By Nick Nairn,
Grouse remains for myself and many others, the king of game birds.
I like grouse roasted on the bone for an all-round better taste and texture. Roast grouse is where traditional cooking and accompaniments can’t be beaten – bread sauce, game gravy, roast tatties. The grouse itself only needs a bit of butter or bacon to keep it moist during roasting, plus a few natural flavourings tucked inside the cavity.
I roast my grouse for a short time at a high temperature – as long as they are young birds – and rest them for as long as possible to relax the meat and give it a uniform rosiness. This quick method ensures that the legs don’t overcook and become stringy.
I also recommend wild rowan jelly as an accompaniment – with its sharp fruitiness and beautiful autumnal colour, it adds the final touch to a truly glorious dish. I’ve included a recipe here and now is the time to collect the berries. Make a decent batch of jelly. Keeping some for next year will start you off with nicely matured full-flavoured jelly to eat with next-year’s grouse and any other game for that matter.
Traditional Roast Grouse
Always remember when eating grouse that they have been shot and traces of lead shot are to be expected when eating them. Simply set these aside!
4 oven-ready young grouse
5 bay leaves
12 juniper berries, crushed
5 sprigs of thyme
75g butter, softened
16 slices pancetta or dry-cure streaky bacon
freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of decent bread
rowan jelly (see below)
Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 8. To prepare the birds, place 3 lightly crushed juniper berries, one sprig of thyme and one bay leaf into each cavity. Smear the outside of each bird with butter.
Heat a heavy roasting pan on the hob until hot, place the birds in the pan, resting on one side of the breast first, and cook for 2 minutes. Turn them over and cook for another 2 minutes on the other side of the breast and leg, until both sides are nicely browned. Sit them up in the pan, season well and cover the breasts with the pancetta or bacon, cutting to fit if necessary. Bang into the oven for 10 minutes.
When cooked, transfer to a warm plate, cover loosely and leave to stand in a warm place for 10 minutes to allow the meat to relax.
Use a biscuit cutter to cut out four discs of bread. Heat a little sunflower oil in a pan and shallow-fry the discs until golden brown (these are your croûte). Lift out and drain on kitchen paper until ready to serve.
To add more flavour to the game gravy, use it to deglaze the roasting pan, then strain before whisking in the cold butter. To serve, place a croûte on each of four warmed plates. Sit a grouse on top of each croûte. Spoon bread sauce around the birds and drizzle over some game gravy. Serve with roast or boiled potatoes, any greens and the rowan jelly (see below).
300ml red wine
1 tbsp cassis
600ml game or chicken stock (you could make this from grouse giblets)
15g cold butter
Pour the red wine, cassis and stock in a saucepan and boil rapidly until the liquid is reduced to 200ml and beginning to look slightly syrupy. Use this to deglaze the roasting pan that you’ve cooked the grouse in, reducing it a bit more. Strain, then whisk in the butter and keep warm until ready to serve.
2 blades of mace (optional)
1 fresh bayleaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
a few black peppercorns
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 small onion
70g fresh breadcrumbs
50g unsalted butter
2 tablespoons double cream
First, pour the milk into a saucepan; add the blades of mace (optional), bayleaf, sprigs of thyme, a few black peppercorns and the crushed garlic clove. Halve the onion, peel it and stick a clove into each half. Add the onion to the milk, making sure the cloves are submerged, and slowly bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to stand and infuse for at least 30 minutes. (This can be done the day before you need it, strained and kept in the fridge).
To finish the sauce, strain the infused milk into a clean saucepan, add the breadcrumbs and whisk over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes until thickened. Taste and season well. Melt the butter and pour this over the surface of the sauce – this will prevent a skin forming while you keep it warm – just beat it into the sauce with the double cream when ready to serve.
Wild Rowan Jelly
Makes about 1 kg
500g freshly picked rowan berries
500g cooking apples (or any sour apples including crab apples)
1 litre water
about 500g preserving sugar (you may need more)
Strip the berries off the stalks using a fork. Rinse well in a colander and dry on a clean tea towel. Tip into a jelly/preserving pan. Wash and dry the apples and dice them roughly without peeling or coring. Add these to the berries with the water and slowly bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 45 minutes to an hour until everything is very soft and pulpy.
Have your scrupulously clean jelly bag or double muslin-lined sieve ready and suspended over a bowl. Carefully pour in all the pulp from the pan and restrain the urge to stir it or push it through the bag – you must leave it be or the jelly will not be clear. Leave overnight to drip through, then remove the jelly bag, discard the contents and leave to soak in cold water while you finish the jelly. Measure the juice (there should be about 600ml) – and to every 600ml, weigh out 500g of sugar. Have your jars washed, dried and warmed, sitting on a tray.
Pour the juice into the cleaned jelly/preserving pan and bring to almost boiling. Stir in the sugar (which you can warm in a roasting tin in the oven first), stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Once dissolved, bring to a rolling boil and boil until setting point is reached. Keep a pile of saucers in the fridge for testing – a little liquid spooned onto a cold saucer should set in a couple of minutes, and should wrinkle if pushed with a finger. If not, keep boiling and testing, but take the pan off the heat every time you test, or you may over-boil it. Carefully pour into the warmed jars, cover, label and cool. Keep some to eat now and some to mature until next year.
Nick Nairn’s Pan-Fried Grouse Breasts with Skirlie and Glazed Beetroot
By removing the breasts, which take minutes to cook, you can use the legs and rest of the carcass to make a superior stock for a really rich sauce. The breasts are easy to remove. Cut off the legs through the joint next to the rib cage. Then, with a small sharp knife, cut along the breastbone and with small swift strokes, keeping parallel to the breastbones, gradually ease the flesh away and release it from the carcass. Pull off the skin and they’re ready to cook.
For the glazed beetroot
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
500g young beetroot, peeled and diced
freshly ground black pepper
For the skirlie
50g bacon fat, or beef or duck dripping
1 medium onion, finely chopped
125g medium or coarse oatmeal
For the sauce and grouse
8 fresh young grouse, breasts removed and skinned (legs and carcasses kept for stock)
300ml red wine
450ml grouse stock
1 tbsp rowan or redcurrant jelly
25g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
To cook the beetroot, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the onion. Cook for 5 minutes until softened and add the beetroot. Pour in 150ml water and simmer for 15 minutes, turn up the heat and evaporate any remaining liquid. When the liquid has disappeared, stir the beetroot over a high heat for 2 or three minutes until it begins to caramelise. Taste and season. Keep warm.
Now make the skirlie. Melt the dripping or fat in a frying pan and add the onion. Cook over a gentle heat until just turning golden. Stir in the oatmeal and “skirl” around the pan for a couple of minutes until the fat is absorbed and the oatmeal smelling toasted. Keep warm.
Now for the sauce. Put the red wine and rowan jelly in a saucepan and reduce to about 2 tablespoons. Add the grouse stock and boil to reduce by half. Taste and season. Whisk in the butter and don’t allow the sauce to boil. Keep warm.
Finally, season the grouse breasts with salt and pepper. Heat a frying pan until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan then the breasts, skinned-side down. Fry for 2 minutes then turn over and fry for 2 minutes more. Take the pan off the heat onto a cold surface – this will allow them to rest and keep warm. After a couple of minutes resting time, slice the breasts and set the slices on top of the skirlie and beetroot and pour the sauce around.