As a youth, a friend of mine used to travel to South Dakota where his older brother owned a spread of land perfect for hunting game birds. “In the Fall, I’d go with my father for the opening of pheasant hunting season,” he recalls. Now with five sons of his own, my sports hunting friend keeps up the tradition in the Midwest, saying: “It’s quite a thrill to bring home several pheasants after a hunt, dress them and make a meal.” In fact, it’s his family’s Thanksgiving tradition to feature wild game they’ve hunted on the holiday table.
As a sport, pheasant hunting goes back to 16th century England. Royalty there became obsessed, capturing huge numbers of birds at one go before restrictions were put in place. A team of seven led by King George V of England, for example, bagged an unconscionable 3,937 pheasants in one six-day period in 1913.
But while those royals were in it for the sport, here in the Midwest, preparing delicious recipes with the birds is the better half of the deal. This fancy pheasant ballotine is a great example. Because pheasants are small, I’ve used three, two-and-½ pound birds—enough to feed a family. And while most of us don’t have access to pheasant caught in the wild, farm-raised birds work just fine.
The word ballotine is from the French balle or “package,” referencing versions of the dish where birds are completely deboned, the meat chopped and combined with herbs and other ingredients to be shaped, wrapped, and cooked like sausages. For this ballotine, however, while the breast, back, rib and wing bones are removed, the legs and thighs are left intact. The deboned portion of the meat is laid open to be filled with a sausage, herb, pistachio, onion, and brandied prune filling. Everything is then tucked back in place to be stitched up, wrapped with bacon, and trussed for roasting.
To ensure a very moist result, I brine the pheasant with herbs, onion, and peppercorns overnight. I then debone the birds, fill with stuffing, and allow them to air dry a bit for a crisper skin when roasted. Because the legs and thighs take a little longer to roast than the stuffed portion of the birds, I slice off the stuffed half after roasting, keeping it warm while the leg and thigh portions of the birds roast an extra 10 minutes.
Tucking small red, gold and purple potatoes, and perhaps some carrot and parsnip around the pheasants makes this a one-dish meal. And for the gravy, simmering the wings and bones you trimmed away will provide you with rich broth to extend the pan juices.
Pheasant Ballotine with Sausage, Herb & Pistachio Stuffing
Five links of fresh, mild Italian sausage, (1 lb.) removed from casings
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 Tbsp fresh sage leaves minced
2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
Zest from 1 fresh lemon
1/3 cup roasted shelled pistachio nuts, ground
1 tsp. freshly cracked pepper
15 slices uncured smoked bacon
1 pound small red, gold and purple potatoes
2 parsnips, peeled and cut in chunks (optional)
1 carrot, peeled and cut in chunks (optional
2 tsp softened butter
2 tsp olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
Freshly ground pepper
MAKE BRINE In a large stock pot over medium heat, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add salt, sugar, and syrup and stir to dissolve. Cool to room temperature. Add herbs, peppercorns, and onion. Add remaining 2 quarts of water. Pour all into a large, lidded container. Rinse pheasants and place in brine. Cover container. Refrigerate overnight.
MAKE STUFFING: In a skillet over low heat, slowly cook onion in olive oil until onions are soft and translucent. Cool. Place pitted prunes in small microwaveable bowl with brandy and heat for 40 seconds to plump prunes. Cool. Dice prunes and add with brandy to a medium sized bowl. Add cooled onions, Italian sausage, breadcrumbs, sage, thyme, lemon zest, ground pistachios and pepper. Mix well.
DEBONE PHEASANTS: Remove pheasants from brine and pat dry. Working one bird at a time, on clean worksurface, flip pheasant onto its breast. Do not remove the neck skin. Using a boning knife, sharp kitchen shears and great care, remove wings. Slice through skin to the backbone cutting down along the length of the bird, to open cavity. Remove rib bones, breast bones and cartilage and leave meat and skin in place. Remove wishbone doing the same. Carefully slicing against the grain, partially cut a thin flap of the breast meat on both sides of the bird, leaving each partially attached. Flip each over on either side of the bird.
Generously pepper the pheasant. Place 1/3 of the stuffing down the center of the cavity. Lift both flaps of breast meat and skin back up and around the stuffing to reform the bird. Fold the neck skin up and over to cover center gap. Using a trussing needle and cotton thread, stich the skin together. Working one strip of bacon at a time, starting just below the legs, wrap bacon from under the bird all the way around to the top, leaving the ends of the bacon on top. Flip bird over (now breast-side up). There may be a large gap without skin over it near the neck. Stretch surrounding skin to cover gap a bit and stich closed with cotton thread. Once you have tied the legs together, any remaining gap won’t show much. Using kitchen twine, truss the bird around its width from the underside up over the bacon at regular intervals, knotting the twine to hold the stuffing and bacon in place. Truss two more times lengthwise. Finally, tie the legs together. Place trussed pheasant on a platter in refrigerator while you repeat with the two other birds.
ROAST PHEASANTS: Preheat oven to 400. Place pheasants in roasting pan. Surround with small potatoes (and carrot and parsnip if using) Drizzle a scant bit of olive oil over all. Sprinkle with thyme leaves and several more grinds of black pepper. Roast pheasants for 1 hour until deeply golden and internal temperature reaches 165. Remove from oven. Lightly cover with foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes before slicing off the stuffed portions of the birds and removing from the pan. Return the leg and thigh halves of the birds to the oven for 10 more minutes to ensure doneness.
TO SERVE: Slice stuffed portion of ballotine and plate with vegetables. For those who like a leg or thigh, slice and serve those alongside, adding tiny sprigs of rosemary, thyme, or fried sage leaves as a garnish.