Recipe: Penne alla Vodka with Pheasant

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Pheasant season is finally here, and it’s time to stock the larder with a fresh supply of disco chickens. And while I love whole roasted pheasants, let’s face it: In a busy season you don’t always have time to pluck all your birds, and, well, there’s the matter of those roosters you’ve hit pretty hard. We skin these birds, leaving us with lots of skinless pheasant breasts. What to do?
 
Try putting them into this excellent-but-very-retro pasta dish called penne alla vodka. Those of you of a certain age will remember this one from the early 1980s, when it was all the rage. It was for a reason – it’s a great, easy dish that comes together in less than 45 minutes. 
 
If you look at the ingredients, pretty much everything can be had in Pheasant Camp, too. The only really perishable stuff you need is heavy cream, and most gas stations have it. No fresh herbs? No biggie. I like them in this sauce, but you can use dried instead. Or skip it. 
 
This should be one of your go-to recipes for after a long day’s hunt through the prairies. Just save a little of the vodka for dessert… 
 

Ingredients

1 pound boneless, skinless pheasant breasts, sliced across the grain of the meat into bite-sized pieces
Salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup minced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can of crushed tomatoes
Red pepper flakes to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ cup vodka
½ cup heavy cream
Penne pasta
Chopped fresh basil or parsley leaves, for garnish
 

Method

  • Sprinkle the pheasant pieces with salt and set aside on a cutting board. Get a large pot of water boiling, and add enough salt to it so the water tastes salty. Have this at a low simmer while you make the sauce.
  • Heat the butter in a large, wide sauce pan and saute the onions over medium-high heat until they soften and turn translucent, about 4 minutes. Don’t let them brown. Add the minced garlic and cook another minute. 
  • Mix in the tomato paste and cook that for a couple minutes, stirring often. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, red pepper flakes and oregano, bring to a simmer and add salt to taste. Now, here’s where you have a decision to make: Traditionally this is a smooth sauce, so you’d pour the sauce into a blender now and puree it. It’ll still be fine if you don’t, just chunky. 
  • Either way, once the sauce – pureed or not – has simmered for about 15 minutes, add the penne pasta to the salted boiling water to cook. Stir the vodka and cream into the sauce and let this simmer uncovered while the penne cooks. 
  • To serve, strain the pasta and put it into a big bowl. Add a little of the sauce and the fresh herbs and toss to combine. Give everyone some and top with more sauce. You can grate cheese over it if you want. 
A member of 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, Calilf.