Dove Season: Best Two Weeks of the Year

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A few days later, Holly's friend Bill invited us to a farm field near Sacramento airport, and it has been more than a little productive since then. Holly scored her first-ever limit of doves, and we've each had some excellent shooting at this spot, made even better by its proximity.

Which leads me to another thing about dove hunting: It is not something done in a wilderness, or even really much of a wild area. Doves eat seeds exclusively, and grain seeds—safflower, sunflower, wheat, milo, even corn—are their preferred food. Dove hunting is deeply agricultural, possibly even more so than pheasant hunting. The grumble of tractor engines in the distance, pickups loaded with Stetson-wearing ranch hands and disked fields bracketed by unharvested grain are your most likely surroundings.

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Holly A. Heyser

Aren't these doves cute? Like bite-sized chickens. But tastier.

I can hear some of you: "How can you eat those cute little doves?" From time to time I do hear from people who wonder why we hunt doves at all. The comment I hear most often is that they are too small to eat. Since when did size determine whether humans can pursue a creature? See Exhibit A: shrimp.

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Holly A. Heyser

Besides, it's true that good things come in small packages. There's a lot of flavor in a dove, which, once plucked and gutted, averages a shade under three ounces. Doves have red meat like a duck, but no fat. They are best served medium or medium-rare, and because they rarely live very long, are almost never tough the way pigeons often are. Doves rarely run around, so their legs are tender, and because they are such strong fliers, they have unusually meaty wings for a bird their size.

That's why, unlike most hunters, I keep my doves whole. Doves are the easiest of game birds to pluck, and, once you get the hang of it, it takes just a couple minutes to clean one.

By far the most popular way to cook doves is to debone the breast, lay it next to a slice of jalapeño pepper, and wrap the whole shebang in bacon. Grill until the bacon is done, and you're good to go. It is, in truth, delicious. And while I agree that grilling is the best way to cook a whole dove, I took a different route with our first doves of the season.

Teriyaki doves, anyone? I know, I know. Teriyaki is another hunter classic. But I make my own teriyaki sauce, the traditional Japanese way. Marinate the doves 24 hours in the sauce, boil it down, and then use it to baste the birds as they cook.

And who doesn't like teriyaki? Sweet, salty, mildly exotic. I like how the sugars caramelize on the bird when they're grilled.

I also cooked another dish that's becoming a classic with me: Grilled Doves a La Mancha, a Spanish-inspired recipe I first made at Dovapalooza, and have made many times since then. You get a hit of aroma from the rosemary and sage, and a little richness from bacon fat, which also adds smokiness along with the Spanish smoked paprika. I could easily eat a half-dozen doves at one sitting this way.

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Holly A. Heyser

I had one more variation on grilled dove to try, and this one I suspected would be the best. Ever have bistecca alla Fiorentina? That's that huge Italian porterhouse steak, grilled over charcoal and dressed only with really good salt, a lemon wedge, and maybe a drizzle of top-quality olive oil. It is my favorite way to eat red meat, and the method works well with venison and duck. But why not Doves Florentine? After all, doves are red meat, too.

Oooh yeah ... as I'd guessed, this was the winner. Simple, and it really lets the flavor of the bird shine. I like the other dishes, but when you have such perfect, pretty doves, why mess with them too much?

Dove season ends in less than a week, and Holly and I will hunt as often as we can until the curtain falls. And in that time, you can bet we'll be eating a lot of doves.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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