Dovapalooza continues. After our skimpy opening day hunt, Holly and I traveled south to the Coastal Range mountain ranch of our friend Michael Riddle at Native Hunt, where I girded myself for three days of hard cooking for the annual dove hunt Michael puts on for about 50 of his friends and clients.
I did this last year, in the original Dovapalooza, and nearly broke after something like 24 hours of cooking over a 72-hour weekend. Thankfully I had help this time, and the weekend went far easier. Unfortunately, I had fewer doves to cook on Labor Day. Last year I think I grilled about 100, this year only about 45. Such is hunting.
I grill my doves in a Spanish style I call “a la Mancha,” for no particular reason, and everyone loves them at the ranch. Here is the recipe, which, coincidentally, is republished in the Sacramento Bee this morning. It involves bacon fat, fresh herbs and smoked paprika and is a deceptively complex little morsel.
Holly — saints be praised! — finally shot her first-ever doves Monday morning, after getting skunked on three previous hunts. She got six birds, and I held back four from the Monday lunch, and then our friend Sam the Guide gave me two huge Eurasian collared doves, recent immigrants to California that are twice the size of normal doves. OK, they’re still teeny, but Eurasians average about 4 1/2 ounces plucked and gutted, while our native Mourning doves are closer to 2 1/2 ounces.
So we came home with enough doves for two good meals. How to cook them? Not a la Mancha again, and I’d just made a cool dish I call “Doves on the Feed,” where the birds are served over something they would normally eat, in this case grains of farro wheat. OK, I have a twisted sense of humor, I admit it…
Speaking of twisted, I decided to build last night’s recipe around the fact that at the Native Hunt ranch at least, we saw more quail than doves. Doves and quail are neighbors, so I decided to pair them. Sorta. I originally called this recipe “Doves Meet their Future Neighbors,” but that seemed too long, and vaguely Asian, like those recipes you see on menus: Think “Happy Family.”
And I wasn’t cooking Asian, although I think I will for our final dove dish of the season. This time I wanted to riff off a classic French croque madame, which is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top. Quail eggs in this case, and instead of ham, I’d breast out some doves.
Comforty-breakfasty food like meat and eggs and toast needs gravy, right? But I detest that awful, white, mawkish red-eye gravy typically served with biscuits in the South. Sue me. So instead I kept the French theme and made a veloute with butter, shallots, goose stock (I would have done it with dove stock, but it was a worknight and I did not have time), Armagnac and maple syrup. Yeah, baby, yeah…
As comforting and delicious as this all is, the dish still needed a bright note. So I left France and grabbed a gremolata from Italy, which is normally a mince of garlic, lemon zest and parsley. Only I didn’t have any parsley. But I did have mint, so I used it instead and it turned out to be a good call.
How was it? There was a lot going on with this dish, and keeping the gravy hot was tricky. But I’d serve this one up to the judges on Top Chef any day. Fun to eat, rich, salty, a little sweet, a little boozy, with a zing of mint and the bracing flavor of just-a-touch-of raw garlic.
Why go through all this effort? I am trying to broaden my repertoire with this little game bird. Most of us who hunt doves only have one or two recipes to cook them, usually involving bacon and a jalapeno chile. The reason is because unless you live in Argentina, the Imperial Valley of California or along the Mexican border in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, you just don’t get that many doves in a season.
Dove hunting is a ceremonial opener to the hunting season and eating the doves is the ceremonial first wild game feast of the year. It is a rare hunt where everyone shoots enough of the birds to fill up on that first feast — and then comes home with more than one or two meals’ worth. And keep in mind that few hunters chase doves more than once or twice during the two-week opening season, and comparatively few doves are killed in California’s second season, which begins Nov. 14.
And to you non-hunters out there, only domestic squab comes close in flavor to doves. Lean red meat, fine-grained and savory all out of proportion to their size, doves may be teeny but they pack a lot of flavor. So do squab, but good ones run in excess of $15 a pound — a steep clip for a tender pigeon. If you’re in Britain, pigeons are far cheaper, so by all means try them there. If not, it’s worth the scratch to buy good squab now and again.
Or better yet, you could start hunting. It’s not that scary a prospect, really. I didn’t start until I was 32 years old. If you’ve always wanted to learn to hunt but haven’t known where to start, find friends who hunt and ask them. Or just ask me. I did it — so can you.
DOVES on TOAST with QUAIL EGGS
Consider this gourmet comfort food. Making this recipe requires about an hour’s effort, and you’ll finish it in minutes — what’s not to love? It has dove breasts, fried eggs, brown gravy and toast. But not just any dove breasts, fried eggs, brown gravy and toast.
First off, this recipe really needs to be done with doves. I suppose you could do it with squab breasts, or even quail breasts, but then you’d need to use chicken eggs to get the size correct.
Why quail eggs and dove breasts? My little joke: The birds live next to each other here in California, so I reckoned they’d taste good together.
You can find quail eggs at any Asian market, and often at ritzy places like Whole Foods. A word on breaking these little nuggets: Quail eggs have a thick membrane inside the shell, so open them with a very sharp knife that will cut that membrane. I ruined several eggs trying to crack them open like a chicken egg.
Cut the toast thick. This is an open-faced sandwich, so don’t skimp on the bread. It should be crusty and chewy; we use a Pugliese bread from Raley’s supermarket.
Use brandy and maple syrup with the gravy. You want it a little boozy and sweet. I use Armagnac, but you could use Cognac or other brandy. If you can’t find maple syrup, use honey.
Finally, this recipe cries out for a bright note, and that note is provided with a mint gremolata, a finely minced mixture of mint, raw garlic and lemon zest.
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 6 dove breasts, or 2 squab breasts or quail breasts
- Kosher salt
- 4 thick slices of good bread
- 3 minced garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons minced mint
- Grated zest of a lemon
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 minced shallot
- 1 shot brandy
- 2 cups stock: Either dove, other game, chicken or veggie
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 4 quail eggs or 2 chicken eggs
- Salt your dove or squab breasts and set out at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Be sure to remove the little tenders on the insides of the breasts (Cook and eat them in the kitchen.)
- Make the gremolata by mixing lightly the minced garlic, mint and lemon zest. If you cannot find good fresh mint, use parsley.
- Turn the oven to “warm” and set a plate inside.
- Pour the stock into a small pot and bring it to a simmer.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a saute pan and sear the dove breasts over medium-high heat, skin side down. If you don’t have skin on your dove breasts (pity) just start searing them where the skin would have been. That first side should sear for about 3 minutes.
- Turn the dove breasts and continue cooking for a minute. Remove and set in the warm oven on the plate.
- Make the gravy. In the pan you cooked the doves in, add the shallot and cook until translucent over medium heat, about 1-2 minutes.
- Add the scant 2 tablespoons of flour; what I mean by “scant” is to really add less than 2 tablespoons, but to use the tablespoon as a measure — just don’t fill the spoon to the top with flour.
- Mix that flour in with a whisk and let it cook with the shallots, stirring constantly, for a minute or two. Don’t let it burn. If it has locked up all the butter in the pan, add a little more butter until it loosens up again.
- Once the roux (which is what you just made) has been cooked a few minutes, add the hot stock, whisking all the time. It should look velvety — this is called a veloute in French cooking.
- Bring this to a boil, then add the maple syrup and brandy. Let this cook down at a slow boil, stirring often, until it is thick like gravy. Add salt if needed. Once it is to your liking, turn the heat to its lowest setting.
- Put your bread slices in the toaster and set it to a pretty dark toast.
- Make the eggs. Put the remaining tablespoon of butter in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and let it get good and hot.
- Carefully crack the quail eggs with a sharp knife (buy more eggs than you need as you will mess up a few) and carefully set them down into the hot butter. You want a nice fried egg with white surrounding the yolk. Sprinkle a little salt on the egg right away.
- Cook for 2-3 minutes over medium heat. Do not flip.
- To assemble, lay down 2-3 slices of toast on a plate. Pour over a generous portion of gravy. Top each slice with a dove breast and a fried quail egg. Sprinkle gremolata over it all.
- Serve with a good red wine, or a full-bodied white wine if you are using quail breasts.