KENTUCKY DERBY PHEASANT FEAST
Well, as has been said before, Derby Week is like a religious festival in these parts, and a fine Derby Eve dinner is just about as traditional as a fine Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner.
Since we ended up not going to the races today after all, I decided to console ourselves with a fancy dinner -- and a pair of Pennsylvania grown baby pheasants presented themselves at a nearby fancy-food mart just in time for the occasion.
These baby birds, only 3/4 pound each, were much smaller than the 2-pound pheasants featured in most of my cookbooks, so I decided to modify a pan-roasted quail recipe from Marcella Hazan instead, and then went off on a riff of my own for the wild-mushroom sauce. It was a good decision: The birds and sauce made a perfect match, and they made a beautiful marriage with a good Oregon Pinot Noir.
I started with four pheasants (since they were surprisingly affordable) and set two aside for additional attention as leftovers later on.
Wash, rinse and dry the birds, and poke a slice of pancetta, a whole garlic clove, and a couple of fresh sage leaves into the cavity of each. Tuck the wings underneath, and truss the legs with strong thread.
In a large pan big enough to hold the four birds without overlapping, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter until sizzling, then drop in the trussed birds and sautee them over high heat, turning frequently, until they start to brown, adding a little water if necessary if things start to stick. Add 1/2 cup white wine and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, then reduce heat to low and partially cover with a lid set askew. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour or until the meat is almost falling off the bones, turning occasionally and adding a bit more wine or water if the liquid completely reduces.
While the birds are cooking, soak 8 to 10 dried morels and 1/2 ounce porcini mushrooms in 2 cups hot water. Make a strong broth of the pheasant necks and giblets in 1 cup chicken broth for 30 minutes, then strain the broth through a strainer lined with paper towels. Lift the mushrooms out of the soaking liquid and rinse them very well; strain the mushroom liquid through a paper towel and add it to the broth, then boil the combined liquids down until there's about one-half cup of strong, syrupy liquid left. Slice the reconstituted morels and porcini into thin slices.
When the birds are done, reduce heat to very low and turn the birds once or twice in the pan liquids; pour in the reduced pheasant and mushroom broth and give the birds another turn; then remove them to a warm plate. Put the sliced mushrooms into the liquid in the pan and cook for a minute or two or just until they're warmed through. Thicken this sauce with a little cornstarch if necessary (it may not be) and pour the mushrooms and sauce over the birds.
This made a great match with the earthy Pinot Noir, and a bowl of tiny creamer potatoes tossed with parsley and butter and a salad of bitter spring salad greens in a mustard vinaigrette added all that was necessary to make it a fine meal.
The pheasants were cooked but not overdone after about 50 minutes in the pan. I've reserved two of them and plan to finish them in the Weber grill over hickory coals (indirect heat) as a leftover. Gotta get another good Pinot to go with it!