If you are an avid grouse hunter like I am, who takes great pleasure in serving your upland birds in gourmet fashion, then this recipe is for you! And I assure you, this delectable feast pleases the eye as much as it does the appetite.
I have geared the recipe this time around to serve four, but you can adapt it to serve as many dinner guests as you have on your list. I like to count on one whole bird per adult diner and one half to one quarter of a bird for kids or those who typically have smaller appetites. You can, of course, divide them up any way you wish, but, in my opinion, a whole bird on the plate pays the highest compliment to the grouse and makes serving them so much easier than carving at the table.
Many grouse hunters practice the “breasting” method of field dressing their birds, which means they simply step on the wings near the body, grasp the feet and pull upwards, leaving the back, legs and innards on the ground, and the wings, as required by law, attached to the breast. I must admit, breasting is faster and a little less messy than dressing out the whole bird, but I prefer the latter method for several reasons, one of them being that a whole bird looks so much more impressive in recipes such as this one. And another reason is because I find the legs and carcass (as well as the giblets, which I retrieve upon field dressing) make rich stock, which is a tasty base for soup and gravy.
Grouse are always best when eaten fresh, but if you wish to stash some of your autumn bounty away in the freezer to save for special occasions, such as I do every season, whether I’m labeling a few platter-perfect birds for Thanksgiving, Christmas or some other festive holiday meal, I have found that vacuum sealing them instead of simply wrapping them in freezer paper ensures the grouse will not suffer any frostbite, which can damage their tender, delicate meat.
When I go hunting for grouse with a formal meal in mind, I always tuck a couple Zip-Loc bags into my backpack because nothing compliments a roasted grouse dinner better than a side dish of tangy wild cranberry sauce. Since many of my favourite upland trails run through bogs that are loaded with wild cranberry bushes, it’s easy to harvest enough cranberries for sauce-making and, the good news is, they freeze very well, maintaining all of their mouthwatering tart flavour.
However, if you don’t have wild cranberries to your avail, you can make your sauce out of fresh, store-bought cranberries or use canned ready-made sauce, but be sure to put gathering some wild ones on your bucket list because even just a few tossed into your regular sauce adds an exciting burst of woodland flavour.
Stuffing each grouse cavity with a wedge of apple helps to keep the bird moist and instills a delightful apple flavour into the meat, whereas stuffing the dressing directly into the cavity draws moisture out of the meat, causing it to be dry, which is why I like to use the dressing as a bed to bake the birds on instead of stuffing it inside.
All you need to round off this bird hunter’s feast is a bowl of colourful roasted root vegetables and, of course, one of our province’s fine white wines, my choice being chardonnay, for toasting your good fortune.
4 whole grouse
1 unpeeled, quartered, tart apple (a granny smith is perfect)
4 strips bacon
Salt and pepper
5 tablespoons butter
1 minced onion
1/4 cup minced celery
1 peeled diced apple
4 cups coarse breadcrumbs (I prefer to make my crumbs from homemade sourdough bread, as it gives the dressing lots of body, but you can use store-bought crumbs or even stuffing mix if you wish and omit the herbs)
1/4 teaspoon each of sage, savory and thyme (or poultry seasoning to suit taste)
1 teaspoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper
1 3/4 cups boiling grouse or chicken stock (or water)
Choose a heavy baking dish, such as a clay baker, that will accommodate your grouse snuggly and grease it with one tablespoon butter. Heat remaining butter in a skillet and sauté onion, celery and apple until soft. Add the breadcrumbs, herbs, salt and pepper and stock. Remove from heat, cover and allow to stand until crumbs have absorbed the liquid. If stuffing is too moist for your liking, add more crumbs. If it’s too dry, add more liquid. Put the dressing into the bottom of the greased baking dish.
Wash the grouse inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Stuff the cavity of each grouse with a quarter of an apple. Using meat string, tie the legs together to hold the apple in place. Season the outside of the grouse with salt and pepper and wrap a slice of bacon around each bird, seam side down on the back of the bird.
Place the grouse, breast side up, on top of the dressing and put the lid on the baking dish. Bake in a preheated oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and continue baking for one hour, at which time the apple will be tender and the meat cooked through. Remove the lid and place the dish directly under the broiler until the bacon is crisp to your liking.
Cut and remove the strings and transfer the grouse to a serving platter. I garnished my platter with homemade canned crab apples with their stems still attached, but fresh BC cherries make a wonderful garnish, too! For festive flare, you can attach paper “turkey shoes” or frills to cover the stub end of the legs.