The Cantankerous Drummer Husband had a birthday last weekend – it wasn’t a big birthday, so when I asked him what he wanted, he said that he wanted to have a few close friends up for dinner. But, there was a twist. He wanted to try something different.
Ever since we say a multi-bird roast on River Cottage, we’ve been keen to try it, but the right opportunity has never presented himself. Well, now was the time. I was going to have to figure out how to get some quail inside a pheasant, inside a chicken, and feed it to 10 people without poisoning them. Challenge accepted.
The proper term for cooking one animal inside another is “Engastration,” which sounds super charming. The multi-bird roast is a medieval concoction, although stuffing animals inside other animals goes right back to Roman times, and probably even before that. There’s an interesting blog post over on Delicious History explaining the origins of some other famous engastration dishes, including the Tudor pie and Kiviak (a traditional Inuit dish where 400 auks (a sea bird) are stuffed inside a seal carcass.
I’m not quite that ambitious (plus, I don’t think the butcher carries seals) but I definitely wanted to stretch my culinary skills. A multi-bird roast is a show piece – something you did during the Middle Ages if you were a Lord or Baron wanting to demonstrate your decadence and wealth – and hence, it was often the main course at a banquet. The act of cutting open the roast and seeing the layers of meat – 3 or 5 or 7 or even as many as 15 – would elicit a gasp of admiration from your dinner guests.
The three-bird roast has had a bit of a resurgence lately, thanks to shows like River Cottage (where they did a ten-bird roast) and the Turducken craze in the US. Since many of you guys are also interested in anything medieval, I thought you might like to try this at home. I’m by no means an expect, but here’s a tutorial to show you how I did my three-bird roast.
Sourcing Your Birds
We decided to start “small”, with just three birds, as a practice run for a nine- or ten-bird roast that we might make next year at a big party we’re planning. Most recipes I looked at called for either duck, pheasant, chicken, or duck, chicken, turkey. CDH isn’t a fan of duck, and I didn’t really want the outer bird to be a turkey as I’ve never successfully cooked one before, so we decided to substitute quail for the duck.
I called around several butchers who claimed on their websites to have a supply of game meat. I needed the game birds, as well as a chicken large enough to hold them – a size 20-25. I wanted free-range birds that were ideally wild-caught (organic), because I am a hipster and also because factory farming of birds is cruel and should not be tolerated. I got the assurances of the Grey Lynn Butchery that this would be what I was getting, so I placed my order.
The butchery was able to bone the chicken for me, (yay!) but not the other birds, as they were frozen. “No worries, I’m sure I’ll be able to handle it,” I say, my stomach shot with nerves at the prospect. My order is shipped out and my husband receives a giant box of game birds at his office a couple of days before the party. Now I could get to work.
Boning a Bird
I’d never attempted to bone a bird before. It was a laborious task, but not impossible, and I enjoyed the challenge!
You start by placing the bird breast-side down on your board. Slit the bird down the backbone, and running the knife along the side of the ribcage. As you work the knife down the bird, use your hand to pull away the meat from the bones.
Pop out the wing and thigh joints. It takes a bit of wriggling, but cut through where these are attached to the main carcass. Continue cutting down the bird until you reach the ridge of the breast bone. Repeat with both sides of the bird.
Snap off the wishbone. Cut beneath the breast bone, being careful not to rip the skin (as it’s quite thin here). Then, open up your chicken – cut away any remaining bones or cartilage. Cut off the feet and wings. I kept all the bones and used them to make a game stock, but you don’t have to do this. Some people will also add the wings and legs to the bottom of the roasting dish, but I didn’t bother with this.
For the quail, I thought them too small to bother with boning, so I simply removed the breasts from the birds and used those. The rest of the birds I added to my game stock.
Here’s a youtube tutorial to show you how:
Making the Stuffing
I was making a chestnut stuffing, but the supermarket was out of chestnuts, so I made a pine-nut stuffing instead. You could probably use any type of nut.
- Around 6-10 button mushrooms (substitute other mushrooms if you like).
- 1 onion
- 100g pinenuts, (crushed in food processor)
- 200g good quality pork sausages (remove skins to just get meat)
- zest of 1 lemon
- Handfuls of fresh thyme and parsley
- (You can also add a couple of spoonfuls of breadcrumbs if you like, but I didn’t find I needed them. This way, the recipe is actually paleo/gluten-free).
- Chop onion and mushrooms really fine. Heat the butter and fry the onion for two mins. Add the mushrooms and fry for a couple more minutes.
- While you leave the onions/mushrooms to cool, prepare and mix all the other stuffing ingredients.
- Throw everything in a bowl and mush together with your hands until combined. Set aside until you’re ready to put the birds together.
Putting it all together
Once you’ve got your birds and your stuffing, you can begin.
Lay out your chicken, then spread a layer of stuffing – approximately half of the stuffing – over the meat. Then lay out the boned pheasant. Then add most of the rest of the stuffing. Lay the breast meat of the quail on top. Use the little stuffing left to fill any gaps. Now, you need to roll it up.
We needed two people for this. You need some butcher’s twine to tie it all together. If you don’t have butcher’s twine, you can use skewers, toothpicks (although they might not work as well), colourfast embroidery thread, or unwaxed dental floss (yes, really!). We rolled one side over, then the other, trying to get the edges of the chicken to overlap. Then, CDH tied the ends while I held it, and then we tied along the middle. You are then meant to tie the twine down the centre, to prevent the stuffing leaking out the ends. We ran out of twine, so couldn’t do this, but it ended up not being a big deal.
Obviously ours isn’t as neat and tidy as the river-cottage one, but I don’t think it was too bad for our first attempt!
Preheat the oven to 200C, and cook for around 1:45 minutes, likely longer if your oven is filled with other goodies. If you use a thermometer, it should read higher than 68C.
For “starters”, I made a wholemeal foccacia loaf, and set out some hummus (that was homemade), garlic butter, oil/vinegar/dukkah, and pesto. My bird took longer than predicted to cook (2hours 15 – 15-30 minutes longer than the recipe, owing to all the other food in my tiny oven), so that got demolished pretty quickly, along with the crackers and cheese our friend Nae brought along.
Alongside the bird, we cooked a small lamb roast, just in case the bird was a complete failure. I also did a tray of potatoes and kumara, some carrots (they were meant to be honey-glazed, but at the last minute I couldn’t find the honey – turns out I’d carried it into the laundry for some unknown reason), peas/corn, and rotkoln (German red-cabbage cooked with apples and bacon). While the meats were resting, I made gravy from the pan juices.
So how did it taste? Amazing. I found all three flavours quite distinctive, but complimentary. The stuffing was subtle enough that it didn’t overpower the taste of the meat, which is what you want with a roast like this. The quail has a rich, gamey flavour, which I think many people wouldn’t like on its own, but as a focal point for the roast it worked really well. The chicken was cooked perfectly, but the real star was the pheasant. A subtler taste than the quail, it has a bit of a nutty, gamey flavour to it, but is mild and smooth at the same time. If you have ever had a proper free-range, farm-raised chicken or goose, and remember the actual flavour of the meat (that that bland, white cardboard chicken you get at the supermarket, it’s a lot like that, but with a uniqueness all of its own. Everyone else raved about it, too – especially the pheasant.
Dessert was Madeira cake (which I’d made the previous evening, otherwise it would’ve been forgotten!) and chocolate sauce. An brought along some “mini cheesecakes” which were amazing, but we were all too full to eat too many!
It was a really fun evening! We sat around enjoying the warmth and talking bollocks until the food was ready. I was so stuffed I only managed to eat five roast potatoes, which is unheard of for me!
The three-bird roast was a huge undertaking, and definitely won’t be taking over my Sunday lamb any time soon. But it was a fun challenge with an absolutely delicious result! I will definitely be tackling a multi-bird roast again in the future.
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