Pheasant, Fresh or Aged, Hunter's Reward

A talented cook might be the ideal houseguest--especially if he's friends with a local hunter. This one prepares fancy pheasant, forages for mushrooms, and transforms a whole pig head into headcheese in no time.

pott april 21 pheasant.jpg

Photo by greenacre8/FlickrCC

Our Friend Stephen Hutchinson, affectionately dubbed "Hut" by my daughter, prepared us dinner the other night. Hut is a cook at the great Ken Frank's fantastic restaurant La Toque in Napa. Cooking is Hut's second profession. He used to build and design props and sets for film, theater, and television in San Francisco.

Last year, to complete his culinary degree, he had to do an externship at a restaurant, and I set him up with a gig at our local Michelin three-star French Laundry. During his term, Hut stayed in our guesthouse and, in exchange for room and board, did remodeling work on our house. No room was left untouched. Hut became a raging, tile-laying, dry-walling, plumbing ball of fury.

Hut was great company as he transformed our house before our very eyes. And he made great meals. Often he cooked with foraged mushrooms or abalone he would dive for himself, not to mention all the French Laundry leftovers. One night I opened the fridge to find a whole pig's head staring at me--startling in a Godfather sort of way. This same head, by then known as Winston, was transformed into the most succulent headcheese, nearly all of which I consumed one morning for breakfast.

Hut has a friend, Dane, who has an almost Hunter S. Thompson-like affection for firearms. He is quite a good hunter and often provides Hut with fresh game. This evening, he bagged us a pheasant that Hut made into an amazing, exotic, Burmese-style dish. The pheasant led to a debate among our guests over whether it was better to age a pheasant or eat it fresh.

Information in my up-to-date 1965 Larousse Gastronomique seemed to be in conflict. Brillat-Savarin came out strongly on the side of aging, perhaps erring far into the Lazarus end of the spectrum when he said that pheasant "does not reach the 'apogee of delicacy' until it begins to decompose. This ideal moment is when the pheasant begins to decompose. Then its aroma develops in an oily essence which requires a little fermentation to reach perfection, like the aroma of coffee which manifests itself only through roasting." I think that "oily essence" is what we get rid of in the shower while we are still alive. The writers of Larousse were not wholly in agreement.

Hut's pheasant was served with white asparagus with a reduction of veal stock and mushrooms. The stock was a gift from the kitchen at La Toque, where some sauces are so dense and rich that they seem like they have been slowly reducing since the day that India ran into Asia and created the Himalayas.

I brought out some wonderful old Right Bank reds whose age allowed them to mingle politely, like the Queen at Ascot, with the delicate flavors of the food, chirping in here and there with a nice compliment without being overpowering. The Château Trotanoy 1966 was like an Arabian bazaar: fig, coffee, and plum in the nose with silky, textured tannins. The wine seemed as if it might be thin on the palate from the subtle nose but was super fat and rich with a lovely tar finish.

The Château Clos l'Eglise 1982 (black truffle, violets, and dates) was earthy and exotic with a touch of the Arabian Nights about it is as well--but clearly more harem than bazaar. Hut followed dinner with an enormous chocolate cake that lasted well into the next day.