Roasted Woodpigeon Breast with Pickled Morel Mushrooms and Watercress Emulsion
Portion/Yield:Serves 2 as main course or serves 4 as a starter
Everyone has probably used the old cliché of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ more than once in his or her lifetime. I used to cast this judgment on pigeons. I could not think of them as food! My thoughts went from them being someone’s pet to being the flying rats in the cities, pooping on statues and all (urgh!). We get angry with these birds, especially as they raid the freshly sown fields throughout the countryside. Farmers try their utmost to keep them at bay and I have seen some incredibly funky and clever tricks that farmers use to scare them off, from dangling glimmering old CDs to scarecrows and even a fake shotgun sound randomly clapping away at all hours of the day. The truth is nothing really works. There are too many of them and if you can’t beat them, eat them!
Woodpigeons are delicious and have been a delicacy served in many restaurants for generations. The saddest thing was that when I used to work as a young chef in a top London restaurant, back then we used to import these plump birds from France, even though we had a plentiful supply in Britain. The memory for me is still very clear in my mind. We received them as whole birds, with their heads and feet on and insides intact, and my first job of the morning at 6:30am was to gut these birds (and you could still see the food they had recently eaten). You might think this is a bad memory but, in fact, it’s a beautiful memory for me to savour, even though I wasn’t too keen on it at the time, especially so early in the morning!
Woodpigeons can be awful if they are overcooked, so the trick is to cook them lightly and serve them pink or medium-rare. Resting is just as important as the cooking; the normal rule of thumb is to rest the meat for the same length of time as the cooking time. This allows the meat to relax and stay juicy and tender. I also recommend that you buy woodpigeons from a reputable supplier or someone you know – you do not want to purchase a bird riddled with lead pellets.
Ingredients & Method
For the roasted woodpigeons
- 4 raw elongated Cheltenham beetroots (or raw standard round beetroots), about 450–500g total weight
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a dash of olive oil
- 120g spelt
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mixed soft herbs (such as parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon)
- 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
- 2 plump woodpigeons (250–300g each), plucked and gutted
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
For the pickled morels
- 100ml rapeseed oil 200g fresh morels, cleaned and sliced
- a sprig of fresh thyme, leaves only
- 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
- a pinch of caster sugar
For the watercress emulsion
- 50g watercress leaves
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- a pinch of caster sugar
- 50ml rapeseed oil
- fresh rosemary flowers and watercress sprigs, to garnish
Start by cooking the beetroot for the roasted woodpigeons. Preheat the oven to 160°C/Gas Mark 3. Wash the beetroots, scrub the skin and remove the leaves, but leave a small piece of the leaf stalk attached to each beetroot. Season the beetroots generously with salt and pepper and lay them on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for about 11/2 hours or until cooked and tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Once cool, cut the beetroots into halves or quarters, brush all over with 1 tablespoon olive oil and set aside until needed.
Next, prepare the pickled morels. Heat 1 tablespoon rapeseed oil in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and sauté the morels, with salt and pepper added, for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, then add the thyme leaves, sherry vinegar, sugar and the remaining oil. Let the oil heat through from the residual heat of the pan and set aside at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the watercress emulsion. Put the watercress leaves, mustard and sugar into a small blender and blend together until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the rapeseed oil to form an emulsion. Pour into a small bowl, cover and chill until needed (see Cook’s Note).
To cook the spelt for the roasted woodpigeons, place the spelt in a saucepan and cover with four times as much cold water. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then remove the lid, reduce the heat and simmer for 18 minutes. Add the 1/2 teaspoon of salt and cook for a further 2 minutes or until the spelt is cooked and tender. Drain well, then place the spelt in a bowl, add the herbs, sherry vinegar, a dash of olive oil and salt and pepper and mix well. Keep warm.
Meanwhile, for the woodpigeons, preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil and the butter in a non-stick frying pan until the butter is foaming. Season the prepared woodpigeons with salt and pepper and add them to the pan, then cook over a high heat for 1 minute on each breast until golden brown. Transfer the woodpigeons to a roasting tin and roast in the oven for 4 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let the woodpigeons rest for 6 minutes, then remove the breasts from the birds using a sharp knife. The woodpigeon breasts are now ready to serve. (Discard the bird carcasses or use them with chicken bones to make stock.)
Divide the beetroot pieces between 2 serving plates (placing them towards the edges), then spoon the spelt salad into the centre of the plates. Drain the morels (discarding the pickling liquor) and place them on the plates, drizzle with a little of the watercress emulsion and then place 2 roast woodpigeon breasts on top of each portion of salad. Garnish the plates with rosemary flowers and watercress sprigs and serve immediately.
Keep any leftover watercress emulsion in an airtight container in the fridge and use within 3 days. Serve as a salad dressing or drizzled over grilled sardines or herrings.