I feel whole again, or at least closer to wholeness. I’ve managed to successfully soldier through a series of stressful book events – even have a little fun, thankfully – and, more importantly, I feel good about those events remaining on what we’re only half-jokingly calling the Culinary Mayhem Book Tour. I’ve been away from home since August, but in less than two weeks I will be back in California. At last.
All of this is my way of saying that unlike my grouse hunt in Minnesota earlier this month, where I was so stressed I couldn’t pick up the gun, I had a restorative experience hunting woodcock in Michigan last week. Brian, a long-time reader of this space, had generously offered to show me the Michigan northwoods, an offer I happily took up on it after I left Toronto last Monday.
The unfortunately named woodcock, scolopax minor, is a legend among game birds, as much for the hunting as for the eating. Outdoor writers and gourmands as august as Brillat-Savarin alike have waxed poetic about the little bird:
A woodcock is in all its glory when it has been cooked under the eye of the sportsman and above all of the sportsman who has killed it Then the roasted bird is in perfection according to all rules and regulations and the mouth is flooded with delight.
I had eaten exactly two woodcock before, thanks to my friend Brian from North Carolina (not all my friends are named Brian, just the woodcock hunters… ), who FedEx’d me a brace of them last year in return for some Oregon truffles. I roasted those woodcock simply. The flavor? Sort of like a combination of dove and ruffed grouse, with a little snipe thrown in. I know, I know. Unless you are a hardcore bird hunter this means nothing to you.
So a woodcock has white meat on its stubby little legs, while the breast is dark like squab or dove. They usually have a little fat on them, but nothing like the amount on a duck. Woodcock are small, the size of a squab, with spindly wings and chunky legs. They should be cooked medium, or even rare. Woodcock meat is strong, but not smelly. Gamey in a good way. It does well salted a little more than you think it ought to be. And woodcock is best cooked simply.
Still, I had never killed one myself. In fact, the first live bird I’d ever seen was on our grouse hunt in Minnesota. Holly shot it. When I told this to Brian he said, “We ought to be able to fix that.” He was right.
We drove north past the little town of Luzerne and into the grouse woods. Brian was more interested in ruffed grouse, and as it happens, the two birds share the same sort of woods, but inhabit different spots. Woodcock like life a little damper than grouse do. Both birds prefer thick cover.
Alders, black ash, birch, aspen. This is their home. These woods above are actually pretty open for grouse. But as we walked through them, Brian’s English pointer coursing around, he bent down to look at something. “Take a look at this,” he said. “Put that in your blog.” I looked. Um, OK. Bird shit. “That’s classic woodcock. If you see that, the birds are around.”
What did that woodcock eat to make such a shit? Probably earthworms. Timberdoodles love earthworms. They also eat other creepy crawlies like millipedes, beetles, snails, ants and other assorted larvae. Another fun fact? They take a dump when they fly, so their guts are clean (sorta-kinda) should you shoot one. This is why some people like to roast their woodcock un-gutted. Haven’t yet had the cojones to try this…
Sure enough, Brian’s dropping-fueled hunch was right. I heard a bird flush and say, “peeent!” and saw the shape zig-zagging away from me through the saplings. Theoretically this would be a tough shot, but I’ve killed my share of snipe before, and they do the same thing, only faster. So I felt pretty calm. I missed with the first shell, but folded the bird on the second. Success! I rushed to the spot where it fell, but couldn’t see the woodcock. Damn. Same as snipe. They blend in perfectly with the forest floor. I felt that flood of anxiety wash over me.
I hate losing birds, and I did not want my first ever woodcock to be lost. Brian’s pointer was not too interested in finding a dead bird, so we looked around ourselves. Brian himself soon found it. Phew. It felt good to have the bird in hand.
Hunting woodcock opens the mind the way steam opens the pores. As you make your way through the thickets — walking is too generous a term — your eyes dart around and your mind races as you try to solve the geometric dilemma of crossing tree limbs and stumps and branbles and fallen logs. You do not always succeed. On our second morning, I fell into a hole and bashed my knee on a stump. Days later, it’s still bruised. Occupational hazard.
As you move, you keep your head on a swivel and your ears pricked up. In the split-second you hear that basso thrum of a grouse’s wings as it flushes, or the crackly peent! of a woodcock, you must raise your shotgun, find the bird, decide if you can shoot, pull the trigger and be ready to follow through for a second shot, if you need it. Hunting woodcock occupies your entire existence. It is instinct.
Trouble lies in a relaxed mind. The only two woodcock I missed but should have killed were pointed by Brian’s dog. I had only to walk up to the dog, who would then flush the bird, and I could shoot it at my leisure from close range. But for whatever reason, the ease of this whole scenario flustered me; it’s the same with those “gimme” shots on ducks that I always miss. Don’t think, just shoot!
I wound up with three birds between an afternoon and morning of hunting, and I could easily have shot a two-day limit of six had I been just a bit better (or luckier). I couldn’t believe how many there were around. “I don’t shoot woodcock unless I’m with someone who likes them,” Briand said. “People up here don’t really like ‘em.” It showed. The grouse, which is the preferred quarry of Brian and most of the other local hunters, were so elusive that we only got one.
Driving back from the northwoods, I thought about how to cook this three-bird bonanza. That’d I’d roast them in a high oven was a given. I can’t seem to bring myself to do anything but roast this princely little birds. But what sauce?
That problem was solved for me at my Detroit book event, a potluck organized by Noelle of Simmer Down Food. Not five minutes into the event, Kim from the Gang of Pour gave me some of her handmade red wine vinegar. Then I managed to wrangle a jar of wild Michigan crabapple jelly. Gastrique, anyone ?
I couldn’t actually do anything with the birds until Saturday, however. So I hung the woodcock in the back of my truck (it’s been cold outside so the temperature was perfect) for three days of driving; the birds were whole and ungutted. Worked like a charm. Woodcock, as it happens, pluck easily (dry pluck them) and once they were revealed I saw I’d been lucky enough to not shoot the hell out of them.
See the white bands along the breast? That’s fat. Yummy, delicious woodcock fat. yeah, I know it was probably made from earthworms, but hey, it tastes good, so go with it.
I was a little surprised that there was not an iota of “off” smell to the woodcock’s innards, even after three days hanging. So I minced the hearts and livers fine and added them to the sauce. I recommend you do the same. It adds a lot to the flavor.
I roasted the birds at 500 degrees and ate them with my hands, with a nice bottle of 2008 Beaujolais I was shocked to find in a bar in Ashley, ND, where I am staying right now. The birds were orgasmic. Sweetish, sour-savory sauce, woodcock fat running down my hands, crispy skin and rich meat so jammed full of flavor that I am sitting here gorged after eating all three, one after the next.
How do I feel, you ask? I feel like myself again. Home is in sight, I’ve just had one of the finest lunches humanly possible, and I have a lot more bird hunting in front of me over the next 10 days. Life is good.
roast woodcock, michigan style
I call this Michigan style because the sauce was originally made with crabapple jelly from Michigan and homemade red wine vinegar from Michigan — and the woodcock I shot were from Michigan, so there you go.
You can make this recipe with woodcock, snipe, doves or a domestic squab. It is important to use quality red wine vinegar, and while crabapple jelly is hard to find, you can substitute in any decent apple jelly, or even a little cider. If you don’t have bacon fat around, fry up some bacon and eat it, then make the sauce with the leftover drippings.
A word on the innards. They really do add a lot to the sauce, and since you strain them out at the end anyway, it should be no big deal even for squeamish eaters. So use them if you can. No innards? Buy some chicken livers and use that. Or use the giblets from other birds.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 4 woodcock, snipe, squab or 8 doves
- Olive oil to coat birds
- 3-4 tablespoons bacon fat, divided
- 1/4 cup minced onion or shallot
- Hearts and livers from the birds, minced fine
- 1/2 cup chicken or game stock
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons crabapple jelly
- 4 pieces of toast
- Parsley for garnish
- Preheat your oven to 500 degrees, or as hot as it will get. Take the birds out of the fridge and coat with oil. Salt well and set aside at room temperature while the oven heats up. This should take 20 minutes or so.
- Heat half the bacon fat in a small pot and saute the onion and minced giblets until nicely browned. Add the stock, vinegar and crabapple jelly and bring to a boil. Add salt to taste and let the simmer strongly while you cook the woodcock.
- Heat the rest of the bacon fat in a small, oven-proof pan — cast iron is excellent here — and brown the woodcock on the sides and breast. Put the birds, breast side up, in the pan in the oven and roast for 7-10 minutes. Ten minutes will give you medium to medium-well meat. Remove the birds from the pan and set on a cutting board to rest.
- Strain the sauce through a fine-meshed sieve and bring back to a boil. Put the toast on each person’s plate (cut it into a circle if you want to be fancy) and put a woodcock on the toast. Pour the sauce over the birds and garnish with parsley. Serve at once with a light red wine, a dry rose or a hoppy beer like an IPA.