What’s that red meat on your plate, the one with the wings and drumsticks and crispy, feather-scarred skin? It looks like poultry. It’s been cooked like poultry. But it cuts, bleeds and chews more like beef or lamb. And with its assertive, earthy, meaty flavor, it definitely doesn’t taste like chicken.
Of course, if you’ve been dining out a lot lately, you’ve probably noticed the proliferation of exotic birds featured on menus. While chicken may still reign supreme, as a crowd pleaser, chefs looking to be more creative with poultry are turning to game birds such as squab, quail, duck, partridge, grouse, guinea hen and pheasant.
But which wine do we pair with a bird that’s arguably red meat in disguise? Do you treat it like chicken and opt for soft and fruity reds like Beaujolais? Or model it on lamb, venison or other gamy red meats and go for something with gusto and depth, like an Australian Shiraz or a California Cabernet Sauvignon? And where, if anywhere, do white wines fit in?
Confusing? Indeed. It’s all enough to make a wine lover cry “fowl!”
Birds of a Feather
Although by their name, people might assume that game birds are wild animals felled by a hunter’s shot, in fact most of what we find in restaurants has been farm raised. This can be a good thing, because farmed birds are always in season. Chefs like them for their consistent quality—and the fact that there is no buck shot to remove. Their meat also contains a little more fat than their wild counterparts, which, given their, ultra-lean flesh, is often a good thing. But some aficionados find the taste less complex than wild game.
In terms of wine pairings, the challenge, says Brian Duncan, the wine director at Chicago’s Bin 36, is the diversity of flavors among these birds. “You can’t lump them into a single category,” he says.
Fowl meat runs the gamut from the tender, amenable, sand-colored flesh of a pheasant to the forthright, liver-like crimson of a wild partridge. But there are some characteristics that game birds have in common: They all have a lot more flavor than your average chicken. And though the intensity varies, they tend toward a pronounced, earthy, robust flavor.
Pascal Fiancette, the sommelier at the Wheatleigh in Lenox, Massachusetts, advises selecting wines by considering weight and intensity of the bird’s meat. Paler-fleshed birds like pheasant, poussin (free-range baby chicken), guinea hen and capon would work with fruity, medium-bodied reds with apparent fruit, such as a cru Beaujolais, Dolcetto or California Merlot. Darker, redder birds such as grouse, duck, goose, squab and quail call for bigger, bolder wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Aglianico or Barbera. And the richest-flavored of all the birds, the partridges and pigeons, can sometimes even stand up to wines like Zinfandel or Shiraz.
If you’ve noticed the missing varietal, it’s because Pinot Noir will go with most any game bird. In fact, given the range of styles in which it’s made, Pinot Noir may be the across-the-board best match for game birds, the bottle to reach for when in doubt. What all Pinot Noirs have in common, like the game birds themselves, is an underlying earthiness, says Duncan.
Think of the lighter-styled Pinot Noirs, such as Sancerre rouge, Savigny-lès-Beaune or Santenay from Burgundy, with the lighter birds. Darker-fleshed meats call for weightier Pinots such as those from Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard in Burgundy, or rich, fruity versions from California or Oregon.
Along those lines, David Rosoff, the managing partner and wine director of Opaline in Los Angeles, also recommends Nebbiolo d’Alba, which he considers akin to Burgundy.
“Wine from Piedmont and Burgundy are terroir-driven,” he says. “With game birds, you get an earthier flavor than you do from most meats, so I look for a wine that’s earthy rather than fruity. I would go for wines that are all about the soil and minerals and maybe spice.”
Although a white wine may not be an obvious choice to serve with game, richer, fuller styles can also pair well, especially Riesling.
“Game birds and Riesling are terrific,” says Duncan. “It has to do with the residual sugar, acid and concentration of the wine, which focuses and elevates the rich, liver-like flavor of the meat. Think of foie gras with Sauternes. It works in the same way.”
It’s crucial, as it always is with wine and food pairings, to take a dish’s preparation and garnish as much into account as its main ingredient. When thinking about poultry, this comes as second nature to most sommeliers, since pairing a wine with chicken—the tofu of the animal world—is generally all about the sauce.
“Since poultry is often accompanied by a sweet or fruit-based sauce,” says Dan Perlman, the wine director of AZ and Pazo in New York City, “it’s important to consider the sweetness of the wine as well. You need a wine that will stand up to it, and is a little sweet itself. Otherwise the sauce will seem cloying and the wines will seem flavorless.” An off-dry white, like a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer, is a good choice.
Red wines, Perlman says, will also work, “but they should have a lot of fruit.” His suggestions? Zinfandel or Barbera.
For a simple preparation, such as a roasted bird with a browned crackling skin, white Burgundies or other barrel-aged Chardonnay will complement the caramelization.
Another interesting choice, notes Duncan, would be an older Savennières from the Loire. “It can have a crème brûlée flavor that makes a great pairing with roasted meats and vegetables,” he says. “I would stick to a lighter bird like a pheasant for this wine, rather than anything too intense, like squab.”
From Riesling and Chardonnay to Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, the choices are staggering. When it comes to matching game birds with wine, the sky’s the limit.
Cavolo Nero-Stuffed Squab Breast with Squab Ragout
Chef David Lentz,
Opaline, Los Angeles
Cavolo nero, or black kale, is a staple in Tuscany. It can be seen growing in gardens all over the region, where clumps of its inky, tapered leaves look more like ostrich plumes than vegetation. It has a richer flavor and slightly more delicate texture than regular kale, which nonetheless makes a fine substitution. In the U.S., cavolo nero might also be labeled as Tuscan kale or Lacinato kale.
For the squab and ragout:
4 (1-pound each) whole squab
4 garlic cloves, 3 minced, 1 thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Â¼ cup peeled carrot, diced
Â¼ cup celery, diced
Â¼ cup onion, diced
Â¼ cup fennel, diced
1 bay leaf
1 fresh thyme sprig
1 fresh rosemary sprig
Â½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
3 tablespoons olive oil
Â½ cup dry Sherry
3 cups squab or chicken stock
For the cavolo nero:
1 bunch cavolo nero (or kale), stems removed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup thinly sliced onion
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
Â¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and black pepper to taste
To prepare the squab: Use a large sharp knife to cut each squab into breasts, carcass, wings and legs (reserve the carcass for making stock, if desired). Place the squab breasts in a dish and sprinkle with the sliced garlic, thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
To prepare the squab ragout: Preheat the oven to 350Â°F. In a bowl, toss together the carrot, celery, onion, fennel and remaining minced garlic. Cut a 6 x 6-inch square of cheesecloth, lay the bay leaf, thyme sprig, rosemary and peppercorns in the center of the square, pull up the corners to make a sachet and tie it closed with kitchen twine.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy, large pot over medium-high heat. Add the squab wings and legs and cook until brown all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer the wings and legs to a large bowl. Add half of the diced vegetables to the same pot and sauté until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the Sherry. Stir to scrape up any brown bits. Simmer until almost all of the Sherry is evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add 2 cups of the stock and the cheesecloth sachet to the pot and bring to a boil. Add the squab legs and wings.
Cover and transfer to the oven. Cook until the leg meat is fork-tender, about 3 hours. Let sit until cool enough to handle. Pull the meat from the bones and reserve (discard the bones).
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy, large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the remaining diced vegetables and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the squab legs and wings, and 1 cup of stock. Simmer until the stock is reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Season the squab ragout with salt and pepper and set aside.
To prepare the cavolo nero: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it well. Add the cavolo nero and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain.
Heat the butter and oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add cavolo nero and crushed red pepper. Cover and cook over very low heat until the cavolo nero is very tender, stirring occasionally, about 30 to 40 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
To complete the squab breasts: Slice deep horizontal pockets into the squab breasts. Stuff each breast with 1 heaping tablespoon of the cavolo nero. Stack one breast on top of another to make four stacks. Tie the stacks with kitchen twine. (The breasts can be stuffed 4 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate, then bring to room temperature before roasting.)
Preheat the oven to 400Â°F. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy ovenproof sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the squab breasts and cook until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast the squab until just cooked through but still deep pink, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest 3 to 5 minutes. Clip off the string.
To serve: Place some of the squab ragout in the center of each plate and top with a squab bundle. Serves 4.
Wine recommendations: Since the inspiration for this dish comes from Italy, David Rosoff, Opaline’s wine director, recommends a Nebbiolo from Piedmont. “Squab tastes like liver or truffles and that makes me think of Nebbiolo,” he says. Rosoff loves a bargain, like the Claudio Alario 1999 Cascioto Nebbiolo d’Alba.
“This wine is a textbook example of Nebbiolo’s ability to combine power and grace,” he says. “There are equal parts earth and fruit; notes of spice, tar, violets, spice and truffles. It drinks like a good Barolo.” But if you’re going to go to all the trouble and expense of buying squab and cavolo nero, why not spring for a 1997 Barolo Riva, which would also match beautifully?
Roasted Pheasant with Truffles
Chef Mark Sullivan, The Village Pub, Woodside, California
This dish is nearly as good without the truffles. Be sure not to overcook it, or the meat will be dry.
2 (2Â½ pounds each) whole pheasants
5 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Â¼ cup onion, diced
Â¼ cup leek, diced
Â¼ cup carrot, diced
Â¼ cup celery, diced
2 cups red Burgundy or other dry
3 cups chicken stock
5 sprigs fresh parsley stems
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf
White truffle oil (optional)
2 ounces truffles for serving*
(*Note: Use fresh Perigord black truffles in the winter, and white Alba truffles in the fall. You can substitute preserved truffles when not in season.)
Preheat the oven to 400Â°F. Stuff 1 sprig of thyme and 1 rosemary sprig under the skin of each pheasant breast. Season the birds with salt and pepper and place them on a roasting rack in a roasting pan, breast side down. Roast for about 45 minutes—the interior should still be pink, or the pheasant will become dry. Transfer to a plate, tent with foil and let rest.
Meanwhile, transfer the pan juices to a large sauté pan. Cook over medium heat and add the onion, leek, carrot and celery. Sauté until lightly browned, about 3 minutes, then add the wine and raise the heat to high. Simmer until reduced to a glaze, about 10 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, and add the remaining thyme, parsley stems, garlic and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until reduced by half, about 7 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and return it to the pan. Simmer over medium heat until reduced to a thin glaze, about 5 minutes longer. Pour the juices collected under the pheasant into the saucepan and season with salt and pepper and a few drops of truffle oil, if desired.
Carve the pheasant breast and legs. Spoon the sauce around the plate and shave truffles over all. Serves 4.
Wine recommendations: Sommelier Andrew Green likes the way Riesling cleanses the palate after each bite of this rich meat. His pick? The Dr. Loosen 1997 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese. For a red, he looks to Burgundy, especially wines from Nuit-Saint-Georges, such as the Domaine Robert Chevillon 1999 Les Bousselots, which echoes the earthiness of the truffles, or the Antonin Rodet 2000 Les Pôrets.
Ginger-Lacquered Quail with Vanilla Roasted Pineapple
Co-Chefs Patricia Yeo and Pino Maffeo, AZ, New York, New York
At AZ, Chefs Yeo and Maffeo serve this as an appetizer. But it also makes a light yet flavorful main course. Simply double the number of quail; there will be enough pineapple and ginger glaze with the quantities given.
For the pineapple:
1 large pineapple, peeled, cored and cut
into Â½-inch rings
1/3 cup brandy
Â½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise, pulp
scraped, or Â½ tablespoon vanilla extract
1Â½ tablespoons Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
For the quail:
1Â¼ cups pineapple juice
1/3 cup chopped fresh ginger
4 dried Thai bird chilies (or 1 dried
2 fresh jalapeno chilies, roughly sliced
4 semi-boneless whole quail*
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
(*Note: A semi-boneless quail is one which has been deboned except for the legs and wings.)
To prepare the pineapple: Preheat the oven to 450°F. Stir together the brandy, vinegar, sugar and vanilla pulp or extract in a large bowl. Toss the pineapple rings in the brandy mixture until well coated. Spread the pineapple in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and roast, basting, until golden brown and glazed, about 20 minutes.
To prepare the ginger-pineapple glaze: Combine the pineapple juice, ginger, dried chilies and fresh chilies in a saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Simmer until reduced to a thick syrup, about 5 to 7 minutes. Strain the syrup into a large mixing bowl, discarding the ginger and chilies. (The recipe can be made up to this point and refrigerated for up to 3 days in advance.)
To prepare the quail: Rinse the quail, pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Place the flour in a shallow dish and lightly dredge the quail in flour.
Just before serving, preheat the broiler. Place the quail on a broiler pan and drizzle both sides with the oil. Broil until crisp and browned on both sides, about 7 minutes total.
To serve: Transfer the quail to a platter and drizzle with the ginger-pineapple glaze. Serve immediately, with the pineapple rings. Serves 4 as an appetizer.
Wine recommendations: “To stand up to the sweetness of the pineapple I look for an off-dry wine with good acidity,” says AZ’s wine director, Dan Perlman. To that end he suggests a Riesling or Gewürztraminer, or Sokol Blosser’s Evolution, a blend of those two varieties plus Chardonnay, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muller-Thurgau, Sémillon and Sylvaner. Fruity red wines will also work, as long as they aren’t heavily oaked. Look for a Barbera or a Zinfandel.
All the game birds featured in these recipes are available from D’Artagnan, 800/327-8246. For more recipes, pick up the July issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.