For a good portion of the country, dove season is upon us. Some of my earliest memories involve traipsing through milkweed with my grandfather, on the hunt for these birds. The outings with my grandfather instilled in me the sense that dove season serves as the death knell of summer and the inception of the crisp days of autumn. My grandfather also preached that we ate what we killed. Sage advice, but it begs the question: How does one prepare dove?
Dove recipes are scarce, primarily because dove meat is largely unavailable in North American markets. If you want to eat dove, you are going to have to harvest your own from the field. The first thing you will notice after you have downed a dove is that they are small relative to other gamefowl. A mature dove has such little meat on its wings and thighs such that it is wholly impractical to attempt to retrieve any portions from those parts of the bird. The breast portion of doves, however, is perfect for food preparation. Even still, dove breasts are small enough that four dove breasts are needed to serve as the protein portion for an average-sized meal. The good news is that doves are easier to clean than any other game I have ever encountered. With a little practice, one can learn to separate the breast meat from the dove in under two minutes. (If you want to see a detailed tutorial on the actual process of cleaning and dressing a dove, visit here.)
I have encountered people skeptical of eating dove because of fears of “gaminess.” While I will readily concede that dove breasts will not have the same taste or consistency as the chicken breasts available at your local supermarket, however I would suggest that such a fact is a positive attribute of dove. Doves are not commercially-produced animals. Their diet consists of grains and fruits they forage in the wild. The texture of dove breasts is a result of frequent flight, as contrasted with the sedentary lifestyle of a domestic chicken. Further, dove breasts are not pumped with saline or other products to give it a moister, plumper appearance; it is truly an all-natural product. These factors give dove breasts a unique, earthy taste that is far from “gamey.” Doves have a much more neutral taste than other gamefowl, notably duck.
The main problem one comes across in dove preparation is how to keep the meat from becoming desiccated. As noted above, doves are active animals. They fly to forage for food, escape predators, etc. Constant movement makes for leaner muscle mass. Leaner meats are more susceptible to drying out than fattier meats. I have found that dove meat can remain moist by either protecting the meat with a bacon wrap or by brining the meat.
Please remember to practice safe food handling and cleaning procedures when dealing with wild game and wild berries. A little extra time taken in properly washing your ingredients and cleaning up after you have prepared your meal will allow you to avoid any problems. And as always with wild berries, know what you are eating.
A classical (and stunningly simple) dove breast preparation is to wrap the dove breast in bacon and slowly grill over medium heat. The bacon protects the dove meat from direct heat that could dry it out. The bacon further imparts flavor and moistness as the fats render and find its way into the breast meat.
Before wrapping the dove breasts in bacon, season moderately with salt and pepper. To add additional flavor profiles, place additional ingredients on the dove breast before applying the bacon wrap. Examples of tried-and-true additions are cheddar with a jalapeno sliver, raw or spiced pecans or water chestnuts, or chunks of tropical fruits like mango or pineapple. As clichéd as it may sound, your imagination is the biggest limitation of what you can add.
When wrapping the dove breast, a half slice of bacon is generally sufficient to provide adequate coverage, but feel free to use an entire slice if you see fit. Secure the bacon strip by either using a toothpick or fold the bacon over on itself.
Place the wrapped dove breasts on a grill with medium heat. I normally advocate turning meat only once during cooking, but I would suggest turning the dove breasts multiple times to prevent burning. Grill until cooked, approximately 20 minutes.
Brined Dove with Wild Berry “Gastrique”
One bottle of red wine
Wild Berries of choice
Dove Breasts, cleaned
Brining is a process in which a meat is soaked in a salt solution prior to cooking. Brining actually increases the amount of moisture within the meat itself. In addition to boosting moisture content, this brine will also infuse the dove breasts with additional flavors.
This brine can be prepared at the lodge prior to embarking to the field and then transported in an ice chest. To prepare the brine, combine one bottle of red wine, 2 ounces of kosher salt, 2 ounces of sugar, 5 garlic cloves and 1 tsp of cayenne pepper. Dissolve the salt, sugar and cayenne and bring mixture to a boil. Let the mixture cool. Place the brine into a plastic baggie or sealable non-reactive container. Later add dove breasts and place the container in a refrigerator or ice chest 4 hours up to overnight.
A gastrique is a rich sauce created by reducing an acidic liquid and sugars. Traditionally wine or wine vinegar is coupled with refined sugar and fruits. This version of a gastrique is intended to be prepared by a campfire, so it is less refined and much more rustic than what one typically finds in a restaurant.
Begin making the sauce by gathering a heaping handful of very ripe wild berries. I believe blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, dewberries or elderberries would all suffice. With the back of a fork, mash the berries to pulp in a frying pan. Add ½ cup of sugar to the pan and cook at medium heat until the sugar begins to caramelize (i.e. brown). Add 2 cups of red wine and increase the heat. Reduce the mixture until it reaches a syrup-like consistency. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool. You may strain the sauce now, but I prefer leaving the berry pulp in for a more rustic, elemental presentation.
After removing the dove breasts from the brine, lightly coat them with canola oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill on a medium-high grill, and frequently baste with the gastrique. Cook until done, turning the breasts once, approximately 8-10 minutes. Drizzle with the remaining gastrique after plating.
Although there is an unfortunate dearth of readily-available dove recipes, it is not difficult to fashion a satisfying meal using traditional techniques coupled with a touch of imagination. Happy hunting and good eating!
Campfire Gourmet will be a recurring feature on Camp Smoke. The contributions this week are from a good friend of ours, Wes Hammit. When he isn’t practicing law, he can usually be found in the kitchen or beside his grill or smoker. He has been preparing wild game dishes for years and is especially learned in cajun and creole cuisine. To be invited to eat with Wes is truly a treat.