Are you game? Mark Hix cooks with partridge

Make the most of the British game season with our chef's deliciously varied recipes
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Since the Glorious 12th, British game birds have been in season which is certainly a joy for a chef – but should be exciting for the more casual cook, too.

Our traditional wild breed of partridge is the grey or English, but a lot of shoots do rear the French, red-legged birds. Some connoisseurs of game frown upon the red-legged partridge from a cooking point of view, but really, it depends on what you are doing with them in the kitchen.

Avoid buying birds tied with streaky bacon on the breasts, as you want to taste the delicate flavour of the partridge and not salty bacon. Over a period of time the bacon will also begin to cure the breasts and dry them out, despite what people will tell you about bacon keeping them moist during cooking.

Partridge with polenta and elderberries

Serves 4

This is a great way to get a couple of servings from one bird, as a starter, or as a dish in a multi-course dinner.

You can use just the breast and save the legs for a salad or a soup. Or, alternatively, use the legs and breasts so your guests can pick up the legs and really get stuck in to the meal.

2 oven-ready partridges
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A couple of knobs of butter, softened
A few heads of elderberries with the berries removed
½tbsp good-quality red wine vinegar
2tbsp rapeseed oil
A handful of small salad leaves (optional)

For the polenta

750ml milk
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
A pinch of nutmeg
80g quick-cooking polenta
25ml double cream
75g freshly grated Parmesan
Flour for dusting

First make and set the polenta. Bring the milk to the boil in a thick-bottomed pan, then add the garlic, bay leaf, salt and pepper and nutmeg. Simmer for 5 minutes, then whisk in the polenta. Cook on a very low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan and giving it an occasional whisk. Add the cream and Parmesan and cook for a further 5 minutes. Season to taste and remove from the heat.

Line a small rectangular container about 10cm x 4-5cm deep with clingfilm and spoon in the polenta, then cover with more clingfilm and leave to cool. Refrigerate for a few hours until set, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8. Season the partridges with salt and pepper and rub with butter. Roast for 15 minutes, rubbing with more butter as they are cooking, then remove from the oven and leave on a plate to rest for 6-7 minutes.

Turn out the polenta and cut into slices 1cm thick and about 3cm wide; lightly flour them. Heat a tablespoon of rapeseed oil in a non-stick pan and fry the slices of polenta on a fairly high heat for 3-4 minutes on each side, until crisp, then keep warm. Mix the elderberries with the vinegar and a little more rapeseed oil and season. Remove the breasts and legs from the partridge, cut the breast into about 6 slices. Transfer the polenta on to serving plates, arrange the breasts and legs on top, then spoon the elderberry dressing over and around and, if you like, scatter the leaves.

Partridge broth with ceps


Partridge broth with ceps

Serves 4

When I roast game birds I always keep the carcasses for a broth or a game gravy. You can save them up in the freezer until you have a good quantity to make a batch – or 4 carcasses will yield enough good broth for 4-8 servings. I've used ceps here as they have been stunning so far this year, but you could use any wild mushroom, really.

The carcasses from a few partridges, plus a whole one
2 sticks of celery, washed and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
A few sprigs of thyme
10 black peppercorns
2 litres of chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100-150g ceps or other wild mushrooms
A few leaves of green cabbage, cut into 1-2cm pieces or a handful of pea shoots

Put the partridge carcasses and whole bird in a large saucepan with the roughly chopped celery, onion, thyme, peppercorns and chicken stock, season lightly, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Remove the whole partridge and put to one side on a plate and continue simmering the broth for another 45 minutes.

Strain the broth through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean saucepan, check the strength and continue simmering if it needs to be stronger. Add the ceps and greens and simmer for a couple of minutes or so, until tender.

To serve, cut each of the partridge breasts into about 6 slices, remove any leg meat and divide up into warmed soup bowls. Finally, pour the hot soup into the bowls and serve immediately.

Partridge stuffed with apple and black pudding


Partridge stuffed with apple and black pudding

Serves 4

The combination of earthy black pudding and the sweetness of the apples complements the delicate gaminess of the partridge. You can serve this with a simply buttered cabbage or greens and maybe a cider gravy, although the partridge with the stuffing is quite moist as it is.

4 oven-ready partridge
120-150g black pudding
1 dessert apple, peeled, cored and grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8. Crumble up the black pudding, if it's a firm one, and mix it with the grated apple. Remove any livers from the bird, chop them and mix with the stuffing. Fill the cavity of the partridge (not too tightly) with the stuffing and season with salt and pepper and rub with butter. Roast the partridge for 15 minutes, rubbing with more butter.

To serve, halve the partridge or leave it whole; it's up to you.

Bit of spice: Partridge tagine with olives


Partridge tagine with olives

Serves 4-6

There are some game birds I wouldn't use for this, like grouse, snipe or woodcock, but partridge and pheasant lend themselves well to a bit of spice and slow cooking. It's also a good way to use up frozen birds.

4 partridges, each cut into 4 pieces
1tbsp flour
4tbsp olive oil
3 medium red onions, peeled and sliced
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
30g root ginger, peeled and finely grated
1tsp paprika
1tsp ground mace
2tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground cardamom
A good pinch of saffron strands
2tsp tomato purée
1½ litres chicken stock
30 green olives whole or stoned
100-150g raw couscous
2 preserved lemons, quartered

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Season and lightly flour the partridge pieces. Heat half the olive oil in a heavy frying pan and fry them for a couple of minutes on each side, until they are nicely brown. Put to one side.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan with a lid, gently cook the onions in the rest of the olive oil with all the spices for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often until they are soft and beginning to colour. You may need to add a little water if they are sticking to the bottom.

Add the tomato purée and chicken stock, bring to the boil and season. Simmer for 20 minutes, then add the partridge, olives and preserved lemons. Transfer into a tagine or a covered cooking dish and finish in the oven for 1 hour. You may need to add more stock but a tagine shouldn't have too much liquid.

Taste the sauce and, if necessary, transfer just the sauce to a pan and simmer to thicken it. Return the partridge pieces and lemons to the sauce, reheat for a few minutes and serve with steamed couscous. Have a pot of harissa at hand to add some extra spice and heat.