Last night, I cooked a very special dinner: roast pheasant with bread sauce, burnt butter and a hazelnut and witlof salad. It’s an old Damien Pignolet combination and it was absolutely delicious; the rich, gamey flavour of pheasant and brownedbutter together are divine. We don’t think of pheasant as an everyday event – it seems posh, exotic, and there’s a mystique about how to cook this game bird. But it always has a wow factor with guests, which I like.
Despite the wonderfully gamey flavour, pheasant is quite a lean bird and so it requires careful and delicate cooking. Once, I simply roasted a whole pheasant with a prune stuffing and sage butter tucked under the skin; it was delicious and surprisingly tender. The breast can tend to dry out a little, so a good knob of butter under the skin and regular basting help. Some cooks lay slices of bacon over the breast. Pot-roasting is also a good way to cook pheasant because it retains moisture. The legs are absolutely sublime braised – I have cooked them with butter, shallots, Calvados and tart green apples and finished with crème fraîche.
Pheasant farming is a relatively small industry here in Australia. Glenloth, in north-west Victoria, is one of the biggest suppliers. Ian Milburn has been breeding game birds for years and is a natural. He breeds Chinese ringnecks, which require intensive observation and management. Once they’re four weeks old, the pheasants can roam outside, protected in pens, until they reach 18-22 weeks. Farmed pheasants do not need to be hung in order to age and tenderise the meat, whereas their European cousins are truly wild and would be quite tough at any age unless they were hung. April to August is pheasant season and you can purchase them from specialist poultry suppliers and butchers.
About this time of the year I look forward to cooking traditional Blaukraut, German-style red cabbage. When I make it, I go all the way and have a German night and serve it with Schweinebraten (roast pork) and dumplings – very traditional and really delicious.
Cook finely sliced cabbage gently in a casserole with speck – or some kind of fatty smoked pork – and onions, green apples, a few cloves and a bay leaf. When the cabbage is just soft (about 1 hour), add a touch of red wine vinegar and a little sugar and keep cooking until meltingly tender. It can be made the day before because it keeps very well. It also goes happily with roast duck or quail. Red cabbage makes a really lovely coleslaw to have with, say, a poached brisket, mustard and rye sandwich. I make a dressing with caraway seeds, lemon zest, olive oil, garlic and vinegar, which is very nice and a bit un-usual. When making coleslaw, it’s best to cut the cabbage as finely as possible, sprinkle with salt and stand for 10 minutes before dressing to allow the cabbage to soften. A member of the Brassica genus, red cabbage is in season now and suits the cold weather. Look for a cabbage that is unblemished, heavy for its size and has a sheen to the leaves.
Part of the chicory family, and also known as Belgian endive or Belgian chicory, witlof is coming into season now. The Belgians developed a special technique of growing witlof to keep its pristine whiteness. It is dug up as a young plant and the roots and top are trimmed. It is then buried in sand and kept in complete darkness until the witlof spear appears. It needs to be stored in purple paper or black plastic to keep it unblemished and white.
This very pretty salad vegetable is a favourite of mine – a long and bulging white spear with pale golden tips, crisp and slightly bitter. It goes well with roasted walnuts or hazelnuts, young goat’s cheese, and watercress or radicchio. But witlof is also beautiful cooked – cut it in half and lay it in a shallow casserole dotted with plenty of butter, salt and pepper. Pour in just enough chicken stock or water to come halfway up the sides, cover with a lid and cook for 20 minutes, remove lid, turn over and cook until golden brown and lightly caramelised.
Known in Victoria as “Di the rhubarb lady”, Di McDonald takes her rhubarb very seriously. Grown organically in Nagambie in central Victoria, it is the finest rhubarb I have had. Di says her success in growing such fine rhubarb is in both the soil preparation – months of working in compost and manures – and the variety she has developed, which grows throughout the whole year. She sells it at various Melbourne farmers’ markets on Saturdays (including the Slow Food market at the Abbotsford Convent) and advises people how to cook it. “Cut it up into even pieces with a sharp knife. Lay in a heavy-based pot and sprinkle with raw sugar (one-quarter of the weight of rhubarb in sugar). Allow to sit for 5-10 minutes to draw out the moisture, then cook gently and stir until just soft.” Pretty simple. She says her rhubarb doesn’t need any water, but depending on your rhubarb you may need a little water to cook your compote; alternatively, orange juice or sweet wine can be lovely. It is beautiful for breakfast on muesli or porridge (as pictured above), but I especially like it just with custard.
I like to flavour rhubarb with a little vanilla bean and that’s it. Some cook it with apple, honey, even Sauternes, but I’m with Di – if you find really amazing rhubarb, it will have all the flavour you need.
Different varieties come in different colours and flavours; there are those with green-tinged stalks and those that are redder. The red tends to be sweeter, but not always – flavour is also determined by how they are grown. Variety names are rarely marketed. Most rhubarb matures in late winter to spring, but there are some varieties that will grow throughout the year. Rhubarb is best stored in damp newspaper in the fridge.
Prepare a winter menu with some of the year’s most exciting produce: posh pheasant, pretty red cabbage, elegant witlof and rosy rhubarb, suggests Brigitte Hafner.