MY WINTER menu always features a huge number of game dishes.
I just adore cooking with game, and the real beauty is in mastering all of the techniques and procedures that can make game dishes so special.
It’s worth taking the time to follow the right methods and understand the produce you’re cooking with. Game is so wonderfully versatile that once you learn some of the basics, you can apply these techniques to many different dishes.
The term game applies to wild animals (furred game) and birds (feathered game) that are hunted for food. I’m a real fan of all kinds of game, from grouse and partridge to rabbit and deer. The flavour you get from these birds and animals has so much more depth than any farmed meat, although it can be tougher if you’re not careful about how you buy and cook it.
To make sure it’s not tough, a lot of game is hung to help tenderise the meat and build depth in those wonderful gamey flavours. The longer meat is hung, generally the more gamey it will taste, but you’ll find that the average hanging time is from about two to 12 days, depending on the bird or animal.
Partridge is one of those dishes that for me really heralds the height of the game season. If you’re a newcomer to game, or you prefer just a hint of that gamey flavour, then partridge is a great place to start. It has a slightly milder flavour than some other game meats.
The trick with partridge is to make sure you don’t overcook it because then you’ll find the meat is just too tough. These birds really don’t need long in the oven and are best served pink and juicy.
The key is to make sure you keep checking the bird regularly when you’re cooking, and it’s also important to rest the bird – usually for about five minutes. If cooked right, you’ll get a lovely rich, robust, intense flavour that just sings of winter comfort.
If you’re buying partridge, the best place to seek the freshest wild birds is from a local game dealer, butcher, farm shop or farmers market. Don’t be afraid to ask their advice when you’re shopping. Most of them should also be able to give you guidance on how to cook it.
When cooking partridge, the key is to keep it simple. This is a bird that doesn’t need a lot of fuss. Young partridge is superb simply roasted or grilled and served with a lovely seasonal match of winter vegetables, or that classic combination of bacon and cabbage.
ROASTED LEG OF PARTRIDGE WITH BRAISED CABBAGE PARCELS (Serves four)
For the partridge
4 oven-ready partridges
4 rashers of bacon
olive oil for cooking
sea salt and ground black pepper
For the vegetables
50g bacon lardons
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into quarters
For the cabbage parcels
1 medium savoy cabbage, trimmed
4 savoy cabbage leaves
100g bacon lardons
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
For the garnish
finely chopped, sliced apple
watercress sprigs to garnish
For the partridge
Heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. To prepare the partridges, take a small, sharp knife and cut down either side of the wishbone and remove it. Wrap the bacon rashers around the back of the partridges and tie with string (but not too tightly).
Heat a non-stick ovenproof frying pan over a medium-high heat and add a drizzle of olive oil. Season the partridges all over with salt and pepper and place in the pan. Turn the birds as necessary over the heat for 3–4 minutes until they start to take on a lovely golden colour. Add half of the butter, allow it to melt and foam, then spoon over the birds to baste them. Once the birds are coloured all over, put the pan into the oven. Roast for 8–10 minutes until the partridges are just cooked. Transfer the birds to a warm plate and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
For the vegetables and bacon
Add the bacon lardons and quartered carrots to a roasting tin and drizzle with olive oil. Place in the oven to roast for 20-30 minutes.
For the cabbage parcels
Remove any coarse dark green outer leaves from the cabbage. Separate leaves and cut out the tough vein from each leaf. Shred the cabbage finely and set aside.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and briefly blanch the 4 savoy cabbage leaves. Quickly refresh them in the iced water, then remove with a slotted spoon and place on some kitchen paper to drain. Heat a heavy-based sauté pan over a medium heat and add a drizzle of oil. Add the bacon lardons and cook for 3-4 minutes until they start to crisp. Now add the carrots, shallots, garlic and celeriac with a little salt and lower the heat. Cover and gently sweat for 4-5 minutes to soften without colouring.
Add the shredded cabbage to the pan with the garlic and sweat gently for a further 3-4 minutes. Pour in the water, turn up the heat and put the lid back on. Cook for 3-4 minutes until the cabbage is almost tender.
Meanwhile, peel, core and dice the apples and cook for a further 2 minutes until the cabbage is cooked.
Take the 4 savoy cabbage leaves, and place each on to a small sheet of clingfilm. With each one, spoon in a tablespoon of the cabbage mix, on top of a leaf and wrap gently to form a parcel. Drop into simmering water before cooking.
Remove the bacon from the birds. Cut off the legs, then, using a sharp knife, take the breasts of the carcasses. Remove the skin from the legs and breasts.
Arrange a cabbage parcel on each plate and add the roasted carrot and bacon, then the thinly chopped, sliced apple.
Drizzle over the resting juices from the tray. Garnish with watercress and serve.