Spring marks a favorite time of year for hunters of another sort. During mid-April through mid-June, many of us pheasant hunters double as fungus foragers in pursuit of the rare vernal treat: morel mushrooms. While some morel hunters return home with baskets full, others of us are simply happy to nab a handful. There is still time left to discover these meaty, nutty, earthy lobes of fungus, so be on the lookout next time you head out.
Cacciatore is a great dish for tougher cuts of wild game. It follows the classic maxim of low and slow, thus tenderizing meat and infusing it with poignant Italian flavors. This recipe works incredibly well for any cut of wild fowl, including a spring turkey tom, but bear in mind: the harder a piece of muscle has worked, the more years it has labored, the longer you will have to simmer it in cacciatore sauce. Never lose faith: any tough cut of wild game will eventually yield tender, succulent flavor.
I have only harvested a handful of morels this season thanks to our cold, wet Minnesota spring; but if you have more, feel welcome to include upwards of 8 ounces in this recipe. If you don’t have any wild mushrooms in stock, 8 ounces of any store-bought mushroom will work just as well.
Makes Two Servings.
- 2 pheasant thighs or other cuts, approximately 6 to 8 ounces each
- 1 teaspoon smoked sea salt, sprinkled over pheasant
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, sprinkled over pheasant
- 1/4 cup olive oil (mixed use)
- 4 on-the-vine tomatoes, approximately 20 ounces
- 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes
- 1/2 cup Cocobon red wine
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- 2 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled
- 2 large fresh basil leaves
- 1 sprig rosemary, picked
- 1/4 lemon, juiced
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon malt vinegar
- 1/2 tablespoon red chili flakes
- 1 teaspoon each of kosher salt and pepper (mixed use)
- (Morels, below, are cooked in separate skillet)
- Approximately 2 to 8 ounces of morels, halved and cleaned
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Light dusting of kosher salt and pepper
- 1-pound box of fettuccine pasta, cooked al dente
- 2 tablespoons each of kosher salt and olive oil
- Freshly minced Italian parsley for pasta
- Freshly minced chives for cacciatore
- Parmesan and Asiago cheese blend
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove tomatoes from vines and spray with oil. Place on baking tray and cook for approximately 20 minutes, until exterior sears and skin loosens and inside is completely cooked. Set tomatoes aside.
In a large, deep skillet (preferably cast iron) heat a thin layer of olive oil on medium heat until layer of oil radiates heat. Take pheasant thighs (or whatever two cuts you are using) and rub in a dusting of smoked sea salt and ground black pepper. Place skin-side-down in skillet, sear until brown, flip and brown other side then remove and set aside.
Drain oil and fat from pan, set burner to medium-low and add a fresh thin layer of olive oil to skillet. Add finely minced yellow onion to skillet and lightly dust with salt and pepper. Once onions have browned and softened, deglaze with red wine. In a food processor or blender, add oven-roasted tomatoes, along with chicken stock, fresh garlic cloves, basil leaves, rosemary needles, juice from quarter lemon, malt vinegar, sugar, chili flakes and salt and pepper. Blend thoroughly and add to pan with deglazed onions. Stir thoroughly. Open can of diced tomatoes and add to skillet, again stirring thoroughly.
Set sauce to simmer and add pheasant thighs to skillet. Allow to simmer for minimum 2 hours, flipping thighs every half hour, until meat yields flaky, tender bites. (Meat should have little resistance, almost soft texture, when poked; and meat will have receded up bone, exposing tendons).
With a half hour remaining for sauce, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add couple tablespoons each of kosher salt and olive oil. Once boiling, break fettuccine in half and add to water, cook until al dente (light resistance at center when biting), approximately 8 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta under cold running water and lightly sprinkle with olive oil to keep noodles from sticking together.
Once sauce has simmered for minimum 2 hours and meat is tender, in a separate medium skillet, heat a tablespoon of butter on medium-low. Add cleaned, halved morels to skillet and add another tablespoon of butter. Lightly salt and pepper morels and turn until browned. Add to sauce in other skillet.
To serve, garnish pasta with freshly minced Italian parsley and garnish cacciatore with freshly minced chives. Plate pasta and cover with sauce and place a thigh overtop, sprinkle cheese atop and enjoy!
Jack Hennessy is a freelance outdoors journalist based out of Minneapolis and the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.