Apple Must

Apple must reductionWhen you have hundreds of pounds of something you start thinking deeply on how you can preserve and consume the bounty.  This time of year apples are the subject of those deep thoughts.  Of course cider is the supreme way to preserve and consume apples, but I’ve been experimenting with some other techniques that involve cooking and reducing the fresh apple juice.

I got the idea from the cuisine of Modena.  Obviously they have an abundance of grapes, and obviously the majority of those grapes end up as wine or liquor, but they also have a few preparations made by cooking and reducing fresh grape juice.  The most famous is traditional balsamic vinegar, but there is also a little-known preparation called saba.  It is a simple grape must reduction, once commonly used as a sweetener.

Above, at left, is an apple must reduction.  It started as 16 L of fresh apple juice, pressed from Edmonton apples.  Before fermentation could start I brought the juice to a simmer using my turkey-fryer.  I maintained the gentle boil for about 12 hours, after which I had less than 4 L of liquid remaining.

The must is a beautiful, dark red-brown colour, like dried dates.  It is tart, and somewhat sweet, maybe a touch sweeter than grape juice.  It is slightly syrupy on the tongue, and it has a remarkably concentrated aroma that reminds me of dried fruit like prunes.

So what do you do with this stuff?  If you whisk it with a touch of vinegar or mustard and shallot it makes a great dressing.  Diluted with a bit of cold water it also makes a delicious drink.  But I think its supreme use is in making reduction sauces for meat and vegetables.  To make the dish pictured below I pan-roasted pork tenderloin, then deglazed the pan with apple must, reducing it to make a sweet-and-sour sauce that also played will with the roasted root vegetables.

Roast pork, root vegetables, and an apple must pan sauce.

 

As a side note, I’ve also used this apple must to make a superlative vinegar.  You may have even tasted some of this vinegar if you’ve eaten at RGE RD; they’ve purchased a few bottles from me over the past year or so.

I don’t see myself making gallons and gallons of apple must reduction every year, as it is extremely energy intensive, but it’s one more interesting way that apples could feature in our regional cuisine.

 

Sweet & Delicious Cider Making

Autumn's gift to summer: sparkling hard cider.On Wednesday, October 14, 2015 I’m leading a class called “Sweet & Delicious Cider Making” for Metro Continuing Education.

“There are countless apple trees in Edmonton, and cider is one of the best ways to preserve and consume local apples.  Learn how to make sweet and aromatic apple juice and hard cider like you’ve never tasted before.  Allan will show you how to crush, press and ferment your cider using affordable homemade equipment.”

Apple Strudel

Apple strudel, fresh from the oven.The most common form of strudel in North America is puff pastry filled with sticky jam or compote, the final product very similar to a turnover or a chausson.

The original strudel, the Viennese strudel, is a different beast entirely.

Austrian strudel is made with a simple dough consisting of flour, salt, water, and vegetable oil.  High protein flour is used, and the dough is mixed extensively so that there is intensive gluten development.  This allows the baker to stretch the dough until it is so thin it is almost transparent.  The expression in Austrian kitchens is that the dough should be thin enough that you could hold the dough over a newspaper and read the text through the dough.  In concept the dough is similar to phyllo, though the finished baked goods that the two doughs make differ greatly.

A dough that has been stretched so thin must be layered several times for the pastry to have any structure.  With phyllo, the baker stacks a few sheets of the dough, separating each with a layer of butter.  During baking the water content of the butter turns to steam and keep the layers of dough separate.  The butter also aids in the browning of the pastry.

With strudel a similar effect is created not by stacking sheets of dough, but by spreading butter over a single sheet and then rolling the sheet around itself a few times.  Since the dough is so delicate, the traditional method is to stretch the dough out on a table cloth, add the filling, then lift the tablecloth so that the filled pastry rolls away from the baker.

When prepared properly and eaten fresh, strudel is a very unique pastry.  I compare the preparation of the dough to phyllo, but the eating experience is completely different.  Baked phyllo is delicate like thinnly blown glass: it is brittle, and fractures if you press on it.  Strudel dough is delicate and slightly crisp, but also has a little bit of give to its structure.  It is firm and crisp but also slightly yielding and pliable.

How this preparation ended up as a puff pastry turnover, I have no idea.

 

Apple Strudel

Dough Ingredients

  • 225 g bread flour
  • 4 g kosher salt
  • 195 mL water
  • 35 mL canola oil
  • 1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar

Filling Ingredients

  • 900 g apple, peeled, cored, quartered, and sliced into pieces not exceeding 1/4″ thickness
  • 240 g dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp rum
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 360 mL toasted breadcrumbs
  • 450 g unsalted butter, melted

Combine all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with a dough hook on high speed for 10 minutes.  This is a very slack dough.  It will pool on the bottom of the mixer bowl.  After mixing, cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rest in the fridge for several hours, or overnight.

Once you are ready to stretch the dough, rub flour into a clean tablecloth.

Stretch the dough until it is extremely thin.  The recipe above should be able to be stretched into a sheet that is 2′ x 3′.  Most bakers use the back of their hand to do this.

Stretching traditional Austrian strudel dough by hand.

The stretched dough:

The fully stretched strudel dough

Brush the entire surface with melted butter, then generously sprinkle the toasted breadcrumbs.  The breadcrumbs help keep the layers of dough separate.  Lay out the apple mixture in a line along the 3′ edge closest to you.

Filling the strudel dough with toasted breadcrumbs and apples

Lift the edge of the tablecloth closest to you so that the apples fall away from you and roll themselves in dough multiple times.

The raw strudel, all rolled up.

Now you have to get this two foot long pastry onto a tray somehow.  You may need an extra set of hands to accomplish this.  You can curl or snake the strudel to fit it onto your bake sheet.

The rolled strudel on its baking tray, ready to be baked.

Bake at 425°F until the pastry is golden brown and crispy, and the apple filling is softened and started to leech sugary goodness onto the pan, about 30-40 minutes.  Dust with icing sugar.

The finished, whole strudel, ready to be cut.

Let stand to cool before cutting.  Service with whipped cream.

A piece of strudel awaiting whipped cream.

Fried Apple Peels

Fried apple skins tossed with sugar and salt.The only time you should ever peel apples is when you are going to cook them.  Once cooked apple skins are hard, like photography film, if you can remember what that tastes like.

The only time I peel and cook apples is when I’m making apple pie or apple sauce, which is only a few times a year.  Most of the apples that pass through our home are crushed and pressed whole to make cider.  In this process the skins are broken up very fine so that they lend some body and tannin to the drink.

What I mean to say is I don’t actually peel very many apples.  But when I do peel those very few apples it bothers me to throw out the skins, because they are actually quite tasty.

So one day instead of dropping those peels in the trash can I dropped them in a pot of hot oil.

It’s difficult to get all the moisture out, to make them brittle and delicate and crisp, without the peels getting too dark and bitter.  The trick is to pull them from the oil when the bubbling has mostly subsided: they will still be limp, but once they cool they will be crispy.  Toss them with a pinch of salt and a three-finger pinch of sugar and they make a great garnish for any number of sweet or savoury dishes.

Below they are pictured with cornbread pudding, poached apples, and buttermilk ice cream, but they could just as easily be put on top of a bowl of squash and apple soup, or even a plate of grilled pork chops with apple sauce.

Cornbread pudding with poached apples, vanilla ice cream, and whisky caramel sauce

 

Addendum I

The photo above reminds me of a chef I once worked for.  One night we ran veal sweetbreads, floured and pan-fried, with chanterelle mushrooms and a reduction sauce.  We tasted the first plate, and I asked if maybe the dish needed another component for some colour, some visual contrast.  He said, “Five shades of brown is a beautiful thing.”

 

Addendum II

If kids love anything these days it’s foams and powders.  With this in mind one of the young cooks in our kitchen put some fistfuls of gangly apple skins into our dehydrator.  Two days later they were perfectly dry, like tumbleweed fragments.  Not quite as satisfying to eat on their own as the fried version, but a few brief moments in a blender and they made a surprisingly flavourful apple powder.  The cook then mixed this powder into a bowl of whipped butter to make “apple’d butter”.  A bit highfalutin for Button Soup, but I thought I’d mention it.

Really Good Apple Pie

Apple pie, cooling on the deckSome detailed notes on a North American staple.

The Dough.  I take for granted that you already know how to make a superlative, flaky pie dough.  If you don’t, this pie dough is a good start, but you should probably add a handful of sugar to the mix.

The Filling.  The first important consideration for the filling is the variety of apple to be used.  High acidity and firm, crisp texture are key.  Of the common commercial varieties, Granny Smith is probably the best, but there are lots of varieties growing within the Edmonton city limits that make good pie.  Sweetness, of course, is also desirable, but we can balance the tartness of the apples with sugar.  Look for acidity above all else.

It goes without saying that the apples will be cored and peeled, as apple seeds and cores are inedible, and apple skins are practically inedible once they have been cooked.  Once the apples are processed in this manner, we must take pause to contemplate one of the tricky bits of apple pie.  Apples don’t form a semi-fluid, cohesive filling like, say, sour cherries, or rhubarb, or puréed pumpkin.  They remain distinct chunks of fruit, and yet manage to hold together as you serve the slices.  This is the charm of apple pie.

Since we have already selected a firm, crisp apple, the size that we cut the fruit is what will determine the final texture of the filling.  If we cut the apples very fine, the filling will be cohesive, but we risk over-cooking the fruit and making apple sauce.  Leaving the apples in large pieces will ensure that they keep their texture, but will probably result in the filling falling out of the shell when we try to serve individual slices.  Bad grocery-store apple pies tend to leave the apples very large, but then bind them with a syrup thickened with cornstarch.

So we must find a balance.  For my money, it is best to quarter the apples, then slice the quarters across their long axis into pieces no more than 1/4″ wide.

As for the flavouring agents of our filling, it is impossible to talk about apple pie without mentioning cinnamon.  The flavour of cinnamon is so connected with that of apples in most people’s minds that you could, for instance, make a pie filling out of Ritz crackers, lemon juice, and cinnamon, and most people would swear that there are apples in it. Cinnamon is tried, tested, and tasty.

Nutmeg is also good.

We must also sweeten our apple filling.  I like to use dark brown sugar.  Also: a bit of rum.  This is a common flavouring in apple strudel, and I’ve grown very fond of it.

A bit of salt, too.

Building an Apple Pie.  Build it tall, so that the apples at the centre of the pie are piled above the level of the pie dish and the circumferential crust.

How to Eat Apple Pie.  Almost any classic, sweet pie is fine when accompanied by whipped cream or ice cream.  However, I think that acidic pies like sour cherry and rhubarb go best with ice cream, which tempers the acidity of the filling.  Apple pie is lower in acid, and much more naturally balanced. Serving apple pie with ice cream only kills the flavour of the filling.  So whipped cream is preferred, and this is perhaps how apple pie was enjoyed for centuries, before a great, great man decided to eat his apple pie with cheddar cheese.  The resulting balance of flavour is similar to salted caramel.  I suggest Balderson two year old cheddar.  Do this.  It’s part of your heritage.

 

Apple Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 kg apples, peeled, cored, quartered, and cut across the long axis into slices not exceeding 1/4″ in width
  • 150 g dark brown sugar
  • 10 g rum
  • 20 g oatmeal flour (Just grind up rolled oats in a blender.)
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 kg flaky pie dough (This is more dough than you’ll need, but I hate having to stretch dough to make a pie.  Better safe than sorry.)

Procedure

  1. Toss the sliced apples, brown sugar, rum, oatmeal flour, and salt in a large bowl.
  2. Divide the dough in half.  Roll out one half to roughly 1/8″ and line the pie dish.
  3. Pile the apple filling into the dish.
  4. Roll out the other half of the dough and cover the apple filling.  Seal the edges as desired.  Make some small incisions in the top of the dough to vent the filling.
  5. Bake the pie on the bottom third of a 425°F oven for fifteen minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F, move the pie to the top third of the oven, and continue baking until the dough is well browned and the interior is bubbling, roughly another forty minutes.
  6. Let the pie cool to just above room temperature, then consume with cheddar cheese.

A slice of apple pie with Cheddar cheese

Hard Cider

Autumn's gift to summer: sparkling hard cider.Earlier in the month we pressed our apples into cider.  The juice that ran from the press was sweet and tart, with a full, milky mouthfeel, and a subtle siltiness that I think was from the skins and seeds of the fruit.  It had a cloudy, oxidated colour and was a pleasing drink in all of its many facets.

Fermentation

As with grapes, there is an abundance of natural yeast living on the skins of apples, and when you crush the fruit and mix the skins with the juices, the yeast has easy access to sugar.  I’m always surprised by the efficacy and consistency of this natural fermentation.  Basically the cider can sit in your basement for a week, and fermentation will begin all on it’s own.  For a brief few days, the cider gets even better than when it was first pressed.  A yeasty aroma develops, and the resulting alcohol wakes up the palate.  The drink becomes slightly effervescent. 

Preserving Apple Juice.  The natural fermentation described above is inevitable unless you take specific measures to prevent it.  If you want to keep your non-alcoholic apple juice for more than a week, you have two methods at your disposal.  The first is freezing.  The principal advantage of freezing is that it preserves a lot of the fresh aroma of the beverage, as well as wild yeasts.  The disadvantage is the moderate energy required to run your freezer for months on end, and frozen liquids tend to take up a good deal of valuable freezer space.  The second option for preserving fresh apple juice is canning.  The canning process pasteurizes the juice, killing any yeasts and thereby preventing alcoholic fermentation, but it also kills some of the aroma of the drink.  You then have a jar of delicious apple juice that can safely sit on your shelf at room temperature, freeing up freezer-space for other necessities like meat.  The downside of this preservation method is that it is extremely energy intensive.

Why to Ferment to Hard Cider.  So you can see that both methods have their pros and cons.  Fermenting the apple juice to hard cider solves all the issues mentioned above.  Of course fermentation drastically changes the flavour of the cider, but it actually heightens the aroma and flavours.  And the real beauty is that alcohol is a natural antiseptic, so hard cider can be bottled safely without the heat treatment required for fresh juice.  The only power I use in my cider-making is operating the crusher.

How to Ferment to Hard Cider.  As described above, fermentation happens all on its own.  The major draw back to natural fermentation is that it is unpredictable and inconsistent.  Every now and again fermentation will stall, and it becomes clear that some other organism has taken hold of the juice.  If the cider is racked, the yeast usually re-asserts itself.  For a more complete discussion of some of the weird stuff that can happen, see my post on making vinegar.  Even if true alcoholic fermentation proceeds, inconsistent and unpleasant aromas often develop.

Pitching commercial yeast will control the fermentation and draw desired aromas from the fruit.  There are a few strains of cider yeast.  A Riesling yeast called Rudesheimer also works well.  I have a friend who uses lambic yeasts.

Cider Styles.  On a long enough time line, without preventative measures, all cider will ferment till it is completely dry, that is, void of sugar.  If you’d like to have any residual sugar in your cider, the most common method is to treat the cider with sulfite to kill the yeast and arrest the fermentation.

A case of bottle-fermented bubbly ciderBottle-Fermenting.To know when to bottle hard cider you must first decide what style of cider you want to make, namely still or effervescent? If effervescent, do you want light carbonation, like you might find in English ale, or heavy carbonation, like the large bubbles dissolved in Champagne? You control this by bottling when the cider has a certain specific gravity.  Specific gravity is a way to approximate the amount of residual sugar in the cider, and the more sugar that is left at bottling, the more effervescent the drink will become.

  • At a specific gravity of 1.000 or lower the cider will be still, that is, not effervescent.  Still cider can be bottled in almost anything, including wine bottles with a cork.
  • By bottling around 1.003 you will end up with cider that has the mild effervescent of beer.  This style of cider should be bottled in a beer bottle with a crown cap or swing cap.  (One fall I drank only Hacker-Pschorr and Muskoka Spring Oddity so that I could collect the swing cap bottles…)
  • At 1.008 the cider will be very sparkling, like Champagne.  Lots of pressure builds in the bottle, so this style of cider must be bottled in a heavy, Champagne bottle.  The cork must be caged to keep it in place.  Some types of Prosecco come in heavy bottles with swing caps.

Dorky sidenote.  I’ve developed a labelling shorthand for my bottled cider to give an idea of what the carbonation level is.  A label reading only “Cider” is still.  Sparkling cider is labelled “Cider – Special No. X” where X is the last two significant digits of the gravity reading before bottling.  So, Special No. 10 is very bubbly, while Special No. 3 is only faintly effervescent.

Most sources say that bottle fermentation takes two weeks at minimum.  I’ve cracked some bottles at that point and found them flat, so I try not to touch them for at least four.  But if you can wait even longer, you will be rewarded…

Aging Cider.  Immediately after fermentation, sometimes my cider is good but not great.  The acidity is a little harsh, and occasionally there are some funky odours, perhaps sulfur, or solvents like nail-polish remover.  Some cider can benefit hugely from a few months aging.

Effects of Aging Cider.  Last year on St. Patrick’s Day I pulled one of the few remaining litres of still cider out of the cellar to thin out my corned beef drippings.  I don’t think I had tasted it since Christmas.  The cider had gone through a remarkable transformation.  Obviously it was still dry, but nowhere near as abrasively tart as it had been in December.  The acidity had mellowed markedly.  All in all it was actually quite well balanced.  And somehow the nose has lost the harsh odours.

Malolactic Fermentation in Cider?  My best guess as to why the cider changes so much is a process called malolactic fermentation, a bacterial fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid.  It occurs naturally in some classic wines, and is now induced by vintners for certain styles, notably oaked Chardonnay.  I don’t think that MLF changes the absolute pH of the wine, but  lactic acid is much softer and more palatable than malic acid, so the perceived acidity decreases.  The two main acids in grapes are tartaric and malic acids.  Apple juice contains mostly malic acid, so it’s possible that if MLF were to take hold in cider, it would greatly affect the tartness of the drink.  My sources on winemaking say that MLF bacteria naturally inhabit the wood of the barrels.  Whether or not MLF could start spontaneously in apple cider stored in plastic and glass, I’m not sure, but it’s the best guess I have to explain the dramatic change that apple cider goes through over six months storage.

Pressing Apple Cider

Yet ev’n this Season Pleasance blithe affords,
Now the squeez’d Press foams with our Apple Hoards.

-John Gay

 

To most contemporary city-folk the word “cider” implies fermented apple juice.  My grandparents made the distinction between “cider” (juice pressed from apples) and “hard cider” (fermented apple juice).  For now I have simply made cider, and will leave the discussion of hard cider and its variants for another post.

This week we picked about 150 lbs of apples from three different trees:

  • one beautiful, well-trained tree yielding large, blushing apples, which I will be referring to as “Ron’s apples”;
  • one crabapple tree with bright red, tart fruit;
  • one hideous, unkempt tree in our backyard that grows small green apples.  The tree is so large and spindly that we harvested its apples by climbing into it, shaking it vigorously, and then collecting the fallen fruit from the surrounding grass.

After harvesting, we borrowed a crusher and press from Kevin.  The crusher is a garburator, intended for a kitchen sink, outfitted with a hopper and a power switch.  You can read about Kevin’s design here.  The press is a strong wooden frame with a carjack that drives a plunger onto the crushed fruit, described here.  Thank you, Kevin.

Some notes and photos from our cider day.

Here are the apples we used.  Below, left are the crab apples.  Below, right, Ron’s gorgeous apples.

Left: Dolgo crabapples, Right: Norkent apples (I think...)

And here are the tiny, bruised apples from our backyard.  They don’t look particularly appetizing – you would never pay money for them at the grocery store – but they make for good cider.
our_apples.JPG

Some sources say to wash and stem the apples before crushing.  Others say this is unnecessary.  I subscribe to the latter theory.

You also don’t need to peel or core the apples.

Below is Kevin’s crusher, doing what it does best.  The apple mash comes out white, then rapidly oxidizes to the rusty colour we associate with apple juice.  With a traditional crusher the mash will sometimes be put through a second time for a finer grind.  This in unnecessary with the garburator.  It’s very thorough.

crusher.JPG
Apple sauce from the crusher
The apple mash is scooped into a piece of cloth, which is twisted and squeezed to extract some of the juice.  We found that at least 90% of the juice could be pressed from the mash in this manner, without the use of the actual press.
Once the mash wrapped in cloth is shaped into a disc it is called a “cheese.”  Some sources say to tie the cloth with a piece of string.  This is unnecessary.  The cheeses are stacked inside the press.  Some sources say to place wooden discs between the cheeses.  This is also unnecessary.
Then the car-jack is opened to drive the plunger onto the cheeses.  The juice flows out of a spigot at the bottom of the bucket.

pressing.JPG

After being pressed, the cheese is dense, dry, and crumbly.  The left-over bits are called pomace.  In many parts of Europe grape pomace is mixed with water and sugar, fermented into a weak “wine,” and then distilled.  The resulting liquor is called grappa in Italy (especially famous in the provinces of Friuli and Piedmonte), marc in France, and tsipouro in Greece, to name only a few of the regional variations.  I suspect a similar drink could be made from this apple pomace.

pomace.JPG

We crushed and pressed the three different apples separately so we could taste the juices on their own.  Tasting notes:

  • Ron’s Apple Cider – A good balance of tart and sweet, with a hint of almond extract, probably from the seeds and skins.  Slightly silty mouthfeel.  Reddish brown.
  • Crabapple Cider – Very tart, but still surprisingly flavourful and pleasant to drink.  Brilliant pinkish red.

 

  • Our Backyard Apple Cider – This was the real surprise for me.  They are by no means choice eating-apples, and most were battered and bruised by our harvesting method.  Their juice, however, was fantastic.  A great balance of tart and sweet, and a distinct grassy finish.

The three types of cider were then mixed together.  While “single variety” may be popular with coffee and wine, apple cider and any of its fermented and distilled derivatives are always made from a blend of several apple varieties.  Half the work of the cider producer is in finding the right mix of sweet, tart, and aromatic apples to create a balanced drink.

Once mixed, the cider was syphoned into carboys to clear over night.  The roughly 150 lbs of apples made 40 L of cider.

This really is one of those epic, rewarding, seasonal “chores,” like tapping maple trees and slaughtering pigs.  There’s lots to be done with the cider, yet.  Stay tuned.

Rose Hip Jelly

A bowl of rosehipsWhen rose flowers wither and fall from the plant, they leave behind a little green ball called a rose hip.  In late summer those hips swell and turn red, and start to look like berries.

They are not berries, as you will discover if you open one up.  Rosehips are full of seeds and what looks like white hair.  If eaten raw those hairs will irritate your mouth and throat.  Don’t eat those hairs raw.  The fleshy part around the seeds and hair can be eaten raw.  It has an interesting flavour; depending on the plant and the time of year it can taste like fresh cut grass, or a tomato, or possibly a plum.

Though rose hips can be eaten fresh, they are most commonly made into jelly. They contain little pectin, so the jelly usually contains another fruit, like apple.

 

Rosehip Jelly
adapted from River Cottage Handbook No. 2 – Preserves

Ingredients

  • 325 g rosehips
  • 775 g apples, peeled and quartered (I used windfall apples from my questionable backyard apple tree, removing any severely damaged sections)
  • roughly 550 g sugar

Procedure

Place the quartered apples in a straight-sided pan.  Cover with water.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until the apples soften and turn to pulp.
 Simmering the apples
In the mean time, chop the rosehips in a food processor.
Chopped rosehips
Add the rosehips to the pan and simmer for 10 minutes.
Simmering the apples and rosehips
Remove the pan from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes.  Pour the mixture into a scalded jelly bag suspended over a bowl. Drain for several hours.  After 24 hours I ended up with about 800 mL liquid.
Straining the mash in a jelly bag
Measure the juice and put it into a pot. Bring to a boil, then add 400 g of sugar for each 600 mL of juice. (My 800 mL of liquid required 533 g sugar.) Stir until completely dissolved, then boil to setting point, 220°F.
Boiling the mix to concentrate the pectin
After boiling I had roughly 500 mL jelly. Pour into hot sterilized jars.
A glowing jar of rosehip jelly

 

Apple-Braised Grouse

Step One: Acquire Grouse

A friend’s father, Mr. McLarney, hunts game birds with his English pointer. I had never, not once, paused to consider the signficance of common canine descriptors like pointer, setter, and retriever, until Mr. McLarney’s hunts were explained to me. The dog walks a ways in front of him, and when it comes upon a bird it stops and “points”: it aims its snout at the prey. Mr. McLarney moves within range and readies his gun, then makes a call to the pointer. At the signal, the dog scares the bird into flight, so that Mr. McLarney can pull it from the sky with his shotgun.[1]

Mr. McLarney trained his pointer in his backyard with a fishing rod and a feather. I have a hard time imagining what those sessions might have looked like.

This fall I received two grouse from the McLarneys. They had been shot the day previous. The condition of receiving the birds was that I provide the McLarneys with a recipe. Apparently Mr. McLarney is such a skilled hunter that Mrs. McLarney has run out of ways to prepare the birds.

Step Two: Clean Grouse

The most common way to clean game birds is to remove the skin, which takes all the feathers with it. I spread the feathers on the breast to expose the skin, which on this bird was paper thin and easily torn.

The breast and ruptured crop of a grousePulling the skin and feathers away from the breast, I had my first glimpse of the crop, which is a pouch at the base of the throat that moistens the food before it is sent to the stomach and gizzard. As I removed the skin, I broke the wall of the crop, exposing a handful of bugs, berries, and leaves that released a pungent aroma into my kitchen. This discovery affected me. Not because it was grotesque, but because later, when eating the meat, I could taste that same sourness I smelled in the crop. The picture at left could be titled, “Why game meat tastes different than farmed meat.”

The next step was gutting, which was easier than I anticipated. I cut around the anus, then slid my fingers through the incision and into the chest cavity. The organs separated easily from the walls, and came out in a fairly uniform piece.

Step Three: Cook

One of the main reasons I was excited to receive the grouse was because this would be one of the few times in my life that I would get to cook an old bird.

Let me explain.

Almost every chicken in the grocery store was killed about one month after it hatched. Young animals have tender flesh, and many of their bones and joints are still made of flexible cartilage. Next time you are breaking down a chicken, observe how the keel bone (sternum) is still pliable and lustrous, almost like plastic.

Older birds have much tougher flesh, their bones are solid, and their joints have little cartilage. These birds need long cooking and moist heat. Chances are you will never find an old bird in a grocery store, which is unfortunate, because we have inherited recipes, like coq au vin, that depend on them. If you were to try a traditional recipe for coq au vin with a young chicken, the lengthy braising would leave you with mushy meat.

I am very grateful to the McLarneys. This was my first experience plucking and gutting birds, and my first taste of wild poultry (and buckshot). As promised here is a recipe that I think will suite Mr. McLarney’s palate. It is based on faisan à la normande, or “Norman pheasant,” the word “Norman” simply indicating that there are apples in the dish.

Mrs. McLarney’s Apple-Braised Grouse (or Pheasant)

Ingredients

  • a few thick slices of bacon, cut into small pieces
  • half an onion, diced
  • a grouse (or pheasant): two breasts and two legs
  • half a cup of white wine or cider
  • three apples, peeled, cored and quartered
  • two cups stock (ideally made from the bird you are cooking, but chicken stock would work fine)

Process

  • Sweat bacon pieces until they are lightly browned and all their fat has rendered into the pot. Remove the pieces of bacon from the pot.
  • Crank the heat and deeply brown the grouse. Remove the grouse from the pot.
  • Lower the heat and sweat the onion in the same pot until translucent.
  • Deglaze the pot with white wine or cider.
  • Return the bacon and grouse to the pot. Add the apples.
  • Add the stock and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer.
  • Cover the pot and simmer until the grouse is tender, maybe two hours. The apples should break down into a sauce that can be served with the bird.

A plate of apple-braised grouse

1. After learning that pointers point and setters set, I spent the next hour looking up the etymology of every breed of dog I could think of, just to make sure there wasn’t an easily understood meaning to their name that I was missing. “Poodle” is derived from the German word “pudeln,” meaning “to splash in water,” which makes sense, as poodles were originally bred as retrievers for hunting water fowl. Shitzu is mandarin for “Lion Dog,” as apparently those pups were bred to resemble the lions in traditional Chinese art.
Addendum: Apples

Ask, and it shall be given you

-Matthew 7:7, also Kevin Kossowan

A box of apples from a neighbour's treeWe received the grouse at the height of apple season, so the apple-braise was a no-brainer.

I just wanted to mention that Lisa and I don’t have our own apple tree, but this year we asked some tree-owning acquaintances if we could partake in their bounty. Overwhelmed with deteriorating fruit, they happily obliged us, as you can see at left.

This fall Kevin drew a lot of attention to the amount of fruit that grows in Edmonton, and I just wanted to corroborate his statement that, regardless of how much or how little you speak with your neighbours, they are probably eager to share their crop with you.