Last week I wrote about the deep silence of a forest in winter. How sometimes, if you are careful, you can slip into that silence. Every now and then though, you get a little too close and something erupts from the forest floor with an explosion of sound. The sound strikes right at your heart, letting you know that you don’t really belong there. That something is a ruffed grouse.
It is no longer grouse season here in Vermont. Even if it were, my grouse hunting skills are non existent. I’ve gone after grouse a few times but all that I’ve been able to hit in those outings are a few poor little beech saplings. An old grouse hunter told me once about the rule of three. For every three grouse that you flush, you will see one. For every three grouse that you see, you will get a shot off at one. For every three that you shoot at, you will hit one and that is only if you are well practiced. However, every now and then food delivers itself. A coworker gifted me with a grouse that his family found lying dead near one of the windows of their home. Apparently it had flushed from the nearby bushes and took a wrong turn into the window. Not wanting it to go to waste, he brought it to me. I am so grateful that he did.
Having never eaten grouse before, I decided to keep things fairly simple. A simple roast with a highbush cranberry sauce that I tried for the first time last Thanksgiving would suffice. Upon plucking and dressing the bird, I discovered that its crop was completely engorged with slightly fermented crab apples. High on a shelf in my kitchen sat an unopened jug of homemade hard cider. This would have to find its way into the sauce.
To roast the grouse, I followed instructions from wild food guru Hank Shaw. He suggests roasting at 450 for 15 minutes and then dropping the temperature to 350 for the last 20 minutes, basting with melted butter throughout the process. The only thing I changed was that I added a healthy dose of pepper in the buttering process. The result was a perfectly cooked bird. Thank you Mr. Shaw!
While the bird was in the oven, I worked on the sauce. I sliced up a Braeburn apple, tossed it in a pan with a little butter and sauteed until the slices started to soften a touch. Then I deglazed the pan with 1 cup of my homemade hard cider and tossed in 1 cup of frozen highbush cranberries that I harvested back in the fall. Out of curiosity, I visited the bush that I harvested them from yesterday and to my surprise, there were still a few that looked like they were in good shape. I am sure they are slightly fermented at this point, but we had an incredibly cold December, perhaps they froze quickly enough to preserve some of their culinary integrity. Further experimentation will be necessary but for now I will use up the berries in my freezer.
I let the cranberries cook down until they had burst, releasing their juices into the cider. This mixture was then run through a sieve to remove the skins, large flat seeds of the berries, and apple chunks. Returning it to the sauce pot, I stirred the liquid slowly over low heat as I poured in 3 tablespoons of maple syrup to balance out the musky tartness of the berries. The end result was a slightly runny sauce with a big hit of pungent sweet flavor.
After allowing the grouse to rest for ten minutes, I sliced the breast meat at an angle and plated it atop a bed of brown rice and shitake mushrooms. Legs and thighs are too small to make sense carving, so they were served bone-in. Cranberry sauce was spooned over top of the breast. The sauce could have had a touch more body, although its thinness allowed it to be easily absorbed into the breast meat.
This was by far and away the best bird that has ever entered my mouth. Like the highbush cranberries, the meat of the bird was slightly musky and had a gaminess about it. Upon describing it as gamey to my wife, she immediately recoiled at the description, stating that gamey insinuates poor flavor. I rebutted that most of the meat that the general society is accustomed to tasting actually has little to no flavor and that gamey has come to be used in reference to any meat that has an abundance of flavor. Our palates are in need of a tune up after decades of eating bland meats. I propose that everyone eats a plate of grouse at least twice a year to remind our taste buds of what food is supposed to taste like. There is a refreshing unharnessed wildness in the flavor that startles the nerve endings on my tongue, similar to how the cacophonous eruption of a flushing grouse jolts my body to attention. To taste a grouse is to taste the wild. Go befriend a hunter, take up the sport yourself, or make use of wayward window strikes. You will be glad you did.