Wood pigeon is gorgeously lean, cheap and tasty. Pan fried, cooked medium, with a sprinkling of sweetness and tartness, it makes a perfect starter.
Wood pigeon is underrated
I don’t think pigeon is often named as someone’s all-time favourite dish or even meat. We tend to forget of its existence as a source of food.
When you look out of the window into the garden, if you’ve got one, on seeing those puffed-up, bolshy bullies on the lawn you don’t immediately think ‘FOOD!’ And yet we should, for more reasons than one.
Cheap, sustainable and tasty
Wood pigeon is available all year round. Since it is considered pest from the farmers’ and gardeners’ point of view, it is hunted in order to protect the crops. Unlike partridges or pheasants, it isn’t farmed for shooting but breeds free range – and prolifically! Apart from an odd relic of homing or racing pigeon keeping, they are free as a bird.
Hence, they represent the most sustainable source of meat in the UK. And one of the cheapest: depending on the season and the locality, a brace of pigeons will set you back a few quid at most.
Admittedly, there isn’t that much to eat on the bird (very little when divested of feathers and puffed-uppiness), but the meat is lean but tender, gamey but not overpowering. It is very much prized by chefs, and I really don’t see why it shouldn’t be cooked at home more often.
What does wood pigeon taste like?
This is a rare occasion when the answer to that particular question isn’t ‘like chicken’!
Pigeon meat tastes like a cross between beef and liver and the texture is firm but tender, not at all chewy. It goes extremely well with all things autumnal and strong flavours: cinnamon, Asian spices and even curry.
How to cook pigeon?
By all means, it can be roasted whole, like other birds. The problem, also like other game birds, is that legs take longer to cook than breast, which shouldn’t go beyond medium-rare pink or it gets tough. The solution then would be to briefly roast it whole, detach legs and return them to the oven while the crown rests.
Alternatively, you could brown the bird in the pan before transferring it into the oven, placing the emphasis on the leg sides. And even with everyone’s tastes varying, there’s still no question the breasts are nicer meat and more of it.
You can buy breast fillets, which makes this recipe very straightforward. But I do like to buy whole birds as they are cheap and make wonderful stock from the carcasses and legs, and I like waste even less than high prices.
The stock is better than beef or chicken and can be used in place of either. And the meat cooked on the carcass can be easily picked and stored for an occasion of a pastilla, stuffed peppers or rissoles.
How to pan fry pigeon breast?
It isn’t any more difficult than frying a steak; in fact, the pigeon breast is probably more forgiving timewise.
As I already said, it’s good to season it with sharp spices – I love Chinese five spice best in this context. They only need two minutes on each side in the hot pan, but absolutely must rest for another four, loosely covered with foil, on a warm plate.
A simple pan sauce is as easy to make: deglaze the pan with wine, add orange zest and a little sugar and cook down to lightly caramelise. And a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds might not do much for the taste of the dish, but it will add to the feast for the eyes. And that’s just as important.
It’s a perfect starter for a special dinner or a dinner party and by all means a main, too, if enough roast potatoes are served with those tasty morsels of meat.
More game recipes
Another crowd-pleasing game bird is partridge, and you can buy filleted partridge breasts quite cheaply. Try them with grilled red peppers.
If you’d like to roast a whole game bird, wild mallard might be a good place to start, especially if you like farmed duck.
There’s also guinea fowl, which I like to debone and stuff for roasting, but it’s just as nice whole roasted like chicken.
More meaty starter recipes
This is perfect for people who like charcuterie and cured, air-dried meats: home cured duck breast.
Steak tartare goes further towards raw diet but it’s my favourite.
An exquisite starter made with leftover roast meat: duck pastilla. Check out the lamb pastillas too.