Hunting the Dove Season Opener | Labor Day 2014

Driven by a desire to know more about where our food comes from - especially fish, meat + poultry - I explored the idea of modern-day hunting a few years ago via Georgia Pellegrini. If hunting seems too counter-culture for you, then in addition to Georgia's perspective (which I share) I highly recommend Tovar Cerulli's writings (and others) which have inspired me to try hunting our own meat on occasion. The food is fresh, it is sustainable, it gets us all outdoors where we can appreciate what a gift meat truly is, and it gives me a deeper understanding of the ingredients I'm working with in a particular dish.  

Philosophy on the topic of hunting is vast, and luckily I really enjoy a good dialogue on the matter.

Labor Day was the Dove Season Opener in Imperial Valley this year, and after scouting good spots last fall plus not one but TWO failed hunting trips last year, I was about ready to throw in the dove-hunting towel. In the meantime I scouted my old spots and found some new ones, practiced shooting, and loaded up on ammo.  

Monday morning we awoke at 4am to get out to Imperial County by sun-up. Imperial is known for being one of the best spots in the land to shoot dove, especially the Eurasian dove: a much larger species which is so prolific it is now "Eurasian season" year-round there with no bag limits.

After setting up at our spot and getting the kids comfortable, we were delighted to find that all that time spent at the range lately shooting skeet really paid off. Here's a snippet of what the hunting looks like though when the sun is up and you're casing the skies for the dove to come in close enough for a good shot. We don't have a bird dog, but as you can see our kids happily serve as bird dogs whenever they like. Did I mention that it topped out at 106 degrees on this day? 

We hoped for about eight doves for dinner for the family - apparently three doves per adult and one per child is standard. Slowly but surely they began adding up (the two biggest ones in the center are Eurasians, for reference):

Not all of the shots were perfect. There are harrowing moments while hunting. Read a fantastic article here on chef Andrew Zimmern's website Go Fork Yourself and listen to the podcast featuring new dove hunter Molly Mogren, highlighting the angst such a hunt can invoke. Of course you are taking a life every time you eat fish, meat, or poultry, but a lot of people don't view it that way because of how the killing occurs: Out of sight, out of mind. Speaking only for myself, I think I should have to face facts now and again. I'm happy to share my struggles here, but I did spare you the heaviest of our dramas simply because I was chasing birds down and even fishing one out of a canal rather than filming!

Afterward we went to county-famous Camacho's which was slammed with dove hunters on the season opener. While waiting over an hour for our food, we swapped hunting stories with nearby tables and my eldest daughter drew an imaginary picture of herself dove hunting. When asked if she had any interest in hunting in the future she said that so far, she was on the fence. But she loves shooting.

Next it was time to plan the meal we would enjoy. I have shared my still life painting obsession here and it's borne from the love of seeing a big pile food gathered up before you cook it: all that potential! This is a little of our hunting bounty:

Some of the smaller Mourning doves are best served by the breasting-out technique seen here. If you aren't breasting them out, you can pluck and field-dress them as you would any other bird... but use tiny scissors around the vent!

The result is some amazing-looking meat, as fresh as you will ever find in any farmer's market. ALL of our meat, save the one breast in the bottom left corner below with the obvious pellet hole, was free of any shooting damage. We used 7.5 shot in both our 20-gauge and 12-gauge shotguns and while it did seem on the small side, this benefit was real.

Next is a braising technique for our two whole birds and bone-in breasts as described in the LL Bean Game & Fish cookbook, found here. I bought my barely-used hardcover for $1 with Prime shipping! Amazon is crazy sometimes.

The recipe for Braised Doves in Madeira Sauce, which is also known to serve older birds well due to the braising technique:

4 doves (multiply as you wish, I know some of you take hundreds!)
fresh lemon juice
salt + pepper
7 Tablespoons butter (divided roughly into 3T, 2T, and 2T)
3 Tablespoons chopped onion
1 Tablespoons flour
1/2 Cup Madeira (you can vary by using dry Marsala or sherry instead)
1/2 Cup chicken stock
1/4 Cup heavy cream

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Rub the doves inside and out with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Brown them in 3 tablespoons of butter right in a casserole dish (I used a dutch oven), then saute the onions in 2 tablespoons of butter until the soften a little.

In a small skillet, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons on butter, stir in the flour, and cook a minute or two. Heat level was not specified in the cookbook so I went with medium heat on the stovetop (more or less). Off the heat, stir in the wine, stock, and cream. Return to the stovetop (heat), stirring until the sauce thickens a bit. 

Pour the sauce over the birds in the casserole, cover and bake at 350 for 40 minutes. 

NOTE: This time was directed by the cookbook, but knowing these birds to be little and lean I think I went more toward 25 minutes to preserve their juiciness. In any event, you obviously want your bird cooked safely, so err on the side of overcooking... but don't just go the full 40 without taking a peek at them (and a poke with a fork) lest you wind up with tough birds!

Finished in the Madeira sauce:

And served! I put the doves on top of a lovely mound of mashed potatoes and peas with broccolini. The kids loved it, adults loved it, and next time we figure we'll need about 12 for this family, since there were calls for "more" and I didn't have any. 

Thanks for looking + happy hunting! 


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