Battle of the Birds
There is a bird for every occasion. Pheasant will impress the boss, guinea hen can make good friends feel special and quail shines as an unexpected first course. Cornish game hen is a delicious and satisfying dinner for one, while squab is a treat for true game lovers.
I didn’t know this, though, until recently. Like many home cooks, I’d been relying on chicken to be my everything. For years, I’ve been stuffing it with proscuitto and liver, a la Daniel Boulud, for special occasions; roasting it on Sundays; making Chicken Marbella for crowds.
Enough with tweaking the chicken. It was time to get a grip on what makes a squab a squab and not a quail, or how a pheasant differs from a guinea fowl. Working only on the birds I could buy at local markets, I did some preliminary research, picked out some recipes and tasted the meat plainly cooked to compare the flavors.
I started with one of the larger birds, taking my lead from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who, in “The Physiology of Taste” wrote, “Above all other feathered game should come the pheasant.” He continued with a warning, however: “… few mortal men know how to present it at its best.” I thought I’d try.
I read further: “A pheasant eaten within a week after its death is more worthless than a partridge or a pullet … ” I figured that finding just-shot pheasant (or shooting one myself) wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles, but I was still determined to find some and cook it.
As suspected, the only pheasant I could find was farm-raised and frozen. I bought four skinless, boneless breasts (about 1 pound each, $20 for two) at Surfas, a specialty-food and restaurant-supply store in nearby Culver City. Wild pheasants are smaller than domestic — which generally weigh between 2 and 2½ pounds each (a little heavier if they’re male) — and are, apparently, more flavorful. What I bought looked just like chicken breasts, only bigger.
Pheasant can get dry when cooked and many recipes suggest barding — wrapping them in some fatty meat to cook. I roasted them as suggested in “The Valentino Cookbook” by Piero Selvaggio and Karen Stabiner: wrapped in pancetta and then served with a Marsala cream sauce. The texture was firm and the flavor delicate, but perhaps deeper, than that of chicken breasts.
I’m sure plain old chicken would have tasted great prepared this way, but the pheasant meat lent a nice heft to the recipe. Plus the fact that it was pheasant — the elegant bird you’ve seem hanging voluptuously in still-life paintings, head thrown back and long tail feathers still bright — added a certain richness to the meal.
I first encountered live guinea fowl at a friend’s farm in upstate New York, where a dozen of them would wake us up every morning, then peck around the grounds snacking on bugs. My friend could have lived without the noise, but kept the birds around (and out of the oven) to control the deer tick population on her property.
In Los Angeles, I found a frozen, whole 2½-pounder for about $20 at Bob’s Market, a small grocery in Santa Monica, Calif., known for its butcher shop. I thawed it in cold water, and it was ready to cook later that day. I’d read that guinea fowl (also called a guinea hen) were lean, so I decided on trying a recipe from “La Cucina Di Lidia: Recipes and Memories from Italy’s Adriatic Coast,” by Lidia Bastianich and Jay Jacobs. It called for roasting the whole bird in parchment with a heavy baste of olive oil, butter and Grand Marnier. It was the easiest recipe in the world but looked impressive when done, the toasted parchment curling back to reveal a perfectly browned bird.
The mild yet rounded and deep flavor, enhanced by the subtle sauce, and tender meat of both the legs and the breast, persuaded me to swap guinea fowl for chicken when I want to serve a comfort meal — but not an ordinary one — for friends. (Unfortunately, my friend sold her farm and with it, the free-ranging guinea hens.)
Cornish game hen (poussin)
Vicente Foods — a market in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood with a top-notch butcher department — sells both poussin and Cornish game hen. But my research on the origins of Cornish game hens led me to determine that they are, in fact, the same animal.
The ancestors of all chickens are native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Over time, they made their way west, arriving in England back around the first century B.C. Much later, in the 1800s, when breeding poultry was a popular hobby in Britain, the Cornish “Indian Game Fowl” was created. This crossbreed traveled to America where it was renamed “Cornish Game.” (Note that despite the word “game” in the name, these farm-raised birds never live — nor have lived — in the wild.)
This Cornish Game hen, a regular-size chicken, has since been crossed with other chicken breeds to produce good egg-layers that mature quickly and offer us tender white meat. It’s the most-used breed in the American chicken industry.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the plump little birds we call “Cornish game hen” are simply five- to six-week-old chickens that weigh less than two pounds. Likewise, the USDA translation of “poussin” is “spring chicken” (though a “poussin” in England is defined as a young bird weighing less than about 1.6 pounds).
Just to test, I bought frozen poussins ($10.99 a pound) and fresh, organic Cornish game hens ($7.99 a pound), stuffed both with thin wedges of lemon and sage and roasted them while I made a porcini-tomato sauce, as suggested in “The Bon Appetit Cookbook.”
While the flavor of the Cornish game hen’s meat was very mild, like a nice chicken, it was perfectly succulent, and the presentation was a treat. It was like a little present — that you didn’t have to share with anyone — on your plate.
The meat of the slightly smaller poussin was very similar to the Cornish game hen, but perhaps because they had been frozen, was less succulent.
I could tell the squab would be different just by looking at their dark, lean bodies. For comparison, I cooked squab and a Cornish game hen in the same way, pan-searing them, then topping the birds with bacon slices and roasting them with apples and grapes.
The taste difference was huge. The squab meat was truly gamey and flavorful, almost like liver. Unlike the Cornish game hen (and the poussin), the squab had very little meat on their legs. I liked the way they tasted, but I could see how the intense flavor could be too much for some. If I wanted to serve individual birds at a dinner, I decided, I would serve the organic Cornish game hens.
I had the opportunity to eat the famed ortolan — a small songbird from France considered a rare delicacy — at a lunch years ago while I was an editor at Saveur magazine. It is traditionally eaten whole, sans head, with a linen napkin draped over the diner’s head. A famous French chef had imported these rare birds and roasted them to perfection for us. But when that little bird and I had our private moment, I couldn’t do it. I felt awful leaving it there on my plate, but I just couldn’t eat it.
So I don’t know why I have no reservations about quail, which aren’t much bigger than the little ortolan, but I’ll bet it has to do with the fact that I’m allowed to use a fork and knife and am not expected to swallow its bones and organs. I bought a pack of six frozen, semi-boneless quail at Vicente Foods for $18.99. When they were thawed, I rinsed them and laid them out on paper towel to dry. Their dangly bodies made them look like funny little puppets.
My husband chose a Bobby Flay recipe from FoodNetwork.com: pomegranate glazed quail salad with orange vinaigrette and spicy pecans. As I tried to make sense of the recipe (it wasn’t very clearly written), I had pots going, reducing this and that; I was glazing pecans; and I was telling myself this dish better be worth the mess.
It was a hit with my husband and friends, and I enjoyed eating it too, but I don’t know that it needed to be so labor-intensive. The quail was delicate and moist and one bird was just the right size for a starter. I’ll serve quail again, but prepare it much more simply.
Five birds later, what have I learned? That, with the exception of squab, most farm-raised birds taste a lot like chicken. And that in the future, I will want to try wild versions. But variation in presentation is important: a pan-seared quail atop a salad has infinite more style than strips of grilled chicken. A plump little Cornish game hen on the plate feels more exclusive than a slice of chicken.
I’ll still cook chicken — and now I’m determined to experiment with some big birds — but I’m glad to have found that there’s a perfect serving opportunity for every little bird.