With Recipes For
Cornish Game Hen With Grape Leaves
Squab Salad
Grilled Lime-Ancho Marinated Game Birds
Tips on Taming the Game

On Valentine's Day you have two options.

You can jostle with 50,000 other people trying to get a romantic table at a nice restaurant, hope for decent service and pray that you'll get away for less than $100 a couple.

Or you can cook at home.

And to make that second option more interesting, choose some love birds for your love bird.

Love birds are what I call small game birds that can range from a four-ounce quail to a 1-1/2 pound woodcock. They can be as wild as the film "9-1/2 Weeks" (not a bad rental choice for the evening) or as tame as "The Way We Were" (one of my favorite tear jerkers.) You've probably had love birds without knowing it. The Cornish game hen falls into that category. It's been bred into domesticity, but don't turn your nose up to it. It still holds up to marinades, sauces and cooking techniques. And it's reasonably priced, so it leaves you plenty for that oaky Chardonnay you've been wanting to try. At my first restaurant, we stuffed a Cornish hen with pine nuts, raisins and mushrooms and wrapped it in grape leaves. It was one of our most popular entrees. At most supermarkets, the Cornish hen comes frozen, but better stores have fresh ones. Look for the smallest you can find, about a pound each.

My Favorite Love Birds

After cooking a flock of more legitimate game birds recently, here are my observations:

  • My favorite love bird is a squab. It has all the qualities you'd want. It weighs about a pound, just right for an individual portion. It's faintly gamy but not too. And it has rich meat with enough fat so it won't dry out. (Fat, or lack thereof, can be a problem with game birds. They don't just sit around and eat like chickens do, so they're leaner. Healthful to be sure, but you've got to roast or grill them on the rare side or it's Sawdust City. One way to mitigate dryness is to strap a slice of bacon or pancetta across the breast while it cooks.)
  • Choice No. 2 is a quail. The only drawback here is size. So buy four, for two people. In terms of flavor, quail falls somewhere between Cornish hens and squab. If you can buy them semiboneless -- that is, breast bones removed but legs intact -- it makes it a lot easier to stuff and eat. Quails demand hand eating, so don't even think about trying to be dainty. And besides, eating with your hands can be pretty sensual. Ever see "Tom Jones" (also a good rental choice)? Have a finger bowl handy if you must. And a sturdy cloth napkin for sure.
  • The partridge family is next. Also faintly gamy, it has a lighter color than squab and is not quite as rich. It's a good size at 12 to 14 ounces.

The squab, quail and partridge can all be cooked simply, either roasted whole or split and grilled or broiled. Or they can be braised with stock, vegetables, and wine. I made a fabulous squab salad with mixed greens and garlic croutons and a hearty stew of partridge and pink lentils.

Other Varieties of Love Birds

With most other game birds, you'll need to doctor the gaminess a bit with marinades and sauces (see "Taming the Game" at the end of this article.) Here are some possibilities.

  • Woodcock: The strongest of the strong -- too strong for me -- with dark meat that's almost like venison. They weigh about one pound each.
  • Red Eye Grouse: Slightly less heavy duty. About 10 ounces.
  • Hazel Grouse: Slightly more robust than a quail. Because it weights only about eight ounces, one per person probably won't be enough.
  • Snow Grouse (sometimes called Ptarmigan): Considered one of the finest game birds by connoisseurs, it weighs just under a pound. It has a large breast with deep red meat. The taste is faintly livery. Strong, but manageable with a good marinade.
  • Wood Pigeon: Quite meaty for its size and has a pleasing game flavor.

Other birds to look out for are poussin (chicken-like flavor) and guinea fowl (try to get young fowl that weigh close to a pound each.)

What Do You Serve with Your Love Birds?

Wild mushrooms are a good choice in any form. I like a ragout of mixed mushrooms splashed with port or Madeira. Or toss a few slices into some stir-fried seasonal green veggies. Try steamed asparagus with thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms and scallions or snow peas with some fresh ginger. And as long as we're staying on the wild side, wild rice is a good choice. But not straight. Instead, combine it with an equal amount of long grain white rice and cook both in chicken stock for added flavor.

And what to drink? White with fowl is out the window for most game birds (except Cornish game hens) unless you've got a full-flavored Chardonnay. No, red wines are generally the choice here. I'd go with a pinot noir for lighter birds such as squab and quail. Move up with zinfandels and such as you go up the flavor ladder. Heck, even a rock-solid Barolo isn't out of the question with a woodcock. All the following recipes are for two. Happy Valentine's Day to you and your love bird.

recipe card
 Cornish Game Hen With Grape Leaves

2 Cornish game hens
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 ounce pine nuts
3 ounces sliced mushrooms
2 tablespoons raisins
1/4 cup flavored bread crumbs
Chicken stock
2 slices bacon
4 grape leaves

  1. Remove giblets, rinse, pat dry and season hens with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  2. In a skillet over moderate heat, sauté pine nuts in half the butter until golden brown. Put in a bowl.
  3. In the same skillet, heat remaining butter over high heat. When butter stops sizzling, add mushrooms and cook, stirring, until lightly browned. Add to pine nuts along with raisins, bread crumbs and just enough stock so mixture comes together.
  4. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Stuff hens with stuffing mixture, put a slice of bacon on each breast and truss birds. (To truss is to secure with string or pins or skewers so the stuffing doesn't fall out and the bird keeps its shape during cooking). Roast hens about 25 to 30 minutes or until just barely done, about 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
  5. Remove string or pins and wrap hens with a grape leaf on top and bottom. Add some stock to the roasting pan, cover hens with foil and return to the oven until heated through, about 10 minutes.

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 Squab Salad

1 squab (about 1 pound) or 2 partridge or 3 quail
Salt and pepper
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
10 cloves garlic, unpeeled
Olive oil
Eight 1/4 -inch slices from a French baguette
4 thin slices bacon
1 teaspoon minced shallot
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 large handful of mixed salad greens, cleaned and dried

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Meanwhile, remove livers and gizzards from squab and set them aside. Wash, pat dry and season squab with salt and pepper. Put thyme leaves in cavity and truss (see above).
  2. Put squab in small baking dish. Toss garlic with 1 teaspoon of oil and strew around squab. Roast squab about 35 minutes or until breast is just firm to touch. Baste periodically with juices.
  3. While squab is cooking, brush baguette slices with 1 tablespoon oil and bake until lightly golden. Fry bacon until crisp. Drain off fat and fry liver and gizzard (gizzard will take longer); season with salt and pepper. Chop bacon, liver and gizzard. Combine and set aside.
  4. When squab is done, pour pan juices into a bowl. Combine remaining olive oil with shallot, vinegar and fat that has risen to the top of the bowl of pan juices. Season with salt and pepper. Toss lettuce with vinaigrette and reserved bacon, gizzard and livers. Cut squab into serving pieces. Put lettuce on a serving platter, top with squab and surround with croutons. Top croutons with garlic cloves (for spreading on croutons). Spoon reserved juices over meat and lettuce.

(Adapted from "Chez Panisse Cooking" by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters. Random House.)

recipe card
 Grilled Lime-Ancho Marinated Game Birds

The following recipe from "New Game Cuisine" by Janet Hazen (Chronicle Books) will tame the gamiest of game birds.

2 or more game birds (depending on size) such as grouse or wood pigeon
2 dried ancho peppers soaked in water overnight
1 small tomato, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Hot pepper sauce (optional)

  1. Wash, pat dry and split birds. Set aside.
  2. Drain, stem and seed peppers and combine with remaining ingredients in a food processor, adding a few drops of liquid pepper sauce if you want an especially spicy marinade. Puree until smooth.
  3. Lay birds flat in a shallow, non-aluminum pan and pour marinade over them, turning to coat evenly. Refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.
  4. Drain birds slightly before putting them on a medium-hot charcoal grill. Cook about 5 to 7 minutes on each side for birds 8 to 1 ounces, 7 to 10 minutes for larger birds.

recipe card
 Taming the Game

Depending upon how wild your love birds are and how much of that wild taste you want, you'll probably employ marinades and sauces in some fashion. Proportions aren't crucial. A simple marinade, for example, can be made with equal parts red wine and olive oil with some chopped garlic and black pepper. Some other ideas:

  • Fresh herbs: Fresh springs of thyme and rosemary are ideal companions for game. Also try sage, mint, and, for Latin or Asian-style dishes, cilantro.
  • Hot stuff: Chili peppers are perfect for game. Fresh jalapeno and serrano are readily available. But also try smoke chipotle (usually found dry or canned in tomato sauce). And hot pepper sauces too, from habanero to sweet and Tabasco.
  • Spirits: Believe it or not, gin makes a great game marinade. So do vermouth (dry or sweet), sherry, and almost any red wine. Try some dessert wines too, such as Muscat or Port.
  • Spices: Garlic, of course. Juniper berries, especially with gin. Pomegranate seeds and juice give a Persian accent to game birds. Mustard seeds can be used in marinades and prepared Dijon can be slathered on before broiling. Also try allspice, fennel seeds, bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves.

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