Wednesday, November 18, 2009

woodcock: the other red meat.

Minnesota is a blessed place for a number of reasons, including an abundance of native wildfowl. Most people have heard of ruffed grouse, but what about Scolopax Minor, the noble woodcock? I recently heard a wonderful NPR interview with Clotilde Dusoulier, a young Parisian food blogger who translated Je Sais Cuisiner, an epic French cookbook, into English. I don't yet have this book but it has since risen to the top of my personal Christmas gift list. During the interview Clotilde describes how the book was intended to help a new bride cook simple, traditional French food for her new family. Among other interesting bits, she mentions that the author included recipes for some obscure dishes, some of which include wild game, because the polite cook must know what to do with a delicious wild boar or woodcock if an uncle happens to leave one at the house. You should be so lucky.

Woodcock is perhaps the most fleeting of Midwestern delicacies. Each fall, the mysterious upland birds migrate from the Northern US (mainly the Upper Midwest and New England) and Canada to the Southern states for the winter. Native Minnesota birds can be found throughout October, but large concentrations of migratory birds are only in the state for 2-3 weeks, depending on the weather, which adds to their allure as game. Their bodies are about the same size as a quail but they have a long neck, large black eyes, and a long pointed beak designed to dig in the soil for earthworms. With a taste that loosely resembles wild duck, Woodcock are truly glorious if roasted simply in a hot oven. To fully appreciate the mystique and obsession surrounding la bécasse, particularly in Europe, I recommend reading this web page. Not surprisingly, the French are the most rabid fan club, but Woodcock also are held in high esteem in the UK.

There are a few classic preparations for woodcock, most of which are mentioned in the Larousse Gastronomique. This is a variation on one of the most typical techniques.


  • 1 whole woodcock, plucked
  • 4 tablespoons of delicious butter, softened
  • coarse sea salt (French grey is very good for this)
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of equally scarce red wine
  • 6-8 baguette slices
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Smear the inside and outside of the bird with 2 tablespoons of the butter, making sure the breasts are well coated. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, again, inside and out.
  2. Heat the oil in a small heavy-bottomed sauce pot over medium heat. When it begins to smoke, add the bird and brown on all sides (about 5 minutes total).
  3. Transfer the pot to the oven and roast 10-15 minutes, or until the bird is golden brown, and the inside is hot to the touch. Important: Like duck, woodcock must be served rare or medium rare to retain its wonderful texture and flavor. The breast should be blood red when you slice it, but not cold (it's not sashimi).
  4. Put the bird on a cutting board to rest. Pour out all but one tablespoon of the fat in the pot and heat the pot over medium flame. Deglaze the pot with the wine, making sure to scrape everything tasty off the bottom. Let the wine reduce to a light, syrupy sauce. Then remove from heat, whisk in the butter, and check the seasoning.
  5. Pull the legs off of the bird and eat them while you finish the dish (with a fat glass of wine).
  6. Remove the breasts from the carcass and slice them thinly. Top the baguette slices with the sliced meat, drizzle with sauce, and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt.
*This makes 6-8 canapés to share, or a small meal for one.

A dish this special deserves an equally special wine. The French recommend a big, bold, dry red wine. I don't argue with them. There is even a French vineyard, Domaine de la Mordorée (Chateauneuf-du-Pape), that celebrates the elusive woodcock on its bottle labels. I drank this with a woodcock I ate last year and I won't ever be the same.