How to Buy and Cook Game
Last week I roasted a goose for Thanksgiving dinner. Not a turkey. Many people I know will admit that turkey isn't a favorite food to eat and I agree. I also think that anything that needs so much propping up (brining, stuffing, basting, gravy) to be made tasty may not be worth all the trouble.
But I wanted poultry on my holiday table so what were the alternatives? I was having five for dinner so a duck wouldn't be enough (and my oven is too small to roast multiple ducks all at once). A capon can be delicious but we eat chicken so often that I wanted something more exotic and celebratory. I could have made individual squabs or poussins but then you'd miss the drama of the big bird on a platter. A goose was the perfect answer. It has romantic, Dickens-esque associations without too much pre-dinner stress of "what will this taste like" for any guests that may have never before eaten it.
I ordered the goose in advance from Citarella. A 12.3 pound fresh goose at $6.99 a pound ($85.97) produced five generous servings, plus enough leftovers for a dinner for two and finally, a very nice lunch for one. Seven servings from 12.3 pounds at a cost that is about twice that of turkey.
My plan provoked some unexpected attention. Waiting to purchase the goose got everyone on line with me at Citarella's Upper West Side store asking questions: "What does it tastes like?" "How do you cook it?" "What about all that fat?" One of my holiday dinner guests had been under the weather but rallied when he heard I was making goose instead of turkey. I got emails from friends asking how it had turned out and what roasting method I used. It seems that serving goose was both a curiosity and a treat.
It was indeed. I hadn't roasted a goose in many years and it's not something I've done often so I needed to consult with experts. As I often do when I make something for the first time, or the first time in a while, I reviewed multiple recipes -- from Barbara Kafka's Roasting - A Simple Art, Jennifer McLaren's Fat, Julia Child (various books), and How to Cook a Turkey, which includes a very good recipe for roast goose. While oven temperatures and cooking times varied, the books' methods were all essentially the same:
- A hot oven to start (450° F or 475° F). This helps melt the fat quickly at the beginning of the cooking.
- No stuffing, except perhaps some herbs, garlic cloves, salt and pepper.
- Prick the skin to help the fat release from under the skin.
- Drain the fat out of the roasting pan after about 30 minutes of cooking (mine produced 4 cups of hot, liquid fat after only this first half-hour; I've frozen it in small containers to use later when making fried potatoes, braised red cabbage, cassoulet, and other savory dishes)
- Cook until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 170° F to 180° F.
My 12.3 pound unstuffed goose took 2 hours to cook: 30 minutes at 475° F, 1 1/2 hours at 350° F and it was perfect.
A goose is all dark meat (if you love duck you will love goose) and because of all its fat, there is no need for basting, or for that matter, for gravy. Its flavor is more complex than chicken dark meat and because the bird is bigger than a chicken or a duck, even the wings have meat on them. The drumsticks do not have the tendons which make turkey drumsticks so difficult to eat or carve. And goose skin cooks to an exquisite golden brown and unctuous crispness that is sheer heaven.
For those who may now be clutching their bottle of Lipitor, a dietary note: duck and goose fats are mainly monounsaturated, even more unsaturated than chicken and turkey fats, they are high in palmitic fatty acid, contain omega-3 fatty acids, and are part of the explanation for what's called the "French Paradox." In my opinion, eating duck or goose, even with their fat reputations, is far better for us than eating "low fat" chicken or turkey that have been injected with artificial flavorings to give them taste and moisture.
The attention I got for roasting a goose made me think about how game has become something most of us cook rarely-to-never. Yet at a time when so many of us are making an effort to know where our food comes from, buy local ingredients, seek out foods produced in small lots and not by agribusiness, game can be a happy choice. Here in New York we can easily find game from local producers who raise animals that have been spared the modern breeding methods that remove nutrients, flavor and decent farming conditions. Our best butchers all usually have game in stock.
Game is also good for smaller households. New York Magazine recently noted that one out of every two apartments in New York has only one occupant -- I would add that living alone is not an obstacle to satisfying cooking -- so the choice of a single-serving quail or the three servings from a whole duck are city friendly meals. Best of all, the flavors are enticing and there is little waste from too many leftovers. I'm bored by eating turkey the first time let alone the third or fourth.
However, there are two factors that may discourage cooking game: first, game is usually more expensive than mass produced and completely domesticated meats and poultry. As I noted earlier, my Thanksgiving goose cost about twice as much as a turkey would have. Other game -- rabbit, venison, guinea hen, goat, wild boar and other meats and birds -- are notably more costly than chicken, beef, pork and lamb produced by large facilities for national markets. Buying an organic chicken can already be a food budget compromise so going a step further to buy free-range quail at $3.00 to $5.00 each for a half-pound little bird may not be an option, certainly not a frequent one. It can pay to shop around for better prices; for example, duck legs for confit de canard bought at Esposito's on Ninth Avenue are an excellent value but compared with Esposito's chicken legs, the duck still costs more.
Second, game can require special cooking. Some game, such as duck breasts, have moved into mainstream cooking, but others are unfamiliar. Pheasant and rabbit are both very low in fat and need to be cooked with this in mind. Buffalo steaks are also very lean but stay tender even without the fat found in beef. More exotic game such as opossum, bison, or alligator (none of these have I tasted or cooked) open a whole world of regional cooking. Unlike farm raised game, truly wild game can range in flavor, depending upon what the animal ate. For example, I once tasted roasted bear in a restaurant that specialized in game meats; it tasted like rare roast beef but I've been told that wild bear that eat a lot of fish can end up tasting like one. There's a reason why these foods are called "wild' game!
Popular Game Meat and Birds
- Duck: All dark meat, usually about 4 to 5 pounds each serving three to four persons, easy to roast whole. See our recipes for roasting a whole duck, cooking individual duck breasts, or making confit de canard with the legs.
- Goose: All dark meat, can be bought in a range of sizes from about 10 to 16 pounds, easy to roast, produces large amounts of fat that can be saved and frozen for future use. When buying a whole goose, figure about two pounds per person because the skeleton is relatively large. Quattro, a wild bird producer on Long Island, sells their superb geese and ducks at the Union Square Greenmarket year-round.
- Venison: Very lean, gamy but rich taste, very tender. Can be roasted or used in braised and slow-cooked dishes like sauerbraten, stews, and chili.
- Goat and Kid: The younger the animal, the lighter and milder the flavor. Goat meat can be found fresh or frozen, especially at Halal meat markets (they sell meats that have been slaughtered according to Islamic law). It is roasted, cooked in chops and steaks, and also braised in stews.
- Wild Boar: In Italy wild boar is often cured as prosciutto or as the main ingredient in salami. Because wild boars usually have a diet of acorns and wild greens, their meat has a mild, sweet flavor. The meat is also tender and can be used in recipes in place of pork or venison, but always cooked well done. One of the most delicious pasta sauces I ever tasted was a tomato sauce with chunks of wild boar on thick strands of bucatini.
- Rabbit: Very lean, usually braised to keep the meat tender. A classic French dish is rabbit with mustard sauce and the meat is often used in stews and braising recipes as a substitute for chicken or pheasant. It is also a popular meat to use in pates and terrines.
- Guinea Hen: Looks like a chicken but with a more mottled skin. Lighter meat than other game birds but with a stronger flavor than chicken. Excellent to stuff and roast but the meat is lean so it needs the addition of fat and is helped by basting.
- Pheasant: A very lean wild bird with a gamy flavor and all dark meat. Usually about two-and-a-half pounds each. Can be stuffed and roasted or braised. If roasting, it helps to cover the breast with bacon to add fat since the bird is naturally very lean and may dry out.
- Squab: Sometimes also called pigeon or dove, these are game birds that weigh about 1-pound each, all dark meat, can be roasted, grilled or sautéed. Big enough to stuff.
- Quail: Tiny game birds, all dark meat, usually about 1/2-pound each, can be roasted, broiled, grilled or, as Marcella Hazan recommends, pan cooked with a little white wine and stuffed with sage leaves and a piece of pancetta. Look for ones that are semi-boneless, making them easier to stuff and eat. You need one per person as a starter; two per person as a main course.
- Buffalo: Very tender yet low in fat, with a rich beef-like flavor. Easy to cook stove top in a hot sauté pan.
Although capons, rock Cornish game hens, and poussins are special types of poultry, they are not game. In fact, they are all chickens. Capons are castrated young chickens that grow to become large and fat making them a popular alternative to a small turkey. Rock Cornish game hens are not game but miniature chickens, cultivated by the Tyson folks to be single-serving birds (good for the banquet business). And poussins are small, young chickens with tender, delicate meat. These all cost more and may need special treatment when cooking, but they are still chickens.
If you're interested in learning more about cooking game, I recommend beginning with what's routinely available at a good butcher shop because these are the most popular items and you will have an easier time finding recipes for them. If game becomes a favorite, there's a whole world -- much of which is truly wild -- that can engage your cooking.
But if you start hunting squirrel in Central Park, you're on your own!