Text and Photos by Spencer Neuharth
There are plenty of reasons to pick wild game over traditional options. For starters, wild game has fewer calories, fewer chemicals and leaves less of a carbon footprint. Ultimately, relying more heavily on wild game for food means you get to hunt and fish more to ensure the freezer stays full.
However, it also means you have to prepare your food differently, completely changing the simplest of tasks, like grilling a hamburger or making a cold-meat sandwich.
Throughout 2017, my wife and I are working on a unique new year’s resolution: we no longer want to get our meat from a grocery store. And no, we’re not going vegetarian.
This is our journey to a wild game year and the recipes we’ll use along the way.
Pheasant and Wild Rice Soup
The vaunted history of pheasants in South Dakota reaches back to the early 1900s when they were introduced to the state. They’d been around America much longer, though, with our very first president shipping the birds from England to his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia in the early 1780s. However, pheasants had a long absence in North America for the better part of a century, not making another appearance until 1880 when the U.S. Consul General at Shanghai sent some back home to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
South Dakota had its first attempted stocking in 1908 by a pair of Doland farmers, which was met with failure when winter wiped the birds out.
A year later, a trio of farmers near Redfield made a follow-up attempt, which proved to be successful. Inspired by the feat, the Redfield Chamber of Commerce released more birds not long after.
Numerous other stockings took place in the following years, including the 5,000-bird release of 1913 where family groups were strategically placed in wooded areas throughout the state. To put it simply, a Daily-Capital Journal headline that day read, “The Pheasants are Coming.”
By 1919 South Dakota had its first open season, where it’s estimated that just 200 birds were harvested, even though the state’s pheasant population was 100,000 strong. Today, over 1 million pheasants are typically harvested each year, which is just a fraction of the estimated 8.1 million that call the Mount Rushmore State home.
It’s easy to see how South Dakota and the ring-necked pheasant have become synonymous with each other. Along the same lines, our neighboring state to the northeast has a similarly rich history with wild rice, although Minnesota and the grain have a deeper connection than any state or bird.
Wild rice is one of the few grains, fruits or vegetables that’s native to the United States. Every other bit of agriculture we think of as having local ties actually comes from somewhere else.
For example, corn and beans come from Central America, cattle and wheat from the Middle East, and apples and chickens from Asia. If the United States could only produce what’s native within its borders, we’d lead the world in sunflower and pecan output — along with wild rice.
Wild rice, which isn’t directly related to the Asian rice that you buy in grocery stores, grows naturally in the shallow lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota. Its range is much smaller than it was a century ago, as a combination of climate change, motorized boats and common carp have pushed the plant out of its more southern territory.
It’s a crop that’s been cultivated by native tribes dating back to prehistoric times and has changed little since then, keeping its chewy outside, tender inside and nutty flavor. A difference today, though, is where it’s produced.
California and Minnesota split the wild-rice production, with each state growing about 5 million pounds a year. The beauty of Minnesota wild rice is that it’s growing in the same shallow lakes that it has been for thousands of years. Some Native American tribes, such as White Earth, claim to grow and harvest the only “naturally organic wild rice in the world,” a unique crop that’s handpicked from non-motorized canoes.
Pairing a modern delicacy, like that of South Dakota’s ring-necked pheasant, with a generational one, like that of Minnesota’s wild rice, makes for the perfect border-to-border soup that has a bit of history in each spoonful.
There are some challenges with this dish, though, like getting the pheasant breast tender enough to shred. Another issue is acquiring authentic wild rice, which can be bought numerous places on the Internet. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to go through the hassle of online shopping for wild rice, but I believe this is a meal you should prepare this way at least once.
If you want to cheat a little bit, go for a prepackaged long grain and wild rice mix, like that of the popular Uncle Ben’s brand. Although I can’t vouch for where their grain comes from, I’m guessing it’s not the handpicked, northern Minnesota variety. Still, it’ll produce a creamy soup that’ll hit the spot after a day afield.
• 4 pheasant breasts
• 3 cups half-and-half
• 1/2 cup of diced red onion
• 1 cup of diced carrots
• 1 tbsp flour
• 1 package of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice with seasoning package (or, as mentioned, a similar amount of “authentic” wild rice)
• 4 cups of chicken broth
• 3 cups water
• 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
For shredded pheasant …
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Take pheasant breasts and lightly cover them in flour.
3. In a Dutch oven, sear the pheasant breasts for about one minute on each side in some butter.
4. Add 2 cups (not all 3 yet) of half-and-half to the Dutch oven.
5. Place the Dutch oven in the oven for about 90 minutes, or until the pheasant is tender enough to shred.
For soup …
1. In a Dutch oven with plenty of olive oil, cook onion and carrots until softened.
2. Add flour, rice seasoning package, rice, chicken broth and water.
3. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Add remaining cup of half-and-half, 1 cup of shredded pheasant and crushed red pepper.
5. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until rice is cooked.
6. Serve hot, and add salt and pepper to taste.
Stuffed Pigeon Peppers
Looked down on with much more disdain than any legal bird, the pigeon has a bad reputation among sportsmen. It’s a shame, though, as these flavorful birds have a lot to offer.
Pigeons, which are known as rock doves to game agencies, were introduced to the United States from Europe in the 1600s. The birds found a liking to North America’s habitat, and they’ve since spread from Alaska to South America. In South Dakota, they’re as thick as anywhere else, holing up in silos and machine sheds in rural areas of the state. As an invasive species, most states have no protection over the bird. This gives hunters the chance to harvest as many as they want, whenever they want. It’s also a hunt that requires little gear or skill.
When I hunt pigeons, I like to tag team them with a buddy and spread out in the high-traffic areas. Splitting up between spots such as feed lots, silos, water holes, cattle pastures and silage piles keeps the birds moving between bursts of gunfire. They’ll often make two or three low circles before dropping into a spot, and they also don’t seem to mind the presence of a blue-jean-wearing hunter sitting on a bucket.
If you think they’re carp of the sky, then you haven’t actually tried one. Most hunters love the taste of dove, and a pigeon isn’t much different. Their diet is incredibly similar in that both pigeons and doves around here get fat on grain. I might even argue that pigeons have the upper hand, with breasts that are twice the size as those of mourning doves.
Step into the world of invasive eats with this recipe, which presents pigeons in a new light.
• 8 pigeon breasts
• 1 package of taco seasoning
• 3 large green peppers
• 1 can of corn
• 1 potato
• 1/2 of an onion
• 1/2 of a tomato
• 1/2 cup of mushrooms
• Shredded cheese
• Sour cream
1. Dice up the pigeon breasts, potato, onion, tomato and mushrooms into very small pieces.
2. In a hot skillet with olive oil, cook the onions and potatoes for three minutes.
3. Then, add in the taco seasoning, pigeon, corn and tomato and cook for three minutes, or until the potatoes start to brown. Set the mixture to the side.
4. Cut the peppers in half, then remove all the seeds.
5. Grill the pepper halves at about 350 degrees for about 10 minutes with a little olive oil brushed on.
6. Once the green peppers seem soft and start to wrinkle, add the pigeon and vegetable mix until full.
7. Grill for five more minutes, and top the stuffed peppers with shredded cheese.
8. Serve with salsa and sour cream.
About the Author: Spencer Neuharth is a freelance writer from Menno, S.D. To see more of his writing and photography, go to boofcommunications.com.