Ever since I started hunting I’ve wanted to chase the elusive, mystical woodcock, a bird so steeped in mythology it was once thought to spend its summers on the surface of the moon.
Timberdoodles, mud snipe, bog sucker, wood elf — all names for scolopax minor, the lewdly named woodcock. OK, get your jokes out of the way. Lord knows I’ve told more than my share about this bird. But when you’re done, you really ought to do everything in your power to actually eat one of these birds.
Almost all who have eaten them say that woodcock is the king of game birds, greater even than canvasback duck. The flavor of woodcock is said to be strong, gamey-in-a-good-way, and like nothing else. They say the earth moves when you bite into one that has been perfectly cooked: pink, and just a little bloody.
I love game birds more than most people, so for years I’ve eagerly sought out woodcock wherever I’d hunted. Woodcock do not live west of the Great Plains, so I am out of luck here in California. But when I hunted ducks in Canada I asked if there were any in the nearby woods. Sorry, they told me. The timberdoodles had already flown south, toward their wintering grounds in Louisiana. Ditto for my grouse hunt in Minnesota. The bog suckers had already left by the time I’d arrived. Damn.
My quest remains unfulfilled. I have still never shot a woodcock. But thanks to the power of the Internet — and FedEx — I managed to find myself in possession of three woodcock this week. How did this happen?
Well, Brian Degan, a long-time reader of this space and proprietor of the blog Long May Your Big Jib Draw, has had a great woodcock hunting season. When I heard about this, I proposed a trade: Oregon white truffles for timberdoodles. Luxury for luxury. It was a deal.
When the parcel arrived, I tore it open to see if the birds had come through OK. Phew! They did. Thawed, but still cold. First thing I noticed was how small they are: Woodcock are about as big as a Eurasian collared dove, about 5 ounces. For non-hunters, this is about the size of a quail.
I knew there was only one real way to cook these birds, and that was to roast them simply. Looking over literally scores of old recipes, most from before Word War I, the dominant method of cooking is in a “quick” oven for 10-20 minutes. Bacon or salt pork is put on the breast briefly, then taken off. The birds are served on toast and often with Cumberland sauce.
If this recipe was good enough for J.P. Morgan and his fellow Gilded Age barons, it was good enough for me. I had my plan. Still, it was with trepidation that I turned my oven on. I admit it: I had stage fright.
Any of you who cook regularly know this feeling. When faced with a rare or expensive ingredient, you freeze. You keep thinking, for God’s sake, don’t mess this up! All your normal cooking instincts fail and you become that timid, novice cook you once were. This happens to me with some frequency, and know how to get past it by taking a deep breath, running through the recipe several times in my head, then moving deliberately and smoothly. Focus matters.
First I cut rounds of spelt bread (I wanted something earthy and rustic to go with the game) and fried them in a little lard. Why lard? Why not? The birds then went in the oven. Fifteen minutes later they emerged. I salted them with Italian fiore de sale from Cervia and tented them with foil while I made the sauce. Down went the sauce, then the toast, then the birds. It was all so simple. Would it be good?
First thing I noticed was that the woodcock is an odd bird. You can tell by the pictures of the live bird above that it’s funny-looking. Eyes on top of its head, little butterball body, long beak and stubby legs. The Indians say that God made woodcock out of leftovers. Looking at the roasted bird, there was one more thing: Its breast meat was dark and its leg meat was light — the exact opposite of every other bird I know. Weird.
I tore into a leg. Surprisingly tender, light, and — what? Fatty. Upland game birds, at least wild ones, are never fatty. This was a revelation. I was sad to see the little legs go. On to the breast meat. Again, really tender. The color is that same lovely pink you see on a dove tenderloin, or a slightly underdone chicken thigh. Ever-so-slightly gamey, dense and juicy.
While the bird was good by itself, it was pure magic when eaten with a little piece of crispy toast and a smear of the Cumberland sauce. So this is how Rockefeller and Morgan felt as they ate their dinner! I felt an uncontrollable urge for either a very old Port or a Madeira from before the War. Which war I am not entirely certain.
It was a simple, heavenly meal. But here’s the thing: I kept finding myself mentally comparing woodcock with ruffed grouse, which to me is the game bird that tastes the closest to a timberdoodle — and, I hate to say it, I prefer the ruffed grouse. All of that rhapsody attributed to the woodcock is, in my mind, better suited to the ruffed grouse. Grouse is gamier, funkier, more powerful than the delicate woodcock. And while I will never turn away a meal of woodcock, I am a man of strong tastes.
Even so, I am not disappointed. I’ve now eaten almost every game bird in North America (several grouse species still elude me) and I can say that I can think of no better banquet than one that begins with a course of delicate, tender woodcock, moves on to roast ruffed grouse, pauses for an interlude of grilled doves or snipe, and reaches its zenith with a main course of seared canvasback duck, glistening with fat and glittering with sea salt.
That would be living.
Count on 2 woodcock per person if you can spare it. One will whet an appetite, but leave you wanting for more. Be sure to preheat your oven fully before putting the birds in, otherwise you will crisp neither the bacon nor the woodcock’s skin properly. Serve this with grilled polenta, over mashed potatoes, or toast.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 18 minutes
- 2-4 whole woodcock, plucked and gutted
- 2 tablespoons lard or butter
- 2 slices of bacon, cut in half
- 1 celery stick
- Fleur de sel or other finishing salt
- 1 recipe, Cumberland sauce
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Most ovens will require a solid 30 minutes to get to this temperature. As the oven is heating, take the birds out of the fridge.
If you want to truss the birds, tie some kitchen twine around their legs. It is traditional to leave the head on the woodcock and jam the beak through the legs to truss it. I think this is weird.
In an oven-proof frying pan, heat the lard over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the bacon pieces and fry until halfway done. Remove the bacon and set aside.
Add the woodcock and fry for 1 minute on each side — don’t fry the breast. Remove the birds and take the pan off the heat. Pour off all but a thin sheen of oil.
When the oven is good and hot, arrange the woodcock in the frying pan breast side up and use pieces of the celery stick to keep them from falling over. Lay a piece of bacon over the breast of each bird and cook in the oven for 6 minutes.
Remove the bacon, and continue cooking the birds for another 9-11 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the fleur de sel. Tent with foil as you make the Cumberland sauce.