A bird in the hand

As the evenings draw in, Mark Hix welcomes the autumn with roast birds, classic bread sauce and parsnip chips
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's hard to imagine life without roast chicken. We'll stick one in the oven without thinking twice about it, but when it comes to game birds many cooks fight shy of doing something as easy and rewarding as simply roasting them. True, wild game is more expensive, but a well-bred, well-fed chicken commands a higher price too, and it's always worth paying for good quality raw materials in the first place.

It's hard to imagine life without roast chicken. We'll stick one in the oven without thinking twice about it, but when it comes to game birds many cooks fight shy of doing something as easy and rewarding as simply roasting them. True, wild game is more expensive, but a well-bred, well-fed chicken commands a higher price too, and it's always worth paying for good quality raw materials in the first place.

Saying that, I have grabbed the last dull, flabby, cheapo chicken from a supermarket at the end of the day and turned it into a proper tasty bird. Well almost. It's amazing what some salt and pepper, fresh herbs and a 45-minute spit roast on my Britannia can do. You see, most people forget to season and then cook the poor fowl to death. It hardly matters what the breed or pedigree is if it's given such a roasting that it reaches the point of collapse.

I do recommend spit-roasting poultry, if you have the facility on your oven or are thinking of buying a new model. It's quick, cooks evenly and you can sit the potatoes in a tray below to catch all those delicious juices.

Then again I don't expect anyone to buy a new cooker just for that, and I don't want to make roasting sound so complicated that it scares anyone off their usual way with a chicken. It's still a beautifully simple way to cook, but timing, seasoning and temperature must all be taken into account. Now autumn's here and game birds are coming into season, it's time to turn on the oven and get roasting.

Roasting game birds

Serves 4

The Glorious Twelfth - when the first grouse hit the decks - was last month, so we're well into the game-bird season now. Some game, such as grey- or red-legged partridge, needs hanging for a week or so to improve the flavour. Stronger-tasting game, such as grouse, doesn't need to be hung for long. The length of time for which birds are hung is a matter of individual taste, though I'm not a great lover of over-hung game as I think you lose some of the natural, delicate flavour.

If you're roasting, choose young game birds which are best simply cooked and served pink. Quick cooking at a high temperature will keep smaller birds moist and tender; there is nothing more disappointing (and costly) than a dry, overcooked game bird.

The grouse season is over before Christmas, so enjoy it while you can. To roast grouse, rub the breasts with a little butter and roast on a high heat, 220ºC/gas mark 7, for 15 minutes for pink. Partridge (in season now until February), and wood pigeon (available all year) should be cooked the same way. Mallard (available from now until late February) needs 30 minutes.

Pheasant, which comes into season at the beginning of October, should be cooked for 25 minutes at 200ºC/gas mark 6. Rub the breasts with butter and cover with streaky bacon or pork fat before roasting. If you want pink roast meat, the birds will be in the oven for such a short time that bacon won't crisp up and is only helpful when you're roasting pheasant - not any other birds. Unless, that is, you like your birds thoroughly cooked, in which case it helps to protect them with bacon to prevent them drying out too much.

Simplicity is the way to go with game, and aside from good, old bread sauce and game chips a beautiful roast bird doesn't need much else apart from gravy. A traditional herb stuffing, such as sage and onion or thyme, suits pheasant and partridge as well as chicken. I also quite like using cotechino sausage mixed with some fresh white breadcrumbs to give partridge or teal an Italian touch.

Bread sauce

Serves 4-6

1 onion, peeled
25g butter, plus a knob
3 cloves
3 bay leaves
500ml milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely chop half the onion and cook it gently in a good knob of butter until soft. Push each clove through a bayleaf and stud the onion with the anchored leaves. Put the milk, nutmeg and the studded onion in the saucepan with the cooked onion and bring to the boil. Season and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for about 30 minutes. Remove and discard the studded onion.

Add the breadcrumbs and simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour one-third of the sauce into a liquidiser and blend until smooth, then return to the pan and add the 25g butter. Stir the sauce well and check the seasoning.

Parsnip chips

Serves 4

2 parsnips
Vegetable or corn oil

Heat about 8cm of vegetable or corn oil to 180ºC in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan. Top and tail the parsnips, leaving the skin on unless they are very brown. Using a sharp mandolin or vegetable peeler, or even the side of an ordinary grater, slice them as thinly as possible lengthways, rinse well and then pat them dry with a clean tea towel.

Fry the slices in the hot fat a few at a time, stirring to ensure that they don't stick together. The parsnips will take a while to colour (do not over-colour them) and may appear soft while they are still in the fat. Once they have been drained they will dry out and crisp up. Sprinkle with salt and leave them to dry somewhere warm but not hot.

Wild duck salad with cobnuts and elderberries

Serves 4

Elderberries hit their peak as the mallard, or wild duck, appears on the game calendar. And what good timing because they are the perfect marriage, whether you drop them into a sauce, make a jam or jelly to go with the bird or toss them together in a seasonal salad like this one. Teal, widgeon or pintail ducks make a very good alternative. Or use a normal, good-quality duck. To give the salad a nice, autumnal feel I've chosen red-coloured leaves. Don't be tempted to use radicchio, though, as the leaves are quite bitter for wild duck.

2 wild ducks, cleaned
25-30 cobnuts, shelled
60-70g small, preferably red-tinged salad leaves such as oak leaf, red mustard leaf, red Batavia, red chard, etc, washed and dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the dressing

20-30g elderberries
11/2tbsp good-quality red wine vinegar such as cabernet sauvignon
4tbsp walnut oil

Pre-heat the oven to 220ºC /gas mark 7. Season the wild ducks, inside and out, brush with a little vegetable oil and roast in a roasting tray for 30 minutes, basting every so often. Remove from the tray and leave to cool for about 15 minutes on a plate to catch any juices.

Meanwhile put the cobnuts on some foil on a roasting tray, roll them in a little olive oil and season with a generous amount of salt. Roast them for 10-12 minutes until they are a light golden colour.

Cut the legs off the ducks, remove the meat with a sharp knife and shred the meat roughly into chunky sized pieces. Remove the breasts and cut them into six slices, and add the meat juices if it seems a little dry.

Make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together and seasoning to taste. Lightly dress the leaves with half of the dressing and arrange on plates. Arrange the pieces of duck on and in amongst the leaves and scatter over the cobnuts. Spoon the rest of the dressing over the salads.

Roast poussin with wild mushroom stuffing

Serves 4

Poussin, or spring chickens as they are sometimes known, are perfect for the bachelor. These little birds are less of an investment - a cheaper date, if you like - than the wild ones. They take no time to cook and you can gnaw on the bones in front of the telly. They benefit, too, from a good stuffing. I'm choosing wild mushrooms and herbs as we are in peak mushroom season now.

4 oven-ready poussins
1tbsp vegetable oil

for the stuffing

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
150g wild mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
80g butter
60g fresh white breadcrumbs
2tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 220º/Gas mark 7. Gently cook the onion and garlic in the butter until soft but not coloured, add the wild mushrooms and cook for a few more minutes until softened. Transfer to a bowl and add the breadcrumbs and parsley, season and mix well.

Spoon the stuffing into the cavity of the poussins and place in a roasting tray. Lightly oil and season the outside of the birds and roast for 40 minutes, basting occasionally.

Serve with buttered autumn greens, such as curly kale, or a seasonal salad, and, if you like, potatoes roasted in the tray with the birds.