Pheasants and pomegranates just seem to go together; the bird’s mild flavor is nicely offset by the tangy flavor of the juice. It’s part of that whole connection between game and fruits: Duck and orange, venison and prunes, wild boar and apples.
I had no real foreknowledge that I would make something with pheasants and pomegranates this spring. After all, pomegranates are out of season here — and California is where nearly all of America’s pomegranates are grown. But as it happens, the people from POM Wonderful contacted me and asked if I’d help promote their product for some free juice. I have a soft spot for California agriculture, I happen to like their (admittedly expensive) product, and I had a pheasant in the freezer. So I said sure.
Serendipity being what it is, Holly dashed off last weekend for a quick pheasant hunt on one of those hunting preserves (wild pheasants being out of season). She shot really well and came home with five, which is quite a lot of pheasant. So I had fresh birds to cook with, not just my frozen ones.
Let it be said that neither Holly nor I truly enjoy “hunting” pen-raised birds. When I am feeling charitable, I liken it to grocery shopping with a gun and a hike tossed in — a pleasant diversion that results in a good meal or two. When I am not feeling charitable, the experience seems cheap, like a bought date. Still, I like to eat pheasants, California’s wild population is woeful and the season is short. So we go to the preserves a few times a year.
Usually these birds are weak and young and don’t take well to long aging. Glorified chickens, really. I am hoping to someday shoot a few old roosters to age properly– for a week or so. Until then, however, the birds Holly shot will remain our gold standard. Why? In a word, fat. A normal pheasants is frustratingly lean, and as such is tricky to cook without drying him out. Not these birds. I managed to render out nearly a pint of clean fat from them, which is some feat; I would normally get only a tablespoon or two. Even the breasts had a thick layer of fat on them.
All this meant the dish that I had marinating in my mind had the potential to be special. I initially thought about making a Persian fesenjan, but changed my mind. I’ve been trying to avoid traditional cookbooks lately, so I developed this recipe while commuting to work.
I decided to pan-roast the breasts, serve them over smashed fingerling potatoes roasted in pheasant fat and mixed with green garlic and spring onions.
As for the sauce, I reduced some of the pomegranate juice that had arrived in the mail, mixed it with pheasant stock and some of the sweet Greek wine Mavrodaphne, a few bay leaves and dried chiles — oh yeah, and just a hint of maple syrup. It was delish, a lovely tangy, sweet-spicy counterpoint to the surprisingly rich pheasant and potatoes.
To wash it down, I chose an inexpensive Primitivo (basically a Zin), from Puglia. I liked the chicken on the label. It was as fat as our pheasants.
pheasant breasts with pomegranate sauce
This is an elegant way to serve pheasant breasts that is simple enough to do on a weeknight. The pan-roasted breasts come out juicy, the skin crispy and sweet with a pomegranate glaze. The sauce is really deep and has a sweet-savory silkiness that makes you want to eat more. Have some crusty bread to soak it up.
I serve this with potatoes roasted in pheasant fat (you could use olive oil or bacon fat), with salt and lots of chopped green onions and green garlic mixed in. When green garlic is not in season, use regular garlic. You can buy pheasant breasts online from MacFarlane Pheasants, and yes, you can use chicken here. Or turkey.
Serves 4, and can be halved or doubled.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 60 minutes
- 2 whole pheasant breasts with skin
- 2 pounds fingerling potatoes or small Yukon Gold potatoes
- 4 tablespoons rendered pheasant fat, bacon fat or olive oil
- 3 finely chopped green onions
- 3 finely chopped green garlic stalks, or 3 cloves chopped
- 1 cup pomegranate juice
- 1 cup pheasant or chicken stock
- 1/2 cup sweet red wine (I use Greek Mavrodaphne)
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 small, dried hot chiles
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- Fleur de sel or other finishing salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Put the pomegranate juice, stock, sweet wine, bay leaves, dried chiles and maple syrup in a pot and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce this by 2/3 until it begins to thicken a bit.
- Meanwhile, roll the potatoes in 2 tablespoons pheasant fat, sprinkle with salt and put in a covered pot into the oven. Bake for at least 45 minutes.
- Salt the pheasant breasts well and set them out at room temperature.
- Watch the pomegranate sauce, and taste it from time to time. It usually needs a little salt — but this will depend on how salty your stock is.
- After the potatoes have cooked for 45 minutes, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons pheasant fat in an oven-proof pan over medium-high heat. Pat the pheasant breasts dry and lay them — skin side down — onto the pan.
- Let the pheasant breasts sear for 4-5 minutes, or until nicely browned. Turn over and paint with some of the pomegranate sauce.
- Take the potatoes out of the oven and put the pheasant pan into the oven. Turn the heat up to 425 degrees.
- Open the potato pot and smash the potatoes; you want pieces of various sizes. Toss in the chopped onions and garlic and maybe a little more fat or oil. Recover the pot and set aside.
- Watch the pheasant in the oven. You want the pomegranate glaze to caramelize. This should take 3-4 minutes if you oven can get hot fast, but under no circumstances should you let the pheasant stay in more than 8 minutes.
- Remove the pheasant breasts and let them rest 5 minutes.
- To assemble, pour a little pomegranate sauce on the plate. Add some potatoes, and then top with slices of pheasant breast. Add a little crunchy fleur de sel as garnish. Serve immediately with a juicy light red wine, such as a California Barbera or Sangiovese.