Liquorice Pheasant - Autumn 2010
Well, I'm rolling out the warming soups and the game dishes so it must mean that Autumn has arrived!

I'm quite glad to be getting back into the entertaining habit now that I'm officially post-Rachel, and I rather cheekily invited Flora, Luke and Andy for dinner.
Flora has been persona non grata around the Eldorado household ever since she lost that naked mud wrestling competition with Rachel for my sexual favours.
That, and the fact that she's a mental.
They don't have anything against Luke, that I know of, but I invited him anyway. And Andy is just lucky enough to be my flatmate. Lucky Lucky Lucky.

I didn't want to get too ambitious to start with so I was happy to go for a Tuesday night, and the meal only took 3 days to prepare, so not quite my virtuoso performance, but unusually, it was served more-or-less on time!

I spent most of last Saturday getting the meal set up - shopping at the Edinburgh's Castle Terrace Farmers' Market for the pheasant, some smoky bacon (and anything else they might have had - which turned out to be not much), Since this dinner is going to be on a work night I wanted to get absolutely as much preparation as possible done ahead of time, making up those dishes and ingredients that I thought would last until (or even improve by) Tuesday:
the french onion soup, the red cabbage and the spinach oil.

On Monday night I made up the blackcurrant and liquorice sauce, and tried it out on a (smoked - which is quite odd in itself - a bit like pheasant bacon) pheasant breast for my dinner, just to see how it would work. I also cleaned up the samphire which is a tedious task this late into the season when the thicker stalks have grown woody and fibrous. I rendered some (unsmoked) bacon fat for frying the breasts, and simmered up a cup of milk with a vanilla pod then decanted it into a jam jar and left it in the fridge to infuse for the lemon sponge surpriselets.

The Menu

Grub's up...
The Soup:
Oh the soup. Absolutely delicious, and admired by everyone.
I bought a decent decorators' propane torch for the occasion - a worthwhile investment.
A great start to the meal.

The Sauce:
For the main dish I quite fancied marrying the gamey pheasant flavour with liquorice, and I happened to have got a nice bottle of liquorice essence from Napiers herbalists.
I went for blackberries as a foil for the liquorice flavour, which I thought wasn't too bad, though I would have gone for more traditional blackcurrants if I could have found any. I guess I just missed out on their season.
It was quite difficult to infuse the sauce with enough liquorice flavour, the essence generates more aroma than taste so you really need to pour it in.
The liquorice does impart a nice warm feeling to the sauce though, and if you scatter droplets of pure liquorice essence around it helps to bring out the flavour too. I wonder if using pomfret cakes or a stick of hard black liquorice might have worked better? Of course, there's always Black Sambuca...

The Bird:
Although the game stall I used in the Farmers' Market has a goodly selection of meat, it's all vacuum sealed in plastic and foam rubber so impossible to judge the quality until you get it home. As it turns out, the pheasant breasts were tough and dry, and I don't think that was all down to my cooking. To be fair, attempting to glaze the sauce might have been a mistake - it didn't really caramelise in the oven, and I doubt their roasting did the breasts any good. But whilst in the frying pan they never oozed through those droplets of blood that are the usual sign of a juicy game bird. Serves me right for not just going to the best damn game butcher in Edinburgh

The pasta:
I thought some squid-ink pasta would work quite nicely with both the pheasant and the liquorice — I remember having the most fantastic pheasant in a squid ink sauce at Martin Wishart's. Plus I figured the jet black colour would work with the colour scheme I had going.
I've been trying to get hold of some squid ink for a while now, and I've place orders with both Clark Bros fishmongers in Musselburgh (round the corner from where I work) and Welch's down the road from my flat here in Newhaven, but with little success so far. Welch's promised faithfully to have a pack of ink sachets for me on Tuesday morning, but failed to deliver, so I was forced to fall back on buying a heap of squid instead and trying to squeeze out what ink I could from behind their eyes, and whatever was left in their body sacs (which turned out to be very little).
In the end, I got about 1 teaspoon or so, but all the recipes I've seen for squid ink pasta suggest either one sachet or one tablespoon of ink per egg, and indeed when I came to make up my pasta dough it was nowhere near the beautiful black colour I was hoping for. More of a dirty grey.
Worried that I wouldn't have enough pasta for four people I made up another egg-ful with some grated lemon peel, though it turned out that I'd made enough for about 10 people and one egg-ful would have been quite enough.

I followed my usual semolina-based recipe, but it wasn't my most impressive pasta. I think I overcooked it slightly so it ended up a bit soggy, and whilst I was planning on rolling the linguini up prettily around a fork, it didn't work out that way - the pasta was just too tangled up for that.
Guess I should have followed Susan Conte's advice and lifted the pasta out into the colander rather than pouring it from the pan.
Clark Bros fishmongers finally came through for me with an enormous order of squid ink a week later, so I had another go at the pasta. One of their 5g ink sachets (about a level teaspoon) with one egg made pasta of a very acceptable colour. I also took more care over oiling the pasta water and more carefully lifting it out of the pan into the colander. This made it possible to wind up small rolls onto the plate, though it was still quite fiddly.
The flavour is extremely subtle though - distinctive, but not really strong enough to make any impression on this dish. More squid ink might help, but I doubt it.

The Side Dishes:
Everyone liked the samphire and admired its pretty colours, and the red cabbage went down well too. Though I thought either one of them a good complement to the pheasant, I preferred the more traditional match with the red cabbage. The cabbage and the samphire definitely didn't go together at all.

The Surpriselets:
Oh the surpriselets. Another palpable hit.
Perfect end to the meal.

On the whole it was just a bit of a pity about the pheasant, which was supposed to be the point of the meal. Ho hum. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the centerpiece, but there was so much going on you know, and I certainly didn't want to undercook the damn breasts and give everyone food poisoning. Not when we had work the next day...

The schedule:
I like to print out geeky schedules that I can completely fail to keep up with when I cook my dinners. But it helps to have some sort of guideline.

And I was only half an hour out!

Pan-fried Pheasant Breasts with a Blackberry Liquorice Glaze
main meat
Serves 4

Make the sauce
Cook the blackberries gently in a small pan to extract and reduce their juices. I started this process off by putting a splash of red wine in the pan before adding the blackberries to get things going, but I'm not convinced this helped the flavour - it might have been better to use port.

Once the berries are collapsing and the juice is flowing you can add a glug of port and a shot or two of Creme de Cassis to get the flavours right - not too sweet, but not too tart either.
To get the liquorice to fight its way through the other flavours I had to add a good 6 teaspoons, but I think I could have gone a lot further - maybe a dozen. Although the liquorice essence has quite a forthright aroma, it seems very reluctant to add much flavour. It really seems to help if you scatter a few droplets of the pure essence over the top of the breasts (or onto the plate) before serving. The effect is as much in the aroma as the flavour.
You could also try throwing in a basil leaf or two - I put some into the sauce after it was strained whilst I set it aside to cool, then pulled them out before using it. I was slightly afraid of overwhelming the faint liquorice flavour, though I think they ought to work well together.
Once the berries have sufficiently collapsed you should strain the sauce, then reduce it until thick and sticky - adjusting the flavours again as necessary.
You can keep this in the fridge for a few days until you need it.
Cook the breasts
Render some (unsmoked) bacon to make a tablespoon or so of fat, then when you are ready to cook, heat the fat in a skillet until smoking hot then crisp the outside of the pheasant breasts until nicely browned. Meanwhile reheat the blackberry and liquorice sauce.

Set the breasts aside and deglaze the pan with some more port which you then scrape back into the sauce.
Now paint the upper side of each breast with a little of the sauce and glaze quickly under a hot grill, then set the breasts aside to rest before serving.
I tried this glazing process by putting the breasts into a hot oven sitting on a layer of baguette slices (left over from the French Onion Soup), but it didn't really work - and I think it dried the breasts out more than was good for them, so you could try grilling instead. The sauce isn't really sugary enough to caramelize, but it would be nice to get a bit of a sticky coating on the breasts.
When you're ready to serve the breasts, slice each one into nice pieces, place on a pool of sauce or perhaps on the pasta al nera di seppia, and drizzle some of the sauce over.
I got the liquorice essence from Napiers the herbalist. You could probably try using some of the hard black liquorice rock or even pomfret cakes though.
I think blackcurrants might have been a better choice than the blackberries, but they were all I could get.