Pheasant Ballotine with Sausage, Herb & Pistachio Stuffing

November 8, 2023
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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.

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