Snipe are a real bird. Let’s get that straight at the outset. They are a small, sandpiper-looking bird that lives on the edges of marshes, sticking its needle of a beak into the mud to fish out yummy wormy things. They are tough to hit with a shotgun – thus the term “sniper” – and they happen to be wonderful eating.
The Irish and the French know this intimately, and are perhaps the world’s most avid snipe hunters. But the bird lives here in America, too. and is pursued by a small core of die-hard snipers. I happen to be among them.
Mostly I either make roast snipe or use the pan-roasting method, but if I am feeling nostalgic, I will cook a traditional French snipe recipe called a salmis, a 200-year-old dish that is as good now as it was when we Americans were still pissed off at the English for burning down the White House in the War of 1812.
A salmis – pronounced sal-me – is a method, used with all sorts of wild game; salmis of duck is a classic. To make one, you quickly roast a bird (or hare or rabbit) until it’s not-quite-done, and then make a lovely sauce with the bones. You serve the bones with mushrooms and sometimes a nice piece of bread that has been fried in butter or duck fat.
Snipe are ideal for this, being small birds easily cooked. But you can also do this recipe with woodcock, ducks, grouse, quail, pheasants, partridges, rabbits and young hares or squirrels.
What, you might ask, does a snipe taste like? It’s hard to describe because snipe are not related to any other birds we normally eat. But they are a little ducky, a little grouse-y. Dark, but not red meat like venison. Squirrel comes to mind as something close, but this will not help you if you are not a hunter. The closest I can get you if you are not a hunter is the “oyster” on a good, free-range chicken; this is the oval of meat where the thigh connects to the body of the bird.
To all you snipers out there, this one’s for you. Give this recipe a go — and let me know how you like to cook your birds in the comments below.
- 4 snipe, plucked and gutted
- Vegetable oil to coat birds
- 1 1/4 cup red or rose wine
- 2 minced shallots
- 1 cup beef, duck or chicken stock (or 1/2 cup stock and 1/2 cup Sauce Espagnol, see below)
- 4 tablespoons duck fat or butter, divided
- 1 pound fresh mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 3 tablespoons minced parsley
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 heaping tablespoons duck fat or butter
- 3/4 cup white or rose wine
- 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- Salt and black pepper
- About 1 cup duck, beef or chicken stock
- If you are making the Sauce Espagnol, do that first. Heat the duck fat or butter in a small pot and add the flour. Stir well and let this cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until it turns the color of peanut butter. Add the wine (the mixture will sputter), and stir it in until combined. Turn the heat to medium-high and mix in the tomato paste, thyme and enough stock to make a thin gravy. Add salt and black pepper to taste and let this cook very gently over the lowest heat on the weakest burner you have.
- Preheat the oven to 500°F. Coat the snipe with oil and salt well. Put them in a cast iron frying pan or small roasting pan. Roast for 8 minutes. Remove the birds from the oven and slice off the breasts and the legs. Set them aside for now.
- Smash the rest of the carcasses in a mortar and pestle or in a pot using a potato masher. Put them in a medium pot and cover with 1 1/4 cups rose or red wine, the minced shallots and a pinch of salt. Bring to a rolling boil and boil for 5 minutes.
- Add 1/2 cup Sauce Espagnol and 1/2 cup duck, beef or chicken stock - or 1 cup stock if you are not making the espagnol - and boil this down by half. Set a fine strainer over a small pot and pour the contents of the first pot into it. Boil the strained sauce down by 1/3, then reduce the heat to low. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon at a time. Keep warm.
- While the carcasses are boiling, do the mushrooms. Set the mushrooms in a large frying or saute pan and turn the heat to high. Shake the mushrooms as they start to sizzle, and soon they will begin to give up their water; dry mushrooms won't, but they'll start to sear. When most of the water has boiled away or the mushrooms are searing, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and toss to combine. Add the salt and thyme and some black pepper and cook over medium-high heat until the mushrooms start to brown, about 8 minutes.
- To finish the dish, get a small pan very hot and add a little vegetable oil to it. When the oil just barely starts to smoke, set the snipe breasts and legs in the pan skin side down. Sear until crispy, about 2 minutes. Or, you can use a torch like a Searzall to crisp the skin.
- Toss the sauce with the mushrooms and give everyone some. Set the snipe pieces on top and garnish with parsley. I like to serve this with mashed potatoes or thick pieces of toast fried in butter or duck fat.
While thick pieces of toast are traditional, I like this with mashed potatoes or celery root. Serve a medium-bodied red wine with this, like a Grenache or Chianti or California Pinot Noir. For beer, go with malty, like a brown ale, Belgian tripel, or Scottish ale.