Learning to Love Canada Goose
Holly A. Heyser
Canada geese get a bad rap. We all know this goose. It's the one that chokes our parks, wanders around our neighborhoods, and leaves great cylindrical snakes o' crap all over the place. Sky carp. Flying rats. Stinking, arrogant hissing birds that frighten children.
Yeah, Canadas can be all of these things. But in the right circumstances they can be wonderful at the table, in many ways better even than either a domestic goose or a wild specklebelly goose, which is known to those of us who hunt them as "the ribeye of the sky."
I managed to return from my sojourn to Manitoba with five Canada geese, and since then I've been busy trying to elevate what most people view as barely a step above vermin.
I should start by noting that there are Canada geese and there are Canada geese; incidentally, it is most definitely not a "Canadian goose." That drives me nuts. The geese I shot happened to be Canadian because I killed them in Manitoba. But the species is correctly known as "Canada goose." Got it? Good.
As I was saying, there are all sorts of geese that look like Canadas, from tiny Aleutian geese no larger than a mallard, to the Giant Canadas, which can reportedly top 18 pounds. That, my friends, is one big-ass sky carp. The geese I shot were a mix of cacklers, which are only about three to four pounds, lesser Canada geese, which are about five to seven pounds, and one big Western Canada, which weighed nearly 13 pounds. That was a monster.
Canada geese live like large mallards, which is why you see them sharing the same park ponds. Both birds will eat just about anything, from bread and algae to insects, crayfish, and, yes, grain. How a Canada tastes depends on what that bird ate before you shot it. And because they are such eclectic eaters, it really, really matters.
My geese had been gorging on barley, so I knew they'd be fine. Not sure I'd eat a Canada out of Central Park in Manhattan, though, unless I were really, really hungry. But who knows? Maybe it'd taste like knishes, hot dog buns, and hard pretzels?
When it comes to cleaning these birds, lots of people get turned off. This is understandable: Once you start talking about an animal 12 pounds or larger, everything gets harder to deal with.
I highly recommend aging your geese, in the feathers, with the guts in, for one to three days. I wrote a tutorial about hanging game birds that goes into details. Big geese can be tough—they can live more than 20 years even in the wild. Aging develops flavor and tenderizes the meat. Gotta love enzymatic acrobatics—thanks, meat science!
The feathers on a large Canada are tough to remove, and waxing one takes two full blocks of paraffin. God help you if you try to dry-pluck one. Once you get to the gutting, I often hear people say, "Christ it stank! Was so bad I tossed the bird." That's a crying shame, because the stink is, in most cases, just the fact that the ass end of a Canada goose is so large the sheer mass of crap makes the whole thing smelly—until you remove it and wash the cavity. You've seen a goose crap on the grass, right? Can you even remember seeing duck crap? Waaay smaller. Shit happens. It's an occupational hazard when you deal with larger animals.
I should have taken a picture of my big Canada goose, all plucked and cleaned and gutted. It was so big I could have stuffed it with one of the smaller geese. And then a duck in the small goose, then a quail in the duck, a snipe in the quail ... but I digress.
There are no pictures because I broke it down. (Here's how to break down a game bird.) Sorry. As pretty as cooking a whole goose is, I generally don't recommend it. I like my breasts medium to rare (yeah, I'm snickering too... ) and my thighs well-done. Very hard to do this on a whole bird.
So, armed with all kinds of random goose parts, what to do with them? I have a whole ton of duck and goose recipes already on the site, so every new season I try to refine old recipes and then attempt to stretch myself a bit with new recipes.
Holly A. Heyser
Yeah, that's a goose neck. Specifically, it's the neck from the big Canada goose. I stuffed it with ground goose meat and spices, tied it off at either end, and roasted it à la ficelle, so it would be evenly browned. (Here is how to make sausages using a bird's neck as the casing.)
I've stuffed goose necks many times before, but the new bit was roasting the neck à la ficelle, a cooking technique dating back to the 16th century in which you suspend meat over or next to a heat source. The ficelle is the string, and if you have meat hanging next to a fire, and not in an oven as I did, you twist the string so the meat rotates—it's a ghetto rotisserie. The result is very even browning.
Pretty, eh? I love these sausages, and they are always a conversation piece. One word of advice: Try your damnedest to get every last bit of feather off the neck, even when using domestic goose necks. The feathers won't hurt anyone, but they are pretty gnarly to look at if you're serving people who aren't used to eating sausages made with bird's necks....
Canada geese are ideal for these sausages, because they have unusually long necks, even compared to other geese. The longer the neck, the longer the sausage. And yes, size does matter.
Holly A. Heyser
Canadas are also ideal for charcuterie in general, because they are just so damn big. You can confit the legs and thighs easily, and you get plenty of meat from even one leg. The breasts are so large, sometimes well over a pound per side, that they provide lots of easy-to-grind meat for sausages and salami. The only problem is that, in general, you cannot use all that lovely goose or duck fat in charcuterie because it is too unsaturated; it will melt in a warm room.
But I found a way around that: goose mortadella.
Mortadella is what American baloney wishes it could be. It is an Italian emulsified sausage often seen with pistachios embedded in it. Now you charcuterie experts out there will no doubt see I have too many air bubbles in my mortadella, and that it has recognizable bits of spice in it, neither of which are ideal in a commercial mortadella. Hey, it was my first time, okay?
I've read many mortadella recipes, the best being chef Paul Bertolli's in his masterful book Cooking by Hand. But Bertolli's doesn't deal with duck fat. Instead, I found a mortadella recipe by chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli in the magazine Art Culinaire that does use duck fat—and what d'ya know, it will emulsify along with everything else! Problem solved. So I combined Bertolli's and Guarnaschelli's recipes to make my own recipe for goose mortadella.
Holly A. Heyser
It's damn good, like, don't-want-to-stop-eating-it good. But I had to. I am serving it to a bunch of swells from Ducks Unlimited at an event this weekend; they're hosting the annual federal Duck Stamp competition in Berkeley on Saturday. I'm making a duck and goose charcuterie plate—mortadella, goose prosciutto, roast duck, homemade mustard, pickled onions, sorrel leaves—served in a little slider bun. Should be pretty good, I hope.
The last thing I made with the Canadas was something deceptively simple: seared goose breasts with poached pears from my backyard tree. That's the image at the top of this post.
Searing a duck or goose breast is one of my favorite ways to cook that bit of the bird, and I find that wild game always marries well with fruits. A year ago I made a similar dish called Ducks in the Orchard, which uses apples, and this year I wanted to refine and simplify it even further.
Holly A. Heyser
I salted the goose breasts a full hour before I cooked them, to get a quick cure going. My pears are Bartletts, and they can be pretty hard, so I decided to treat them like a vegetable. I sliced them into wedges—do this the same way you would cut supremes off an orange—coated them with olive oil and salt, then vacuum-sealed them. Into my handy-dandy sous vide machine they went, at 182 degrees for 20 minutes. They came out still firm, but soft enough to easily cut with a fork—sweet, salty, rich. (If you don't have a sous vide machine, and you probably don't, use a big kettle of water and a thermometer.)
Underneath it all is a red wine sauce, made with a little estratto I got from Scott over at Sausage Debauchery. A little of that uber-tomato paste goes a long way. Could I have made a white wine sauce instead? You bet. Might even have been better, who knows? Next time.
What's the takeaway? For hunters, know that there are all sorts of things you can do to cook Canada goose that you might not have thought of before; they have advantages—largely size—that let you do some things you can't with other waterfowl. For non-hunters, who cannot legally buy Canada geese, know that a domestic goose is roughly the same size and shape as a Canada, so the recipes translate very well.
Next time you're in a park or on a golf course, and that nasty bird starts hissing at you, think about taking along a baseball bat. Here, goosey, goosey goose....