Ever since I started hunting I've wanted to chase the elusive, mystical woodcock, a bird so steeped in mythology it was once thought to spend its summers on the surface of the moon.
Timberdoodles, mud snipe, bog sucker, wood elf—all names for scolopax minor, the lewdly named woodcock. Okay, get your jokes out of the way. Lord knows I've told more than my share. But when you're done, you really ought to do everything in your power to actually eat one of these birds.
You can tell by the pictures of the live bird above that it's funny-looking. Eyes on top of its head, little butterball body, long beak and stubby legs.
Almost all who have eaten them say that woodcock is the king of game birds, greater even than canvasback duck. The flavor of woodcock is said to be strong, gamey-in-a-good-way, and like nothing else. They say the earth moves when you bite into one that has been perfectly cooked: pink, and just a little bloody.
I love game birds more than most people, so for years I've eagerly sought out woodcock wherever I've hunted. Woodcock do not live west of the Great Plains, so I am out of luck here in California. But when I hunted ducks in Canada I asked if there were any in the nearby woods. Sorry, they told me. The timberdoodles had already flown south, toward their wintering grounds in Louisiana. Ditto for my grouse hunt in Minnesota. The bog suckers had already left by the time I'd arrived. Damn.
My quest remains unfulfilled. I have still never shot a woodcock. But thanks to the power of the Internet—and FedEx—I managed to find myself in possession of three woodcock this week. How did this happen?
Well, Brian Degan, a longtime reader of my site and proprietor of the blog Long May Your Big Jib Draw, has had a great woodcock hunting season. When I heard about this, I proposed a trade: Oregon white truffles for timberdoodles. Luxury for luxury. It was a deal.
When the parcel arrived, I tore it open to see if the birds had come through okay. Phew! They did. Thawed, but still cold. First thing I noticed was how small they are: Woodcock are about as big as a Eurasian collared dove, about 5 ounces. For non-hunters, this is about the size of a quail.
I knew there was only one real way to cook these birds, and that was to roast them simply. Looking over literally scores of old recipes, most from before World War I, the dominant method of cooking is in a "quick" oven for 10 to 20 minutes. Bacon or salt pork is put on the breast briefly, then taken off. The birds are served on toast and often with Cumberland sauce.
If this recipe was good enough for J.P. Morgan and his fellow Gilded Age barons, it was good enough for me. I had my plan. Still, it was with trepidation that I turned my oven on. I admit it: I had stage fright.
Any of you who cook regularly know this feeling. When faced with a rare or expensive ingredient, you freeze. You keep thinking, for God's sake, don't mess this up! All your normal cooking instincts fail and you become that timid, novice cook you once were. This happens to me with some frequency, and I know how to get past it: by taking a deep breath, running through the recipe several times in my head, then moving deliberately and smoothly. Focus matters.