Some of you may remember the marvelous mixed bag I returned home with on New Year’s Eve, a bag that included several barn pigeons. Well, I gave them a go this weekend.
Pigeons. In all likelihood everyone reading this knows the bird I am talking about. One may be pecking at something outside your window now. But unless you live in the country, you would not want to dine on those pigeons. Remember that all of us are what we eat. The birds my friend Evan and I shot that day were “barnies,” rustic cousins of city pigeons that lived in an old barn in Amador County; these birds ate nothing but seeds. Lots of little seeds.
At the table, pigeons – also known as rock doves – are neither doves nor squab. Doves don’t live terribly long and so are far more tender than the average pigeon; doves are also considerably smaller. A squab is a pigeon, but squabs are essentially pigeon veal: year-old (or less) birds raised in cages and slaughtered before they learn to fly.
Our pigeons lived for years before they met Evan and me. Some have been known to endure beyond three decades, although the average lifespan in the wild is closer to 5 years. Still, 5 years is enough time to get tough. What to do? The English eat a lot of wood pigeons, so I went there for advice. They say look at the breastbone, and if it is pliable it is a young bird. (Same rule applies to all birds, incidentally.) These were not so pliable, but I thought: How tough could they possibly be?
But to hedge my bets, I slipped a knob of fresh butter from the farmer’s market under the skin on the breasts of each one. Ducks in this part of the world are loaded with yummy fat, but these barnies were lean, lean, lean.
I wanted something colorful to go with the pigeons, so I roasted and mashed one of my few remaining kabocha squashes from last season, then went hunting for a suitable sauce. I decided on a green sauce.
ROAST PIGEON with GREEN SAUCE
This is a reasonably simple spring roast that you could do with any game bird. They key here is to have something rich – such as polenta, mashed potatoes or squash – a simply done meat, and this sharp green sauce.
You can do the green sauce as long as a day before if you’d like, and it will keep for several days if you cover it closely with plastic wrap – keep the air off the top of the sauce or it will oxidize.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
- 4 whole pigeons, squab or teal ducks, or 8-12 doves
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
- 1/3 cup fresh oregano or marjoram, chopped
- 1/4 cup garlic chives, green garlic, or 3 garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 2 tablespoons bread crumbs
- Olive oil
To make the green sauce: Roughly chop the herbs and put them into a food processor or blender. Add the mustard, bread crumbs, salt and pepper, then the sherry. Buzz it until it is all well combined, about 45 seconds.
Turn the machine on low and begin drizzling in olive oil until the sauce gets a gravy-like consistency. It usually takes about 1/2 cup to do this.
Once it is the correct consistency — think melted ice cream – turn the machine up to its highest setting and buzz the mixture for 1 minute. If you want to be extra elegant, run the sauce through a tamis or fine sieve.
To roast the pigeons, preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Take each bird and cut the backbone out with shears or a chef’s knife. Open the birds wide by spreading them with your hands, cracking the ribs.
Carefully slip your fingers under the skin on the wishbone side of the breasts and smear butter underneath. Liberally salt the birds all over.
In an oven-proof pan, sear the sides of the birds in butter or olive oil until browned, then place the birds, breast side up, in the oven. Roast 15 minutes, remove and let rest 5 minutes. If you are doing this with doves, roast for only 8-10 minutes. Grind black pepper over the birds at this point (any earlier and it would burn.)
You can either serve them whole, or cut the breasts, legs and wings off and serve separately. Either way, include a “bone bowl” on the table for your guests.