Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Recipe for Wild Geese

Here's a story that I sold four years ago but which has never made it to print. I thought of it because it's cold out and there are geese in the freezer.

The four of us lean our backs against the bank of a dry ditch and gaze into the blue skies above Montana’s Treasure County. We don’t have to look for geese, since they are everywhere. Canada geese, with their white cheeks and raucous voices. Bane of golf-course groundskeepers and balm to the earth-bound, to all those who find solace in such grand evidence of the migratory urge.

Some geese rise from the Yellowstone and fly purposefully over the beets and the corn. Some leave the fields and make for the river. Others seem merely to be wandering from one gravel bar to the next, one furrow to another.

We watch and wait—Mark, Tom, Pat, and I—admiring the grace and power of these birds, the way their wings seem to carve air, understanding that when one of their number commits itself to our company, we will kill it.

Speaking for myself, there will be awe and pleasure in this act, regret and satisfaction. And, whether I have pulled the trigger or not, a certain species of bliss, as my big yellow Lab bounds forward at the report of shotguns, to recover the dead.

The geese wheel and call above us. Some flighty birds leave their family groups for another flock, mortally inconstant. Their relatives try to call them back, and so do we. Despite some practice, our honking varies in its authenticity. To my ears, it is sometimes sickly, sometimes strident, sometimes insincere. But the geese don’t seem to mind.

They turn at our pleadings, examine our motley spread of decoys, and make their decisions using other criteria. One more bite of corn—or a nice billful of water? Rest for a weary wing—or the society of fellow travelers? Join the crowd at the feast—or is that a gun barrel in the grass?

Indifferent geese pass far overhead. Indignant geese circle provokingly low, then fly off. But the indiscriminant cup their wings to alight—and we greet them with fire.

This is how the morning proceeds, a stirring succession of singles and doubles, short retrieves and long jaunts across the corn stubble. Although I am aware of the bag limit on geese, I have never threatened it.

Until now. On those infrequent days when the heavens are generous, I am much more likely to be gazing down at the glossy feathers of the bird in the hand than looking up for my next target. Nevertheless, we four are embarrassingly close to a limit by noon.

Mark is by far the most seasoned hunter in our group, since Tom, Pat, and I can reckon the sum of our waterfowl experience in the life of a single dog. True, that dog is becoming an old hound, who appreciates a regular aspirin and the occasional lift into the truck, but the gaps in our knowledge remain enticingly large.

So we turn to Mark for answers. Isn’t this amazing, we ask? Isn’t this wonderful? And, upon reviewing his own fund of memories—in several states and on more than one continent—he has to agree. These few hours in a sun-warmed ditch near Hysham, Montana, have been as good as it gets.

Soon afterwards, a pickup truck approaches on the dusty access road. The driver leans from the window, inquires loudly if we would like to move our decoys into his field, where the shooting is much better. Doubtful of our abilities to endure much better, we decline.

Weeks later, I am still enjoying this hunt. Just as much—if not more—than the three opening-day grouse without a customary miss, the fine cock pheasant taken just as it cleared a thicket of head-high willows, and the seventeen-pound steelhead that succumbed to the fifty-first cast of the fly. This persistent pleasure derives partly from the rush of wings shearing air, partly from the affection I have for the friends who shared it, and partly from the neat stacks of goose wings, breasts, legs, and thighs in our freezer.

As Tom will tell you, I bring the same passion to eating that Chicago Democrats apply to voting (early, often). I certified the results of this recipe the morning after returning home, and again a week later. Like most stews, it practically invites adaptation. You can substitute duck or grouse carcasses for the goose. In place of barley, you might try lentils. And if you’re feeling unusually prosperous, toss in a handful of fresh basil, or add a heaping tablespoon of pesto to the pot just before serving.

Triple Goose and Barley Stew (serves six)

legs and thighs of three geese, skin removed
1 cup red wine
1/2 pound mushrooms
1 cup baby carrots
2 cups tomatoes (or one 15-oz. can)
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
1 cup pearl barley
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon flour (optional)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

Dump the legs and thighs in a large pot and cover with water, about 8 cups. Add the wine, which need not be particularly drinkable. Any leftovers will do, including white, rosé, or even cider. Bring the stock to a boil then simmer for at least two hours. Fish out the goose pieces and place the pot outdoors to cool.

Remove the meat from the bones, keeping an eye out for shot. (Steel pellets are hell on dental work.) I also like to trim the tendons from the meat on the drumsticks, although they will eventually soften with cooking. Slice the mushrooms and carrots, dice the tomatoes and onions, and mince the garlic. Rinse the barley well.

Skim the congealed goose fat from the pot, then strain the liquid for any stray shot that may have fallen free during the initial simmering. Return the stock to a low boil. Add the deboned meat, mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes, onion, basil, bay leaves, and barley. Simmer for at least another hour.

If the stock seems insubstantial to you, mix flour with cold water to make a thin batter, then stir the batter into the stew. Add the balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste. I like about 1/2 teaspoon of salt, slightly less than that of pepper. Simmer for another half hour, or just enough time to fix a salad and some garlic bread. Uncork a better bottle of red wine (when I get the rare choice, I choose dry Portuguese varietals) and prepare to fortify yourself against all ills.

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