Set the Net

Recipes and snapshots of life in Bristol Bay, AK

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The slow and misty mornings this time of year seem to stretch half the day with the sun not cresting the horizon until nearly 9am, and it’s only going to get darker as we creep through the season. Spruce grouse are most visible at dawn and dusk and the belated changing of the light offers them security to come down from the trees to peck in the underbrush later & later in the day. Making them the perfect wild game for ambling walks with our children.

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These birds are relatively small and do not spook very easily allowing one time to get very close to observe them. We have had in our neighborhood lately a very demonstrative male strutting about flaring his plumage and showing off to the gaggle of females that linger around him. Bronwyn enjoys watching the birds dance around each other, pecking at gravel and jostling for the best position.

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One of our favorite ways to enjoy spruce grouse is to go out in the early morning to hunt in order to breast them, dredge the meat, thinly sliced through a salt and pepper spiced flour blend, and fry with over-easy eggs. In order to sop it all up with buttery toast at breakfast.

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When hunting is good and we get 4 or 5 from a few different flocks in a morning, we like instead to save them and to cook them up for dinner in this rich, meaty Spruce Grouse & Stout Pie.

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When Bronson and I first started dating I had a few outdoors woman tricks up my sleeve that were new to him, including one my Dad had taught my brother, Ian and I, as kids growing up in the Valley. He didn’t believe me the first time I told him I could clean a grouse in less than a minute and if I remember correctly I won a beer for this little skill!

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Over the years I have taught this trick countless times and thought I’d share it here. Be sure to tuck it in your cap, for who knows when you may have the opportunity to win the stout needed for making this pie on a fortunate bet.

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To begin, lay your grouse on a flat surface, breasts up and fan out the wings.

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Holding out the wings, step as close to the body of the bird as you can.

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Securing down the wings with your feet at the joint.

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Grab both the birds feet with your hands.

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Slowly, but firm and evenly, pull the legs up away from the ground.

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You will feel the breasts and wings begin to release from the rest of the body.

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Continue pulling until they fully separate.

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The bird’s breasts and wings will remain on the ground leaving you holding the body when finished.

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Occasionally we pluck some feathers for art projects and kid crafts.

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To separate the breast from the bone, place a sharp knife along the sternum and with a firm consistent downward motion cleave the meat from the bone.

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Remove both breasts, and discard the wing carcass. And now, pie…

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Spruce Grouse & Stout Pie (dinner for 4-6) 

  • Breasts from 4-5 Spruce Grouse, cubed into bite size pieces (roughly 1 1/2 lbs of meat)  (other dark fowl meat, rabbit, beef or other game also works if Spruce Grouse are scarce)
  • 2-3 heaping Tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 large carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks + leaves of celery, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups broth (I use moose bone broth, but beef or vegetable broth work also. I don’t think chicken broth is rich enough or provides the right flavor for this dish but in a pinch use what you have on hand)
  • 3 cups Stout beer
  • 1 – 28 oz can whole Fire Roasted Tomatoes
  • 4 heaping Tablespoons Herbs de Provence seasoning (a blend of thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, oregano, tarragon, marjoram, & lavender) 
  • sea salt & fresh cracked pepper
  • 1 sheet of pastry; either an all butter pie crust or good quality puff pastry 

In a large heavy bottomed saucepan or pot heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Toss your cubed grouse in flour to coat and working in small batches brown the meat very lightly, set aside.

Pour in the remaining oil, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, then toss in the onion and garlic, sautéing until onions are translucent. Add in the carrots and celery reducing heat to low-medium, cook stirring frequently for 5-6 minutes. Return the meat to the pan along with the broth, stout, tomatoes (use all contents of the can, no need to drain), Herbs de Provence, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil then reduce to a strong simmer and cook, uncovered for about an hour, until the contents reduce and thicken. Stir occasionally breaking up the tomatoes as they soften and scrap the bottom to prevent sticking.

Once reduced spoon the thickened mixture into a pie plate or a roughly 8-10 cup capacity oven safe pan/pot. Allow to cool until no longer steaming.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, with rack in the middle top position. Cover your pan/pot with the sheet of pastry, pinching the edges to the pan to create a seal. If you wish, you can brush your pastry with a whisked egg to enhance the browning. Poke or slice a few vents in your crust and place into preheated oven.

Bake 30-40 minutes until the crust is golden.

Serve hot, with a frothy stout & a salad if you like.

Recipe loosely adapted from Katie Quinn Davies’ Beef and Guinness pie, found in her gorgeous cookbook What Katie Ate Recipes and other Bits & Pieces.

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