15 December 2014

Roast Partridge with puy lentils

Roast partridge on puy lentils

Partridge is one of my favourite game birds. Many game aficionados get excited about the beginning of the grouse season, and I do too. But it is the unheralded arrival of partridges in early September that really gets me excited about game. Partridge has a pretty long season - from 1 September to 1 February in Great Britain. Like pheasant, partridge has relatively pale, pink-tinged flesh, with a more delicate, sweeter flavour than pheasant. It is a smallish bird, and conveniently a whole bird is just about the right size for a single portion. Like most game birds, it is fairly lean, and can easily become dry. The secret to roasting partridges so that they stay moist is to brown them off in a frying pan, and then pop them in a hot oven for just a few minutes. The same method also works well for grouse and wood pigeon.

Before I launch into the recipe, a word on the practice of hanging game. Most meat benefits from hanging, which allows the muscle tissue to break down making the meat more tender, and develops flavour. Game is no exception. However, there is a school of thought in the UK that game needs to be well hung. Some people seem to like their game only when it starts to smell like a ripe vacherin cheese. I am not one of them. I prefer my game relatively fresh, while the meat still tastes of the hedgerows and moorlands where the animal has lived, rather than when it is on the cusp of full-on decomposition. I recently bought some partridges that were distinctly high. The moral of the tale is to inspect the birds carefully, or to discuss your hanging preferences with your butcher or game dealer. A relatively fresh partridge should have fairly pale flesh. A well-hung bird will have a redder, almost translucent flesh. A bird that is truly beyond its best will start to turn purple or blue. Smell is also a good indicator of how fresh a bird is.

The recipe
This recipe will feed four. The earthiness of the puy lentils works well with the gaminess of the partridges. It requires an oven-proof frying pan (which essentially means a frying pan with a metal handle). It is worth checking that the pan will fit in your oven before you start - otherwise panic at the stove will ensue at a critical point in the cooking process. The dish works well with some steamed cabbage, and (if you and your dining partners are feeling peckish) some sauteed potatoes.


4 partridges - plucked and drawn
160g puy lentils
1 medium onion
1 large/2 small carrots
1 stick celery
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
approx 750ml chicken or vegetable stock (or you could use a vegetable bullion cube)
a good slug each of red wine and marsala wine to make the sauce
some goose fat
olive oil
unsalted butter
small bunch parsley


Take the partridges out the fridge in good time to ensure that they are at room temperature by the time you cook them. Preheat the oven to 250C/480F.

Dice the onion, celery and carrots and sweat them down over a lowish heat in a saucepan in a little olive oil. Finely slice the garlic, and add to the pan along with a bay leaf once the onions start to soften.

Add the puy lentils to the pan, and stir into the vegetables. Allow to cook for a couple of minutes. Add the stock, ensuring that the lentils are covered by a couple of centimeters of stock. Keep a little stock aside for the sauce. If you are the sort of cook who likes to season things with salt as they cook, don't. Salt keeps pulses hard as they cook, and stops them from softening properly. If you feel the lentils need a bit of salt, add this at the end. Bring the pan to the boil, uncovered, and skim off any surface scum. Turn the heat down to medium, and cook until the lentils are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed. If the lentils start to look dry, add a little hot stock or boiling water (adding cold water can also make the lentils hard). Once the lentils are cooked, stir in a nob of butter and the chopped parsley. Season as required.

Meanwhile melt some goose fat over a medium heat in an oven-proof frying pan. If you don't have any goose fat, use an oil that can be heated to a relatively high temperature, such as sunflower oil. Once the pan is hot, brown the partridges. Start by cooking the partridges for 3.5 minutes first on one leg and then for another 3.5 minutes on the other leg. Turn the birds onto their breasts and cook for 4 minutes. Finally balance the partridges on their neck ends and cook for a further minute. The birds should look nicely browned. Pop a small nob of butter into the cavity of each bird (which helps keep them moist), turn them onto their backs and pop the pan into the oven for five minutes. An electronic kitchen timer helps keep discipline with the timings.

When the five minutes is up, remove the birds from the oven, and place them upside down on a warm plate, loosely covered with foil. The meat should be cooked through, but still moist.

While the birds are resting, make the sauce. While you do this, remember that the metal handle of the frying pan is HOT, and should be handled wearing an oven glove. Pour any excess fat out of the pan, then add a good slug each of red wine and marsala wine and a small amount of the reserved stock, and deglaze the pan. Allow the sauce to reduce over a high flame until it starts to thicken. Take off the heat and stir in a little butter to thicken further.

Place a good dollop of lentils in the middle of each plate, and flatten to create a sort-of nest. Place the bird on top and pour over a little of the sauce.

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