I’ve met many here in California who think that all good things can be had here, that the magic of fresh and local and seasonal cooking is strongest in the Golden State. They’re wrong.
Just five years after Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, a similar restaurant opened in chilly Madison, Wisconsin, called L’Etoile. Just as Waters’ mantra was (and is) fresh-local-seasonal, so it was with Odessa Piper. I first ate there as a graduate student in 1992 and was, frankly, shocked at such good food so far from my home in New York. Piper has retired, but L’Etoile lives on and is still a giant of Midwest restaurants.
I mention this little history lesson to make this point: It requires far more skill and imagination to be seasonal and local in a place like Madison, where winter temperatures can drop to -30 degrees, than it is in Berkeley, where it rarely, if ever, actually freezes.
With that skill and imagination, the Upper Midwest becomes a treasure trove of magical ingredients that are all-but unobtainable if you are a California locovore: Wild rice, hickory and butternut, walleye, yellow perch and wild currants to name a few. As a hunter and forager, I can add others, none more important than woodcock and ruffed grouse.
I didn’t shoot any woodcock last week in Minnesota, but I did come home with some grouse. And even as I flew home, ideas about what I wanted to do with these birds began to gel in my head.
First and foremost, I knew I wanted to use the highbush cranberries I’d gathered in the grouse woods.
These are not actually cranberries, but rather a member of the viburnum family. They taste like cranberries, however, and are softer and sweeter after a frost — you can see the snow on the ones in my hands.
Very tart, the berries would need sugar to balance them out. So I decided they would become a glaze to go over the grouse.
I also saw tons of mushrooms while walking in the woods, and noticed that most of the grouse we flushed had been eating catkins off hazel bushes. My friend Chris, who I was hunting with, said these bushes will set little hazel nuts the size of your pinkie finger, but the bears usually get them first; we saw a lot of bear shit around, too.
Mushrooms… Hazel nuts… Grouse… I decided to invent a Minnesota North Woods pilaf. I forgot to bring home the birch polypore mushroom I collected in the forest, so I needed to think about what mushroom to use. The answer was obvious, really: Maitake mushrooms, also known as Hen of the Woods. What better mushroom to use with ruffed grouse, which is, literally, a hen of the woods?
Many of my decisions about this meal (and other wild meals) I made using a slightly grisly method: As I cleaned and plucked the grouse, I opened up their crops and looked inside. A bird’s crop is a sac at the base of its throat that stores whatever it eats until the muscular gizzard can grind it up enough for the bird to use it as nutrition. These grouse all had viburnum berries, hazel catkins, clover and strawberry leaves in their crops. Ideas for later.
Grouse are not corn-eating pheasants. I might serve pheasants with polenta, but I would never do that with a ruffed grouse. They are woodland birds and need to be treated that way. The pilaf, I decided, would look like the duff on the forest floor — only tasty.
As for the grouse themselves, I can say now that plucking them was difficult. Most hunters skin them, as it is far easier, but I couldn’t bear to lose that skin, which adds flavor and protects the meat from drying out; grouse are especially prone to becoming dry.
If you have grouse and want to pluck them, follow my instructions for plucking pheasants, only dip your grouse for 20 seconds at a time, not 30. If you do it right — be patient! — you should get a lovely plucked grouse:
I was really worried about dryness, as every reference I’d read about ruffiessaid they get dry in a hurry. Most recipes “fix” this with bacon, but I did not want to mask the special taste of grouse, which I’d never had but which is sung about by wild game cooks. So I brined the birds for 12 hours.
Let me just say that brining is absolutely necessary for all upland birds you plan to roast, from quail to turkeys. It is your insurance against dryness.
After the brining, I decided on an active style of roasting. What do I mean? Many grouse recipes say to roast the birds at 350-375 degrees for 25-35 minutes. I could not bring myself to do this, as I get fidgety with new gamebirds, especially those I’d flown 2,000 miles to obtain. So I smeared the birds with butter and began the cooking with 15 minutes at 450 degrees. I finished with a lot of basting with the now-melted butter and 10 minutes a side with the grouse laying on their flanks.
The woodland pilaf — wild rice, toasted hazelnuts, shallots, maitake mushrooms, raisined cranberries, rosemary, shallots and butter — needed a good 50 minutes to come together. It wasn’t the most colorful dish I’ve ever made, but it fit: It really did look like the forest floor.
As for the highbush cranberry sauce, I put sweet white wine in a small pot, added a 1-inch piece of fresh rosemary and a dried Thai chile and boiled it down by half. I removed the chile and rosemary and added the cranberries, which I had run through a food mill to get a pulpy, scarlet sauce.
In went the cranberry pulp, about a tablespoon of sugar, and I kicked the spurs to it over high heat. I let this boil down, skimming a couple times, until it coated the back of the spoon. (Click for the berry sauce recipe.)
It all came together nicely.
As Holly and I dove in on our birds, we looked up at each other. “Oooh! These ARE good!” How can I describe the flavor of a ruffed grouse? The first words that spring to mind are “funky” or “gamey,” but in a good way. There is an aroma to grouse that I’ve never encountered before, and, just like the roast pigeons we ate last year, the legs and thighs had the best flavor by far. I am a committed thigh man…
The breasts remained fairly tender, although they were drier than I wanted; the breast meat tasted closer to “chicken,” although the grousey aroma and flavor was still there.
As for the sauce, I can tell you I am totally smelling myself on this one. Highbush cranberries also happen to have a slightly funky aroma, and the combination — along with the tartness of the berries themselves — was truly one of the best I have ever come up with.
The woodland pilaf brought it all together. Earthy, dark and welcoming, it was quite the bed for the grouse to rest on. The hazelnuts had softened and became meaty, and the crushed maitake mushrooms melded with the wild rice to create a texture and flavor that’s tough to describe; al dente pasta comes closest. The balsam notes from rosemary and the tart craisins tied it to the grouse above. And the butter gave it a proper North Woods richness.
I wish you could have been there for this meal. It is unreproducable without these ingredients, and would be a pale shadow of itself done with a Cornish game hen, button mushrooms and domestic cranberries. And keep in mind that the foundation for this dish was laid with ingredients native to the frigid Minnesota North Woods, not sunny Cali-for-nye-ay.
As I walked through those snowy woods, the flavors were all around me; all I did was put them together.
simple roast grouse
A simple roast grouse is no simple thing. No cook ever has an abundance of ruffed grouse — and it is the forest-dwelling ruffed grouse I am talking about here, not the sharptail of the Great Plains (if you have them, instructions on how to roast a sharpie are here) Even if you do have a surfeit of ruffies, it would be a sin against God and Nature to waste them. Grouse are not to be trifled with.
The cardinal rule with grouse is don’t mess with it. Roast it simply, add a sauce that compliments it, and enjoy.
Here’s a tip: When you take your grouse out of the oven, let it rest on a cutting board, covered in foil, for 10 minutes. This will help combat dryness, as grouse tend to be dry.
As for serving size, I find one grouse a bit too much for a person, but half a grouse more than a bit too little. My advice? Give your guests one bird per person and save the leftovers for grouse soup later.
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
- 2 grouse
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 lemon
- Fleur de sel or other finishing salt
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Remove grouse from the fridge and pat dry. Let stand at room temperature for 25 minutes while the oven is heating.
- Halve the lemon and stick each half into the grouse. Smear butter all over the grouse, including a small knob in the cavity and under the neck where the crop once was. Use more than you think you need, at least a tablespoon per grouse.
- Place in a roasting pan or, better yet, a cast iron frying pan and roast for 15 minutes.
- Turn the heat down to 350 degrees and turn the grouse on one side. Baste it thoroughly with the melted butter in the pan. Roast for another 10 minutes.
- Repeat by turning the grouse on the other side. Be sure to baste again. Roast for 10 more minutes.
- Remove the birds from the oven and let rest on a cutting board, covered in foil, for 10 minutes.