I went on my first-ever snipe hunt recently, and as soon as I had four of the little marsh birds in hand I began plotting an appropriately glorious way of cooking what has been something of a questing beast for me.
I devised what I thought would be such a plan, and Holly and I ate them last weekend. The little snipe did not disappoint. But I did. I still feel somehow off about the whole meal. I wanted it to be perfect, like a first wedding, or a gift. I wanted each course to build upon the last, every accompanying sauce or vegetable on the plate to sing harmoniously with the bird, and each aspect of flavor and texture that snipe had to offer be given a fitting star turn on the plate. In this, I failed.
It was a good meal, a good start to the world of snipe cookery. But it wasn’t perfect. Let me explain.
Start with the simple fact that a snipe is a very small bird. Four snipe will indeed feed two people, but not without lots of help. This I understood. To get the most out of the birds, I started by breaking them down, so I had legs, wings and breasts separated, plus four little carcasses I intended to use for stock. I also had four little hearts the size of the nail on your middle finger, plus four little livers that amounted to about a tablespoon. Such was my raw material.
Stock was easy. I made a standard game stock with mirepoix, fennel, bay leaves and such, but with so little snipe-y matter I only managed about a cup’s worth. What to do with it?
The legs I decided to brine for 12 hours, then dust in cornstarch and fry in olive oil. I dusted them with paprika and served the little legs and wings with a parsley coulis and some Meyer lemon zest. Sounds good, yes? It was good, but the parsley sauce got lost and the lemon zest didn’t do much for it at all. The legs themselves were yummy: Surprisingly meaty, with a bonus — snipe are so small you literally can eat the legs and wings bones and all. All it took was one brave crunch to realize that this was something special about snipe.
The hearts I confited in a little duck fat. The idea was to serve them at the center of a rondele of thinly sliced root veggies: carrots, parsnips and Yukon Gold potatoes. The rounds were then fried or steamed and served simply. To complete, I put a little minced mint down as a bed and set a confited snipe heart on top.
The veggies were delicious, and the heart confit was even better. The confited snipe hearts were a flavor bomb: so intensely meaty, savory, tender yet still al dente, and, well, snipe-y. Tough to explain, but very, very good. Totally worth the effort. The problem? The dish doesn’t work. This is one case where the whole was less than the parts.
The way I will serve confited snipe heart (or possibly duck heart) the next time around will be to skewer it on a toothpick or pin and serve it atop a shot glass of perfect, steaming snipe consomme. It will be a powerful, concentrated essence of this mystical bird, which, to my mind tastes like a combination of a dove and a duck, with a decidedly marshy thing going on that is distinctive, but not unpleasant. I can’t wait!
The one course I really liked was the main: Seared snipe breasts with pureed celery root and a Madeira sauce that dates back to the 1800s. I’m calling it Snipe Gilded Age, and the recipe is below. The celery root puree was light as air and topped with minced celery leaves. The sauce was Madeira wine, butter, snipe stock and a mixture of pureed snipe liver (you knew it had to find its way into the meal somehow…) and heavy cream. Awesome.
As for the snipe breasts themselves, I seared them hard on the skin side to crisp up the skin, then just kissed the meat side for 30 seconds. Topped with salt, black pepper and a touch of celery seed and it was perfect.
The lesson? Stay simple. Be true to the flavors and if they can’t carry you for a whole meal, make them a course. Or two. I tried to get too “cheffy” here and the meal suffered. It wasn’t a disaster, but it taught me that there is indeed such a thing as too much.
snipe with maderia sauce
If you find yourself with several snipe (at least 2 per person), by all means sharpen your knife and break them down into parts. This recipe is for snipe breasts, but the sauce would be lovely with any upland game bird: grouse, partridge, pheasant and especially woodcock.
Speaking of the sauce, it my adaptation of several 19th Century sauces I’ve seen served with snipe or woodcock; yes, I have those kind of books. The livers of the snipe really make this sauce, so if you threw them out by mistake, use a chicken liver.
Be sure to start the celery root puree that goes with this well before you get to the sauce or snipe, which come together very quickly.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 60 minutes[/preptime]
- 4 snipe
- The livers from the snipe (or one chicken liver)
- 1 small or 1/2 large celery root
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons butter
- Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup Madeira wine
- 1 cup snipe stock (or duck stock or vegetable stock)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon celery seeds
- Fleur de sel or smoked salt
- Squeeze the lemon into a large bowl of ice-cold water. Peel the celery root and cut it into 2-inch pieces, dropping them into the lemon-water as you go.
- Bring another pot of water to a boil. Add a palmful of salt, or enough to make the water taste like the sea. Simmer the celery root until it is tender, which can take between 30 minutes and an hour. It’s done when it is easily pierced by a toothpick or skewer.
- Drain and return the pot to the stove over low heat. Return the celery root to the pot and shake a few times. You want the celery root to steam off a bit.
- Add 1/2 cup cream, a pinch of salt and half the butter. Mix well and mash with a potato masher or puree with an immersion blender. Push this through a food mill set on a coarse setting. If you don’t have a food mill, buy one. But for now, push the mashed celery root through a colander. You want a smooth puree without it becoming gummy.
- Test for salt and set aside, covered, to stay warm.
- Mash the liver with the rest of the cream; I’d put it in a small food processor. You want it to look like Strawberry Quik. (Look it up.)
- Heat a large saute pan until hot, then add the rest of the butter. Let this froth off and reduce heat to medium. Lightly salt the snipe breasts and saute them, skin side down first.
- Let this cook for 2-3 minutes, then flip. Cook for 60-90 seconds and remove. Cover with foil and set aside, skin side up.
- Raise the heat to high and deglaze the pan with the Madeira, then let this boil down by half. Add the stock and do the same thing.
- Turn the heat down and add the cream-liver mixture. DO NOT LET THIS BOIL. Heat through and mix well, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
- To serve, plate some celery root puree and top with the parsley. Lay some sauce down and top with the snipe breasts, skin side up. Place a few grains of smoked salt or fleur de sel, then a few celery root seeds on top of the snipe. Serve at once.