In Texas, dove season begins on September 1st. Opening Day is a phenomenon here, as I suspect it is elsewhere. And, we eat what we kill. I don’t know anyone who does not. It is part of the ethos of a hunter. And, therefore, when you grow up in a hunting family or learn to hunt you learn to appreciate the cuisine that is a result. I have been eating venison since I was a kid and venison has managed to become de rigueur among culinary artists who have celebrated it and made it an exotic, demanded meat for high-end restaurants with inventive chefs. Quail has attained a similar popularity. For many reasons, all of the quail and venison that you find in a restaurant is farmed. But, wild dove has not attained the same status. It is a bit gamey. The breast meat is small. It is a red meat. It has not become a darling of the culinary elites, in large part because it is not commercially available. Therefore has remained a family dinner table staple, or even more commonly, a bacon-wrapped-jalapeno-stuffed treat eaten in the field with beer after a day of hunting with friends. That is delicious.
Mourning Dove, which is the variety shown here, are an extremely abundant and well distributed bird in North America, found in all of the lower 48 states. Hunting of dove is allowed in the majority of the states in which the species is found and upwards of 1.1 million people hunt dove on an annual basis. It is the most widely harvested migratory bird in North America. Given its popularity with hunters and, therefore its economic importance, it is a species monitored on a federal and state level to insure that that the health of the population keeps up with the harvest.
My days of dove hunting are mostly behind me. I never missed an Opening Day for years when my family had land outside of Electra, TX. Sometimes people are at a loss for why I love the red dirt and scrubby brush in this area. People who enjoy the splendor of the leaves changing in Vermont are hard pressed to see the beauty in the flattest and driest parts of Texas. But there was a place outside of Kadane Corner, a mere T in the road outside of Wichita Falls, where a piece of my heart remains still today. The land has changed hands, my family has gone through a metamorphosis, and my reality no longer includes the place where I learned about Opening Day.
We used to do it up, though. My brother, Will, and my cousin, Andy, other cousins and uncles, and so many friends that love what we love would convene out in the pastures to hunt and then retire to the rock house where birds were counted and bawdy jokes were told. Will and Andy, and their life-long friends Shawn Scholl and John Pitts would fire up a massive cooking trailer and begin the ritual feed. Music, beer, laughter, dirt colored shirts, dirty blue jeans and brush pants, shotguns, and blazing orange sunsets melting into a sea of stars are the things that I remember about that time. I also remember what it feels like to hold a dead bird that was to become my dinner in my hand. A dead bird in the field, just retrieved by a happy and proud dog, is hot. It is actually hot until the remnants of its speed and power have totally seeped away. In those fields, I learned to appreciate how food got to the table, and that at least in a hunting field a bird is fast and wily and free until the moment that it is not.
We have sanitized and separated the meat acquisition process to a point where there is little connection between the package in the grocery store that we glibly toss in our basket and the animals that they once were. As a meat eater, I tend to celebrate hunting (assuming that the kill is consumed) as a very honest way of procuring food and eating. You have to know what you are seeking and have the skill to acquire it, with all respect given to the innate skills and instincts of the animal. My husband killed these birds, cleaned them, and brought them home. I endeavored to create a dish that celebrates the little bird and gives it a place of honor on the table and I think I succeeded.
|Dove with Minnesota Wild Rice|| |
- 10 to 12 dove, cleaned
- ½ cup salt (divided use)
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon dried sage
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 strips of bacon
- ½ cup cherry preserves
- ½ to ¾ cup Frozen (thawed) or fresh cherries (pitted), chopped or pulsed in the food processor
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon ClearJel or Cornstarch
- ¾ cup low sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup wild rice (Minnesota variety, the long ¾ inch black stuff)
- 3 cups chicken broth (plus more if needed)
- ½ cup Spanish Almonds, chopped coarsely
- ½ cup dried cherries, chopped coarsely
- Skin and breast the dove. Submerge the dove breasts in a solution of 2 quarts water and ¼ cup table salt. Put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight. When you are ready to begin cooking, remove the dove from the refrigerator. Prepare a new bowl with a solution of 2 quarts water and ¼ cup sugar and ¼ cup table salt. Remove the breast from the bone, using a sharp paring knife. Place the filets in the new brine. Allow the breast filets to sit in the bowl at room temperature for an hour.
- Meanwhile, prepare the wild rice. In a covered medium saucepan, simmer the rice in 3 cups of chicken broth for up to an hour until it softens. Add additional chicken broth if needed. This rice is still al dente when ready. When the rice is finished simmering, add the almonds and the dried cherries. Put the rice in a small casserole dish and add about ¼ cup broth to it and dot the dish with slices of butter. Cover with foil and place in a 325 degree oven for 30 minutes. You should be aware if you have never had this type of rice before that it is very chewy, not even remotely like the soft white rice to which we are accustomed. If you don’t like whole grains or such earthy fare, you might choose a more typical wild rice.
- In a small saucepan, combine the preserves, the fresh or thawed chopped cherries, sugar, ClearJel (or cornstarch) and ¾ cup broth. Allow to simmer until thickened and reduced by about half. You can set this aside and simply warm it up right before serving. ClearJel is a thickening agent that I like. I get it from the King Arthur Flour Company.
- Drain the dove breasts. Rinse them twice with fresh water. Lay them out on paper towels and pat them dry. With a mortar and pestle, combine the thyme, sage, salt and pepper. The kosher salt is chunky and helps pulverize the herbs. Grind the herbs until they are uniform and powdery. Sprinkle a little of the herbs on each little breast and rub it in. After you have applied the herbs, very lightly dust the breasts with flour. Render the fat from 3 strips of bacon by cooking it in a skillet on low heat. When the fat has rendered (but before the pan starts browning) remove the bacon, leaving the grease in the skillet. Over medium heat, sauté the breasts, avoiding over-crowding so that they brown nicely. You can add butter to the skillet if you find the bacon grease insufficient. You only need to cook them about 1½ to 2 minutes per side. You want it seared and browned but still medium to medium rare on the inside. Remove the dove to a rack placed in a warm oven. Continue cooking until all the dove are cooked. Serve the dove over the rice, with the cherry sauce spooned on top.
Note: I received the the almonds as a gift (perhaps a gag) from my mother, and therefore I am trying to find great ways to use up a 5 pound bag of Spanish Almonds…they were great in this recipe because they imparted a salty bite which contrasted with the sweet dried cherries which our friend Bubba brings to us from Michigan. The nuts were purchased from Nuts Online. Don’t get a 5 pound bag unless you REALLY like almonds. I like almonds but, mom, really…this is getting out of hand (do you remember, friends, the ottoman of Vidalias?).
Also, just because you don’t hunt doesn’t mean you can’t have access to high quality, humanely raised game birds. There are many farms that raise commercial quail, pheasant and duck that you can have shipped to your home. Though I haven’t personally ordered from them, I would check out Vermont Quail or Griggstown Quail Farm.