauce made by blitzing mustard, cornichons, capers, tarragon, parsley, vinegar, anchovies, garlic, onion and olive oil. It's very sharp, salty and fragrant from the herbs, and the perfect match for the gamey meat and earthy lentils. The pheasant legs I drizzled with rosemary oil and some seasoning and roasted for use in the next day's lunch: salad of pearl barley, green beans, dried cranberries, pomegranate seeds, and a tarragon and maple vinaigrette (recipe on the blog in the future, I hope).
I have to say, this was the most delicious thing I'd ever done with pheasant. I usually roast or pot roast them whole with apples and cider (or with bacon, butter, and quince and gin gravy), but this was even better. The breasts stay moist and juicy, which they don't really with a whole bird, and the combination of earthy lentils and gamey meat with the tangy tomatoes and green sauce is fabulous. I think, though, that it tasted even better for having undergone so much hard work to get it onto the plate.
Just another example, then, of how food brings you into contact with the most unlikely people and can bring about the most unlikely situations. It's also a learning curve, every day, which is another aspect that keeps me hooked on all things gastronomic. I can now add plucking and butchering a pheasant to my list of kitchen skills. Thank you, Damien, for the pheasant, and the associated broadening of my culinary horizons!
Pheasant breast with lentils, roasted cherry tomatoes and green sauce (serves 3-4):
Adapted from 'Game: A Cookery Book' by Tom Norrington Davis and Trish Hilferty
300g cherry tomatoes on the vine
200g green lentils
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
2 bay leaves
2 carrots, finely diced
1 celery stick, finely diced
1 onion, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
4 pheasant breasts
150ml white wine
For the sauce:
1 tsp capers
2 anchovy fillets
1 small red onion or shallot
1 clove garlic
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
80-100ml olive oil
A large bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
A small bunch of tarragon, finely chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Put the tomatoes on a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Season well, then roast for about 30 minutes, until slightly charred and shrivelled. Set aside.
Meanwhile, cook the lentils. Put them in a large saucepan with the stock and bay leaves, then bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer gently for 20 minutes, then drain and set aside. While they're cooking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large lidded frying pan or saucepan, and add the vegetables with a teaspoon of salt. Put the lid on and cook on a very low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they are soft and sweet. Stir into the lentils and set aside.
Make the sauce by blitzing all the ingredients except the herbs in a mini food processor. Stir in the herbs then taste - you might want a little more pepper, but it should be quite salty from the anchovies. Set aside.
When everything else is ready, cook the pheasant. Rub the breasts with a little olive oil then season generously. Heat a little more oil in an ovenproof frying pan, then sear the breasts over a high heat, skin side down, for a couple of minutes. Turn over, add the wine to the pan, then let it bubble for a minute or so. Put the pan in the oven and cook for around 8-10 minutes, or until the juices run clear. Leave the pheasant to rest for a few minutes while you plate up the lentils and roasted tomatoes, then serve with a generous spoonful of green sauce on the side.