I just got back from a great hunting trip in New Zealand, where we spent two weeks chasing all sorts of small game, from ducks and geese to the odd pukeko (a kind of rail) to yes, quail. And not just any quail, but our own California quail, which were introduced to New Zealand specifically for hunting.
After a morning’s worth of duck hunting, we piled into the truck and headed to a neighboring sheep farm, where our host thought we might find rabbits, hares and quail. It’s been dry there in Canterbury, an area on the South Island that looks a lot like California, so we hunted along a small creek that still had water.
Sure enough, we soon spotted hares, sprinting away from us. Almost all the game animals in New Zealand are imported, and both their hares and rabbits came from Britain. Hares are like our jackrabbits: Fast runners and tough to bring down with a shotgun unless you’re very quick. We were, and soon had a hare in the bag.
A few more miles and we added some pukekos. Finally we headed back to the truck, still with no quail in sight. Of course, when we got back to the truck we saw them: A big covey of about 40 birds hightailing it away from us. But California quail coveys never move all at once, so we knew they’d still be in the brambles.
I walked up on the bramble patch and sure enough, three quail flushed. I got one, and the chase was on. Fast fliers, I whiffed on two more, but fortunately my compadres managed to get a couple more. Not a bonanza, but hey, it’ll do.
Back at the ranch, we had a marvelous mixed bag. What to do? Well, hunter’s stew of course. I picked the quail and cut the hare and a rabbit we’d gotten the day before into serving pieces, and tossed in a pukeko for good measure.
It was our last night in New Zealand, and as the stew simmered, we sat around the fire (it’s winter there right now) talking about the trip and drinking beer. A couple hours and a couple beers later, we had ourselves a feast to remember.
Cacciatore is the Italian version of a hunter’s stew, and it is rich with tomatoes, garlic and mushrooms. Use any meat you want, but mostly white meats like quail, pheasant, rabbit or turkey, and serve with good, crusty bread.
It’s your choice whether to pull the meat off the bones of the animals you stew. I do, most of the time. The Italians just get into it, though, grabbing a rabbit leg or a whole stewed quail and eating it on the spot.
Serves 4, and can be doubled.
- 1 pheasant or rabbit, cut into serving pieces
- 2 to 6 whole quail
- 4 strips bacon
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (or pheasant or chicken fat)
- 1 chopped celery stalk
- 1 chopped carrot
- 4 cloves chopped garlic
- 1 large onion, sliced into half-moons
- 1 quart crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups white wine
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 ounce package dried mushrooms (about a handful)
- 1 pound cremini or button mushrooms
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 tablespoons minced parsley
Fry the bacon in a large braising pan or Dutch oven in the olive oil until crispy, then set aside. Add the pheasant pieces and brown them well. Take your time and do it in batches. Remove the pheasant pieces as they brown. Do the same for the quail.
Add the carrot, celery, onions and the fresh mushrooms and turn the heat up to high. Saute them until the onions are wilted and are beginning to brown. Add more oil if needed. When they begin to brown, add the garlic and cook for another 1 minute, stirring occasionally.
Add the herbs and the dried mushrooms and the white wine and turn up the heat to high. Stir well. Let the wine cook down by half. Add the tomatoes and mix well. Add some salt if needed. Add the bacon and the meats.
Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Check to see if the meat is thinking about falling off the bone. Sometimes a young pheasant or quail will be done in an hour, but 2 hours is more typical. When the meats are tender, strip the meat from the bones, if you want to, and return the meat to the pot.
Add the parsley to the pot and mix to combine. Serve with polenta or a good crusty bread.
A member of both Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, Hank Shaw is a hunter, cookbook author and award-winning writer. His website is Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (www.honest-food.net). He lives near Sacramento, CA.