It’s that time again — hunting season officially kicked off on Labor Day with the opening of the dove season. This year Holly and I spent the opener in Monterey County at the Native Hunt ranch with its owner Michael Riddle and 50 or so other hunters. My job: To feed them all for the whole weekend.
I am not a professional caterer. Yes, I have worked in restaurant kitchens, but this was a lot different. “Dinner” service the night before lasted from about 2 p.m. until I basically collapsed at midnight. We ate a whole hog that Holly had shot two weeks before. We ate all the mazzafegati sausages I’d made. We ate a haunch of fallow deer, tenderloins from a Corsican ram and lots and lots of fresh veggie salads I’d made. I even cooked up some cracklins from the deer, which had been eating a lot of barley prior to its demise at the hands of Phillip of the Hog Blog.
Exhausted, I missed the Monday morning dove shoot. But there were so many birds on the ranch I wished I’d brought my shotgun:Â As I walked the half-mile or so from the guides’ trailer to the lodge, I could easily have shot my 10-bird limit en route. It was that good.
By the time I got to the lodge and set another haunch of fallow deer to roasting over a mesquite fire, several parties of hunters had returned, laden with doves. I set them to plucking. “Plucking? But they’re so small! We usually just breast ‘em out,” they said. “Well,” I replied, “this isn’t ‘usually’.” They were good sports about it and began the dis-assembly line.
I was busy prepping some salads and yes, more meat (these are hunters, after all), so Holly took all these fabulous photos. Once the first few sets of doves came in — about 40 or so — they gathered them up for me to clean properly.
Looks pretty gruesome, I guess, but the transition from animal to meat is never pretty and always stark: That’s why most cultures use different words for the creature in its two forms. Chickens and other birds become “poultry” when they’re meat, just as cows and steers become “beef.” This isn’t just an English-speaking thing, either. The Swahili in East Africa call a cow ngombe, but when it’s meat that cow is called nyama.
This leads me to one of my absolute favorite expressions: Wanyama ni Nyama tu, or “all meat is meat.” Humans are omnivores, but most of us self-limit ourselves too much. Doves may be small, but they are spectacularly good fare — if you know what to do with them.
I know what to do with them. In this case, I decided to grill them simply. I stuffed each cavity with a sage leaf and a few grapes, painted them all with olive oil, salted them and set them to the fire over low heat.
Doves should not be overcooked. They should be medium-rare inside, red-to-pink. Like beef, or a duck. Keeping them whole does two things: It provides you with a cavity to stuff aromatics in, which when heated perfume the meat around it. And it preserves the precious skin on the dove itself, which in turn keeps the meat moist — and leaves a crispy skin like a Thanksgiving turkey. Only a helluva lot smaller.
I cooked these for about 8 minutes breast side up, then another 6-8 minutes breast side down. I also gave the doves about a 90-second sear on their sides to crisp up the legs. Paint the doves on the grill with some molten bacon drippings for added flavor.
When finished, I painted them with a little more bacon fat as they rested — you need to let them rest for 5 minutes or so to keep the meat juicy — and topped it all off with a little sprinkle of Spanish smoked paprika.
The first tray of doves flew off the bar. The hunters seemed a little tentative at first. They’d never eaten a dove this way before. Could it be good? Do you eat the legs, too? (yes) Then they bit into them. “Oh my God this is good!” was the most common comment. That made me happy. After all, I’d made them go through the extra trouble of plucking the birds. To not have them enjoy doves this way would have defeated my ulterior motive: To encourage them to try this with their doves at home, to not breast out their birds.
I was especially glad to seeÂ Michael’s reaction. Remember he owned the place; if he didn’t like my doves, the whole enterprise would have been wasted. So I watched closely as he bit into his bird, then breathed a sigh of relief when he declared it the best dove he’d ever eaten.
A second and a third tray of doves moved as fast as the first. I noticed there were a few unusually large ones in the mix, too. Pigeons? Didn’t think so. And then another hunter brought in the answer: It was one of the new Eurasian collared doves that I’d just written a story about!
Bigger than a mourning dove, these invaders have spread from the East Coast and were now competing with the natives for habitat. There is no limit on how many we can shoot during the season. Holly cleaned this dove and I handed her another Eurasian I’d already cooked. We declared it good, but not as tender as the mourning doves.
We finally called it a lunch by about 2 p.m. and headed home, with 10 more doves in the cooler. I am thinking about using them in some very old French recipes for ortolans…more on that later.