Last weekend Stuart and I headed north up the Hudson to visit my Dad and his wife and take in the colorful leaves and all things fall. There were hearty breakfasts, drives through the countryside on tree-tunneled, winding roads, a memorable meal at a cozy tavern, a harvest festival at a local winery, and time spent visiting by the fire.
One day, we rose early in the crisp, bright morning and ventured into the woods and fields for some bird hunting. I’m still learning so I was just along for the walk, not to shoot. (I got to practice my shooting with clay pigeons later that day.) It reminded me of the times I had tagged along with my parents as they hunted for birds in those same woods.
We were invited by a family friend who brought along his beautiful black lab. It was incredible watching her—bounding through the fields with endless energy, nose twitching at all of the scents, diving into the brush to track birds, flushing them out, retrieving them. I’ve never seen a dog so happy. She was getting to act on instinct and express herself and her doggy nature.
Although we were out there to hunt, a part of me secretly hoped that we wouldn’t find any birds, and thus none would get killed. But, we were out there to hunt. And we did find birds.
Much to my surprise, Stuart didn’t miss (who knew my husband was such a good shot?), and brought down just what we needed for a few nights of good eating: Hungarian partridge, Chukar partridge, and one gorgeous pheasant.
When the dog retrieved the pheasant, I knelt beside it on the forest floor, bowing with reverence. I held it—its body was still warm. Its feathers shone iridescent in the sunlight, in shades of red, blue, green and silver. It was if on the grounds of beauty alone it shouldn’t have been killed.
Back at home, our research on the pheasant began. We had to learn how to clean it, how to cook it. After consulting a stack of books, both old and new, and getting advice from several people more knowledgeable than us, we came up with a plan.
We hung the bird in a shed for four days to deepen the flavors and tenderize the meat. Painstakingly, we plucked each feather from the bird, one by one, so as not to tear the delicate skin. I saved the beautiful tail feathers and am still deciding what I’ll do with them.
On the fourth day, Stuart’s dad, a seasoned hunter, showed us how to gut and clean the bird. I had killed and cleaned chickens on farms, and it was no different to clean the pheasant.
We brined the bird in a simple solution of salt water with a pinch of sugar to season the meat and keep it moist during cooking.
We wanted to cook it simply so we could really taste the bird and let it shine. We stuffed it with fresh herbs, rubbed it with butter, and roasted it in the oven. We served it with fresh from the farm accompaniments: earthy farroto (farro mixed with celery root puree), oyster mushrooms and Brussels sprouts cooked over an open fire. It was as if we had fall on our plates. We ate in near silence, savoring every delicious bite and the hard work and care that went in to creating this special meal.