By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
Okay, I know it’s still, like a million degrees outside, but fall is coming and I love it! Fall is my favorite time of the year. All kinds of wonderful things happen in the fall. I don’t really enjoy football that much (shhh, don’t tell anybody here in football country), but I do love the football food and fellowship with friends during the big game. They all seem to be “the big game” but that’s a topic for another day.
The kiddos are back in school so I get two seconds of peace and quiet. Cooler temperatures finally arrive (I hope, please, for the love of all that is good and holy). Fall fruits and veggies like apples, broccoli and butternut squash are in play. I get to play out my life long fantasy of life as a medieval all-powerful queen at Halloween. Truth is, if I’d lived back then, I probably would’ve been more likely to have been a serving wench than anything having to do with nobility. The colors of the leaves are gorgeous and, most importantly, hunting season begins.
Why is hunting season the most important thing happening in the fall, you ask? Crazy question. No one in our little rural, country, hunting community would ask such a question. But just in case, let me break it down for ya.
I was having lunch with my daughter and her friend the other day and they reminded me that dove season opened that very day. I appropriately responded with remorse that my husband, John, wasn’t out on a hunting trip. My daughter said, “Why are you sad he’s not hunting? Is it because you could get him out of the house for a bit?”
Silly girl…kids these days just don’t get it. I patiently explained that it really has nothing to do with getting John out of the house, even though that is awesome. The fact is, that my husband is a great shot. He and his friends always come home with lots of dove which equals lots of good food. Get the point?
Now, I’m certainly no expert, but even I’ve spent many happy hours out in the field dove hunting with my grandpa, uncles and cousins. I don’t know much, but here’s what I do know:
1. Obey the law. If required, get a hunting license. Follow the daily bagging limits. There are even rules on what kinds and configurations of weapons that are allowed for hunting dove or any other animal. These rules vary county to county. Go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us to find out the rules and fees for the county where you intend to hunt.
2. Dress appropriately. Dove detect movement very easily and are very quick to fly away. You need to blend into the environment. However, to avoid unintentional accidents, make sure other hunters are aware of where you are.
3. Figure out what gun gauge works for your hunting style. Most hunters use .20, .16 or .12 gauge weapons for hunting dove. John and I like to use a .20 gauge because the ammo is a bit less expensive. I’ve been asked how it is that there is any meat available on the bird after being shot. While it’s true that dove don’t yield a lot of meat in any case, bird shot breaks up into a wider pattern when fired. This gives the hunter a greater opportunity to actually hit and the bird is hit with smaller, BB-like pellets that allows a majority of the useable meat to be preserved. As with most things, practice makes perfect so the more you target practice, the more accurate shot you will become.
4. Pick your hunting location carefully. This involves doing a little homework. Dove generally like to descend from their nighttime perch first thing in the morning to a water source and then to a field to eat from the ground at a leisurely pace. They eat mostly from the ground because their legs are short so it’s easier for them. You would be well served to choose a hunting ground that includes a lake or pond close to a meadow or other flat ground.
5. Be careful about how you clean the dove. I like the “breasting” method. This involves only plucking the feathers around the breast area, cutting out the nugget of breast meat and discarding the rest of the carcass. I prefer this method because the breast meat of the dove is the most useable part of the bird for food and it’s a quicker method than plucking the whole bird so that the presentation is more like a little cornish game hen. Either way, plucking is fairly easy. The feathers tend to turn loose much easier than, say, a chicken, so there is no need to clean them in boiling hot water like a chicken.
The reason I tell you to be careful about how you clean them is that if you are cleaning in the field, it could lead to confusion with the Game Warden. There are different bagging limits for white winged dove than other varieties. If you are plucking the entire bird, the Warden will have no way to identify whether your kill is the white winged variety. In this case, they will most likely count those birds as though they were white winged dove. This will not work in your favor as the bagging limits are usually less.
6. Be careful about how you cook dove. Dove do not have much body fat. This makes them a healthy, low-fat food option. But it also means they can be quite dry tasting if cooked too long or not cooked correctly. Particularly, if you intend to grill the dove, as in our beloved Dove Diablo, which is dove meat with jalapeno, sometimes stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. It is practically the state dish, second only to brisket.
The whole reason to wrap the dove with bacon, besides the fact that bacon is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, is that it adds a layer of fat to the lean dove meat to keep it from drying out too much. This process is called barding. Another option is to marinade or brine the meat. Brine is a salt-water solution, sometimes with other favorings that the meat soaks in for several hours. While in the brine, the meat will release all of its juices and then soak it all back up again, along with some of the brining liquid. This helps the meat stay juicier. A marinade is a great way to add moisture and flavor. If you choose to marinade, you should allow the meat to soak in the marinade for at least an hour to be effective.
This week’s recipe is a favorite of my Louisiana kinfolk and it is slap-yo-mama good. If you are one of those rare folks in these parts who haven’t tried dove, I encourage you to give it a try. Broaden your horizons. As they say with many alternative proteins, it tastes kinda like chicken.
Smothered Doves and Mushrooms
salt, pepper and cayenne pepper, to taste
1/2 cup bacon drippings
2 medium onions
1 pound fresh mushrooms
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 stick butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk
2 ounces port wine
2 tablespoons chopped green onion tops
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Sprinkle inside and out of the doves with salt and pepper. Lightly sprinkle the insides of the doves with cayenne pepper. Heat bacon drippings in a large skillet and brown the doves on all sides. Place doves in a casserole dish that can be covered. Retain bacon drippings. Slice onions 1/2 inch thick, separate into rings and cook until translucent in the reserved bacon drippings. Remove the onions out of the drippings and place over the doves in the casserole dish. Spread the mushrooms and garlic over the casserole.
Add butter to the drippings and heat. Add flour and cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly until flour browns lightly. Lower the heat and slowly add milk, whisking constantly to incorporate evenly. Add port wine, mixing well. Pour the mixture into the dove casserole. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and green onion tops. Cover dish and bake for one hour. Serve over rice or any other grain.