Edna’s Virginia Roast Pheasant with Chestnut Dressing

During Colonial times and throughout the nineteenth century, wild game birds were so abundant and relished in America that Benjamin Franklin suggested we adopt the wild turkey as our national bird. Hunting turkeys, quail, partridge, pheasant, canvasback ducks, and guinea hens was particularly fancied in the South, to such an extent that by the turn of the twentieth century, passenger pigeons were totally extinct and many other species of fowl on the verge of disappearing. One lady who remembered when pheasants were still relatively plentiful in and around her home village of Freetown, Virginia, was the renowned chef Edna Lewis. And “Miss Edna” always said she would much prefer to roast a brace of plump wild pheasants for Thanksgiving dinner than a big commercial turkey. (“We used to raise turkeys on our farm and ship every one of them up to the Yankees,” she would recall, laughing.) If you’re lucky enough to know a fervent huntsman, all the better for the fresh pheasant you can obtain; otherwise, the farmed frozen ones can be almost as flavorful, so long as they’re not overcooked and dry.

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Ingredients

  • 4 cups finely torn fresh bread
  • 1 cup finely diced celery (leaves included)
  • ½ cup finely diced onion
  • 1 cup peeled, cooked chestnuts (sold in cans and jars), coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
  • Two plump, young -pound pheasants, dressed

Method

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the bread, celery, onion, chestnuts, sage, thyme, salt and pepper, half the chicken broth, and 6 tablespoons of the butter and stir till the dressing is well blended.

Pack the cavity of each pheasant with as much dressing as it will hold, secure the cavities with small metal skewers, and brush each bird with the remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Spoon the remaining dressing into a baking dish and set aside.

Place the pheasants breast side down in a roasting pan, cover, and roast for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, moisten the dressing with just enough of the remaining broth to make a compact mixture.

Reduce the oven to 350°F, uncover the pheasants, place both the birds and pan of dressing in the oven, and cook till the pheasants are tender and the dressing is crusted, 30 to 40 minutes.

To serve, cut each pheasant in half lengthwise with a sharp knife and serve hot, with the additional dressing on the side.