Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves
Last year at about this time, Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas' two sons (then five-and-a-half and nine years old) made this dish in response to two gals from the Chicago Reader trying to make the dish and not faring all too well. Nick posted a video of it on YouTube, and it's fantastic.
Back then, I was only a few weeks into this project and wasn't quite ready to tackle this dish, but I remember thinking, if two adorable little pipsqueaks could make this dish with such great ease, I'm sure I can. And then, a few months later, I did a different dish featuring something gelatinous, battered, and deep-fried, with a creative skewer, and we all remember how well that turned out.
Ah yes, the Sweet Potato, brown sugar, bourbon, blah blah blah Cockup of 2009. Ugh. Give me a minute to re-suppress that memory. Okay. Whew. That feels better.
I hoped with every molecule of my being that the same thing wouldn't happen again, because I didn't want to be pwned by the Kokonas Kids. Humiliating!
Cross your fingers.
Because the cider gel needed time to set, and because if I screwed it up, I wanted a second chance at making it, that's the first thing I worked on. I peeled and cored three medium-sized Granny Smith apples, and put them in a saucepan with cider, salt, and agar agar, and brought it all to a simmer.
I simmered it over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so.
I transferred this mixture to the blender, and blended it until it was completely smooth. I strained it through a chinois into a plastic wrap-lined 4x4" Rubbermaid storage container (it was the closest thing I had to a 4x6" pan) and let it set for 2 hours in the refrigerator.
Next, I roasted the shallots. Just like the Kokonas Kids (and papa), I've never seen a grey shallot, so I just used regular ones. I tossed them with grapeseed oil and salt and put them in a shallow, oven-safe saute pan in the oven for an hour.
Probably coulda just done them in foil with the oil and the salt, but dadgumit, I was gonna follow exactly what the book said to do. While the shallots roasted, I prepped the pheasant. The recipe calls for a bone-in pheasant breast, which I suppose I could've ordered from D'Artagnan or Fossil Farms, but my local Asian grocery store carries MacFarlane pheasant every fall, so I bought a whole one and broke it down myself. It's amazing what one can do with a pair of kitchen shears and a little practice on a whole chicken every few weeks:
I saved the rest of the carcass in the freezer -- I'll roast the legs and then make stock out of the bones later this week.
I put the breast (with skin on) in a Ziploc bag with butter, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper, and squeezed out as much air as I could.
I cooked it en sous vide using my immersion circulator at 160F/71C for 25 minutes, then plunged the bag into an ice-water bath for 20 minutes to halt the cooking process.
I removed the pheasant breast from the bag and cut it into 1x1" cubes, which I covered with a damp paper towel and stored in the fridge until I was ready to finish the dish.
By this time, the shallots had cooled off enough for me to remove their outer skin. They seemed a bit soft to me when I unwrapped them, so I stored them whole in a plastic container in the fridge and let them cool a bit more before I cut them for skewering.
I have a big, hundred-year-old pin oak tree in my back yard. It provides an amazing amount of shade in the summer, and an amazing amount of acorns that bonk you on the head in the fall.
Trouble is, this oak tree's leaves stay green as they dry, and almost overnight turn brown before falling to the ground. So, while I wish I had lovely yellow, orange, or red leaves to work with, I made do with nearly-dried-out-and-days-away-from-turning-brown leaves:
I whittled the ends with a vegetable peeler:
Time to finish the dish.
Onto the end of each skewer went a bit of shallot, then a cider gel cube, then a pheasant cube:
I seasoned it with salt and pepper:
Next, I dredged each skewer with rice flour, tapping off the excess:
Then, I dunked it into a gluten-free tempura batter (recipe at the end of the post, if you're interested):
Into a pot of 375F-degree canola oil:
They didn't leak, fall apart, explode, or render themselves a county fair fried reject. And, I figured out how to make them with alternate flours, sans gluten! ALL BY MY DAMN SELF.
At the restaurant, courses like this one are typically served in the Crucial Detail squid service piece, but I laid mine gently on a serving platter and brought them back outside, so we could eat under the very tree that provided the skewers.
One by one, I held each skewer, lit the edges of the leaves on fire, then blew them out, creating the most fragrant smoke:
In between them draining on the paper towels and my re-plating them and bringing them outside, they had about 3 or 4 minutes to cool, so I knew they wouldn't be too hot or burn our mouths when we ate them.
I held my skewer in my right hand with the leaves still smoking and the tempura-battered piece dangling slightly above my mouth, and at it all in one bite.
You guys? These were soooooo good. Eye-closing, deep breath inhaling-ly good. Pheasant isn't as game-y as I thought it might be. It's a little more dense than chicken, and while I thought it might taste a little like squab, it didn't at all. It was juicy and delicious, and had a really nice texture. The cider gel had loosened up quite a bit inside, so that it surrounded the pheasant and the shallot, and eating the piece in one big bite was the way to go. Pheasant, shallot, apple. Smoke. Crisp. Salt. Sweet. I would totally make this again. Everything was so flavorful and so fragrant -- you could taste each element on its own as you chewed, but together, it was really incredible.
It wasn't until after we'd eaten them and talked about how I made them that my friend, Linda, wondered how I could eat anything tempura-battered because didn't that have gluten in it? She didn't know I'd made a gluten-free tempura batter. Couldn't taste the difference.
We even had a clean-plate moment when we were done:
To make Gluten-free tempura batter:
Dry tempura base: 150g (5.3 oz.) white rice flour, 150g (5.3 oz.) tapioca starch, 35g (1.2 oz.) baking powder, 45g (1.2 oz.) cornstarch. Stir together in large mixing bowl.
Gently fold in 198g (7 oz.) very cold sparkling water.
-- This recipe makes more than you will need for this particular dish, but these are the ratios that work for gluten-free tempura batter, so scale according to your specific needs.
Up Next: Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves
Resources: Pheasant, shallots, grape seed oil, and apples from HMart in Wheaton, MD; David's kosher salt; thyme from my garden; bay leaf and pepper from TPSS Co-op; 365 butter; apple cider from Whole Foods; agar agar from L'Epicerie; Bob's Red Mill white rice flour; EnerG tapioca starch; Poland Spring sparkling water; Clabber Girl cornstarch and baking powder.
Music to Cook By: Bat For Lashes; Fur and Gold. For a long time, I didn't get the appeal of Bat For Lashes. I'd only heard a few of her songs, and wasn't drawn in at all. And then, I spent an afternoon cooking and listening to my iPod on shuffle, and her single "Daniel" popped up (I forgot I had downloaded it), and I loved it. So, I went back and listened to more of her music, and really started to like it. Fur and Gold is her debut album, but I'm also enjoying her latest release, Two Suns. Her voice and her style reminds me of Kate Bush with a little Annie Lennox thrown in there, and a slightly more percussive tone.
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