PIGEON has always been popular in some quarters, but these days it is to be found on menus up and down the land, and it is a wonderful and versatile form of protein. Pigeon breasts can be seared and roasted and served with a sauce for a main course, or they can be combined with beef and made into a most delicious casserole, served with or without a puff pastry lid.
Pigeon combines with many vegetables, notably onions, leeks, mushrooms and celery, and with nuts, especially walnuts. Citrus fruit, currants or berries, and apples are also delicious with pigeon, but I don’t like it cooked with tomatoes.
You can buy smoked pigeon in some delicatessens, and this makes an excellent first course, combined with a crunchy salad of walnuts and sliced chicory in a crème fraiche dressing. And of course, pigeon can be used with an assortment of other bits and pieces of game – a leg of hare, an old grouse, or pheasant. Or for instance, in a game terrine or the French salmi of game, a highly spiced dish consisting of roasted game birds minced and stewed in wine. Delicious.
Pigeon and beef pie with bacon and mushrooms
4 tablespoons olive or rapeseed oil
8 pigeon breasts, each cut in half
1lb/450g stewing beef, weighed when trimmed of membrane or gristle and cut into chunks about 1in/2.5cm
2 rashers of back bacon, cut into thin strips
2 onions, skinned, halved and finely sliced
8oz/225g field mushrooms, chopped
1 rounded tablespoon flour
1 pint/570ml stock and red wine combined – my ratio is about 50/50
1 tablespoon redcurrant jelly
1 tablespoon Worcester sauce
1 level teaspoon salt, about 20 grinds of black pepper
8oz/225g puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
Heat the oil in a casserole and brown the pigeon breasts on each side, then the pieces of beef, browning them well and scooping them from the casserole into a warm dish as they brown. Then, on high heat, fry the chopped mushrooms well, and scoop them into the warm dish with the beef and pigeon breasts. You may need to add another tablespoon of oil to the casserole at this point. Reduce the heat beneath the casserole a bit, and then fry the finely sliced onions, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.
Stir in the flour and let this cook for a minute before stirring in the stock and red wine, the redcurrant jelly and Worcester sauce, salt and black pepper.
Stir until the liquid simmers gently, then replace the chopped mushrooms and browned beef and pigeon pieces in the casserole, and mix all together thoroughly.
Wait until the liquid simmers once again, cover the casserole with its lid and cook in a moderate heat, 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4 for 1 hour. Take the casserole out of the oven and cool the contents. Tip them into a pie dish.
Roll out the pastry on a floured surface, and cover the pie dish. Cut several dashes into the pastry, (this releases the steam as it bakes) and decorate with a few pastry leaves.
Brush the entire surface with beaten egg, and bake in a hot oven, 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6 for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to moderate, as for the initial cooking, and bake for a further 25 minutes.
This is delicious served with mashed celeriac and potatoes, and roasted root vegetables.
Pigeon braised with celery, orange and leeks
12 pigeon breasts
2 onions, each skinned, halved and finely sliced
3-4 tablespoons olive or rapeseed oil
1 head of celery, each stalk peeled with a potato peeler to remove the stringy bits, then sliced on the diagonal into lengths about 2in/5cm
finely grated rind of 2 oranges (wash each well and dry it before grating the rind)
1-2 fat cloves of garlic, each skinned and diced or chopped finely
3 medium-sized leeks, trimmed at either end and of any outer leaves you think should be removed, and the leeks sliced on the diagonal into approx 2in/5cm lengths, as for the celery
1 fairly level tablespoon flour
1 pint/570ml stock
1 teaspoon salt, about 20 grinds of black pepper, a good grating of nutmeg
Heat the olive oil in a large casserole and brown the pigeon breasts on each side. When they are browned lift them from the casserole into a warm dish.
Then add the sliced onions to the casserole and fry them stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until they are soft and transparent. Scoop them into the warm dish and add the sliced leeks and celery to the casserole, and, stirring from time to time, fry them for 5-7 minutes, adding the finely diced or chopped garlic. Now stir the flour into the contents of the casserole and cook for a minute before gradually adding the stock, stirring until it reaches simmering point.
Stir in the grated orange rinds, salt, black pepper and nutmeg, then replace the fried onions and browned pigeon breasts in the casserole, pushing them down amongst the vegetables. Cover the casserole with its lid and cook in a moderate heat, 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4 for 1 hour.
This keeps warm very satisfactorily for 30-40 minutes at a very low temperature.
I love to serve this with baked sliced potatoes and onions, and possibly with a green vegetable too, but bear in mind that the pigeon breasts are cooked amongst quite a lot of veg; the onions, celery and leeks, and so you could get away with only a potato accompaniment.
Potted pigeon and walnuts
SERVES 6 AS A FIRST COURSE
6 pigeon breasts
6 rashers of unsmoked streaky bacon
1 fat clove of garlic, skinned and chopped quite finely
1 tablespoon olive or rapeseed oil
½ lb/225g lamb’s liver, trimmed of all membrane
3oz/85g chopped walnuts
3 teaspoons Worcester sauce
a pinch of salt – the bacon will contribute saltiness, about 15 grinds of black pepper
3oz/85g butter, melted over the gentlest heat, to clarify the butter
Grill the bacon and the garlic in the tablespoon of oil, under a moderate heat – for once, the bacon shouldn’t become crisp, just yield its fat into the oil.
Lift the bacon rashers from the pan, dripping as much fat into the pan as possible. Put the rashers into a food processor with the garlic. Then, over a high heat, fry the lamb’s liver briefly, just until it is firm, about a minute, and lift the liver into the food processor. Next, fry the walnuts, adding the pinch of salt and frying them for 2-3 minutes. Scoop them into a bowl leaving behind as much bacon fat as possible.
Lastly, over moderate heat, fry the pigeon breasts, turning them over and cooking for 2-3 minutes. Cool them, then add them to the food processor and whiz the pigeon breasts, lamb’s liver and bacon, adding the Worcester sauce and black pepper, and whiz till smooth. Divide this evenly between six small ramekins or pots, smooth the surface even and divide the fried walnuts evenly between the ramekins, pushing them down among the potted pigeon. Carefully pour clarified butter from the pan containing the melted butter, leaving the curd in the base of the pan. When the butter is set, cover each ramekin with cling film and store in the fridge for up to two days. Serve with crisp Melba toast.
A butcher or game dealer is the best source of pigeon. Alternatively, there are various online suppliers that will sell them whole, or breasts only
• Claire Macdonald will be giving a cookery demonstration on Wednesday 28 March at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care. Tickets cost £22.50 including canapés, wine and entry into a gastro raffle. For tickets, tel: 01463 234234, or visit www.edencourt.co.uk