FEATUE: COOKING LOCAL Pioneer Pheasant and Sauerkraut Stew

November 20, 2009

Two embarassing corrections:


Pheasants were not widely released in the US until after 1881, they were originally imported from China. So Wenatchee's pioneers would likely have hunted other game until a bit closer to the 20th century. Rod Molzahn says there were plenty of grouse to be found in the 1870s.


Also, my math is off by 100 years at one point. We're talking about pioneer cooking from the late 19th century, some 130 years ago, no 230.


Thanks to astute listeners for pointing out these errors.




       Welcome back to the kitchen. Picking up where we left off a few weeks ago, we’ve been talking with historian Rod Molzahn about local cooking in the Wenatchee Valley, pioneer style. We can get a pretty good picture of what ingredients the first white settlers had on hand to cook and eat in the 1870s, particularly by examining the meticulous records from Sam Miller’s trading post.
       Staples like flour, sugar, bacon, onions, and cabbage were either bought, traded, or grown at home. We also know the settlers made good use of the valley’s bountiful wild game like deer, elk, wild fowl, and fish from the rivers. Wine was also produced very early on in Wenatchee’s white history.
       So this week I want to try and create a meal that might have been possible right here in the valley, some 230 years ago. And as luck would have it, a friend recently offered up a hunting trip’s bounty of wild pheasants, already dressed, skinned, and cut into portions. This bird has been a source of delicious, lean protein for generations. And yes, it basically tastes like chicken, but better (especially if you know the hunter).
       Because these cuts are bone-in breasts with a bit of wing attached, I want to let them stew a bit and get all nice and tender. One option would be a classic coq au vin, which is wine marinated poultry with garlic, onions, mushrooms, bacon and herbs. This is one of my all time favorite dishes, but if you are a loyal listener you will recall we’ve already done a version of this dish with my brother on an earlier episode.
       So today I’m going to crawl out on a limb and make us a recipe by the seat of my pants. I want to make a sauerkraut and pheasant stew with bacon, wine, potatoes and other vegetables. Tangy, but sweetened with the white wine and carrots plus just a hint of raisins, I think this dish will be a hit. Bear with me.
When we were talking historically available local ingredients, Rod Molzahn mentioned the popularity of sauerkraut, because preserving foods in the days before refrigeration was key. Even in the dead of winter, a well-prepared frontiersman could eat root cellar vegetables like onions, carrots, and potatoes, and have pickled or preserved vegetables and fruits to tide them over until the next harvest.
So for this stew we’ll need:
-about 2 pounds of skinned pheasant, or substitute bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks
-2 or 3 slices of bacon, sliced into matchsticks
-2 large onions, peeled and chopped into soup spoon sized chunks
-4 medium large potatoes, chopped into smaller pieces so they don’t have to cook forever
-1 or 2 stalks of celery, sliced up into half inches
-2 carrots, grated up so they’ll cook faster
-3 cups sauerkraut, drained of the juice
-1/3 cup raisins or currants
-3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (purists should note it is unlikely that the pioneers had access to, or even knowledge of garlic in the late 1800s.
-2 cups white wine
-2 or so cups chicken stock (or make your own stock by long-simmering leftover pheasant parts, onions, celery, salt, pepper, and bay leaves)
-1/2 cup of flour
-2 bay leaves
-a pinch of caraway seeds (which also were probably rare in pioneer days, but hey, allow a guy a little creative license, ok?)
-salt and fresh ground black pepper
OK, so let’s get started with this tangy pioneer pheasant stew. First we’ll start sizzling the bacon in a cast iron pot on a medium heat. While it is heating up, dredge the pheasant in the flour, coating it lightly all over. When the bacon has started to crisp a bit, set it aside. Now turn up the heat to medium high and sear the pheasant meat on all sides. We’re not trying to cook it through, just give it a nice brown coating all over.
When you’ve got the meat all seared, turn down the heat and add in the onions, carrots, potatoes, celery and garlic and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in a pat of butter if you want a richer taste. Now add in the sauerkraut and spices, and add the pheasant pieces back into the pot. As you are spicing, go easy on the salt. With the bacon and sauerkraut you may not need to add much salt at all. Now add back the bacon and toss in the raisins as well. Mix the ingredients a bit and add the wine and chicken stock. The liquid should just about cover the meat.
Bring the stew up to a boil, then cover and turn the heat way down to simmer for about 40 minutes to an hour. You’ll know the meat is down when it is very tender and peels away with a fork. Flip over the pheasant pieces at least once during cooking. It is possible the meat will be done before the potatoes and carrots are cooked all the way through. If this is the case, pull the meat out and set it aside while the veggies simmer a bit more. Thicken up the stew a bit with a tablespoon of flour carefully sprinkled and stirred in.
Before you add the pheasant back in, taste the stew. If you think it’s too tart from the sauerkraut, it’s ok to add a little honey or sugar. But honestly, I really like the tangy flavor. And once the wine and veggies have had a nice long time to cook down, the stew sweetens up quite a bit. Every once in awhile you will bite into a raisin and get a sweet burst of flavor, but mostly they just disappear into the stew.
I honestly can’t say if Wenatchee’s white pioneers might have made this exact pheasant and sauerkraut stew, but I do know that we could travel back in time and find all the makings for a very similar dish. The meat is tender and juicy, and the white wine and sauerkraut balance each other nicely. Of course, bacon just makes everything better. I think we have a winner here!
Serve this pheasant stew with warm crusty bread and butter, maybe a green salad, and a glass of white wine. Nice work everyone! I think it is fun to try to marry great food traditions of the past with the best of modern local ingredients, and then just throw caution to the wind and try to make up a new recipe variation. I’d love to hear your take on your family’s classic dishes. If you have any questions or suggestions, email me at isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.



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