Saturday, December 6, 2008

Game Birds make Slow Food

As I reported in my previous post, Trent -the owner of the farm where I work- decided that it was time to harvest the guinea fowls.

Since the day in May that Trent shooed them from their coop, these guinea fowl have became so "free range" that at the harvest they were wild or "game birds." Over the course of a day the flock would forage about 25 acres as it searched for food. Just like wild birds it flew into trees to roost and ran from and fought with predators. So, they became very muscular, very lean and, once dead and in the hands of a cook, very prone to turning into miserable, dried out, tough and gamey fare if not handled with great care.

There are many ways to render guinea fowl, and game birds in general, tender and moist.

One method is to hang them after they are killed (By wringing their necks and not cutting them to assure that their flesh ensanguinated and juicy.) for about a week as naturally occurring (endogenous) protein-digesting enzymes breakdown and tenderize the muscle tissue.

Another way of making sure that the final dish is tender and moist involves boning them, pounding out the breast to tenderize it, them stuffing the breast with a forcemeat made from the legs (which grinding renders very soft) then roasting the "ballotine."

Barding the flesh by threading lardons (thin strips) of fat through the meat does a pretty good job of keeping the flesh moist without subjecting it to the black box treatment that produces the ballotine. But the high temperatures required to heat the fat to the point at which it begins to liquefy and lubricate the meat almost guarantees that the meat will be tough.

Then there is the "high tech" method of sous vide during which the bird is put into a plastic bag with aromatic ingredients. The bag is then vacuumed to restrict to flow of water and flavor from the meat while it is cooked in water at a very low temperature to limit the amount of coagulation of the muscle fibers (So that the flesh does not become hard.) and to inhibit the breakdown of the red-light -reflecting globular proteins (So the the meat looks rare even though it is fully cooked). Additionally, the hermetic, high humidity, environment of the bag assures that the collagenous connective tissue (which requires the presence of water to break down into gelatin.) becomes tender.

When I learned that the guinea fowl had been harvested, it did not occur to me to try to cook one until they had all been decapitated and plucked. So there was no way that I could hang them. The ballotine route was feeling like a "cop out" in that deals with the problem by turning the bird into a sausage, and I was not in the mood to take the easy way out. (If I wanted to do the easiest thing, I'd just stew them.) And sous vide was out of the question because I don't have the equipment to pull it off (I cook in a barn for god's sake.).

So I decided to do the job "old school" after reaching back into my memory where the classic repertoire of techniques are stored, and pulling out the ancient method of cooking game birds known as "en salmis."

The basic method for preparing a wild bird "en salmis" (I don't remember the etymology or literal meaning of the term.) involves two fundamental steps. The bird is

  1. roasted or sauteed until it is browned but still very rare
  2. cut up and finished in a sauce at low temperature in a pan with a tight fitting lid
Browning gives the skin color and enhances the flavor, while cooking it on a quiet fire in a moist environment assures that the muscle fibers will not dry out and over-tighten. The sauce for the dish, naturally, is made from whatever the bird is cooked with. ( The technique is fundamentally a conventional braise.)

Part 1
The harvest and the rub

In addition to drawing on this centuries-old method to cook the fowl, I added a few other techniques that are, in turn, based on practical experience and my understanding of food science.

The day before I cooked the birds (today actually) I dry rubbed them with salt, sugar, pepper and juniper berries. Salt, once it penetrates the meat is understood to break and weaken the muscle fibers while it enhances their attraction to water. The end result is that pre-salted meat emerges from the oven more tender and with more water. Sugar in meat holds onto water too, and may interfere with the ability of the muscle proteins to link up with each other as they heat (coagulate) and helps to tenderize the meat also. The juniper and pepper were added as simple flavorants.

After better than 16 hours in the dry rub, I browned one of the fowl in rendered veal fat, cut it up and cooked in a tightly sealed pan with aluminum foil in an oven set to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for a long time (1 hour & 45 minutes) . As you will see in the second slide show, I also added water above the meat to slow down the rate of heating even more. I suppose I could have simply placed the pan in water bath (bain marie) and gotten the same effect, but that did not occur to me until hours after the cooking was done.

The result was a bird with a fork-tender breast and legs that were as tender as medium-rare filet of beef.

You might notice in the second set of photographs that in the end, the meat appears to be very moist and pinkish (the breast) or reddish (legs). The results are very much like what you would expect from cooking sous vide: minimal coagulation, lots of denaturation of the connective tissue, yet less than expected destruction of red-light reflecting globular serum proteins. That's my hypothesis anyway.

Finally, you will have to trust me when I say that it tasted great.

As always, please double click the slide showshows for a larger image.

Part 2

Making the salmis


Jon in Albany said...

Looks good. I was going to make a sous vide comment, but I thought it would come off as too sarcastic after my comments at Ruhlman's blog.

I'm not sure you could have made a comparable sauce (which looks fantastic) using sous vide. Maybe you could have. I looked for "Under Pressure" in a Barnes & Noble but couldn't find it. I must not be the only one interested in learning more about the technique.

IdahoRocks said...

Wow, Bob, that was brilliant! Where did you learn "en salmis"? I'm very impressed....almost ready to kill one of those intrusive and pesky wild turkeys that have overrun everyone in the county! Not quite guinea fowl, but, I think, would benefit from this same method of cooking. Thanks for a great lesson!

Bob del Grosso said...


you asked

Where did you learn "en salmis"?

From my first (1981) reading of Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier. Le Guide is not a great recipe book (it was not meant to be) but you cannot find a better source of inspiration for ideas about how to approach the cooking of everything in the western pantry.

boberica said...

Really brilliant play on salmis.
I'm sure the final product is not exactly "light", but, in comparison to Larousse Gastronomique or Escoffier, one could probably still get up and walk around the table upon finishing.
I may be a bit presumptious, but you seem to enjoy revisiting classics and making them more approachable for the modern palate.
It's appreciated!
other bob

Bob del Grosso said...


And you are absolutely right about the difference between my version and the way it is described in the Le Guide etc. And yeah, I like to give credit to history. There is not much sense in pretending that anything we do is entirely new when almost none of it is.

My "sauce" was more of a "nage" and it seems that many of the preparations in Le Guide have you take the meat off of the bone before cooking it in the sauce.

However, I left the meat on because I know that it will shrink less (if the muscle is attached the attachment checks retraction during coagulation) and lose less juice.

I suppose we've learned something over the past 70 years.

Chef Andrew Little said...


What do you think the results would have been if you would have cooked it 'en vessie?'

Bob del Grosso said...

I assume about the same, although maybe not. I think I'd have to keep the oven temp higher to avoid deflating the bladder.

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