Hunting the Dove Season Opener | Bad Day Dove Risotto

Hunting is hard enough these days even if you're young and single and living out on the edges of society in a state populated by citizens who respect the artistry, the history, and the necessity of the sport.

Add to that being a suburban-dweller with a few kids, some decades on you, probably a spouse who doesn't love being a "hunting widow" - or harder still, a spouse who also loves hunting... because who's going to watch the kids? - and all of that in a state that treats the greatest financial contributors to conservation (yeah, it's hunters) like a species to be just barely tolerated... and it can be unrewarding to get up at 4:00 am to go hunting.

Did you say your lawn was getting dried out? This is the ground out in El Centro. One parched layer curls in the sun on top of the one beneath it.

That said, we wouldn't miss the Dove Season Opener on September 1st if we could help it. We dropped the kids off at school first and then raced out to Imperial Valley. Rolled in around 9:00 am or so. It's the Yuma Desert so it's hot. Even by 6:30 am it's hot, so getting there any later can be brutal.

Brutal not only from the heat, but for the fact that the doves just aren't flying when it's too hot.

You find yourself thinking that the giant dragonflies you see buzzing around are doves, and for a split second you tense up, ready to take a shot.

Then when it's too hot to talk anymore you look down and stare at the desert floor, wondering: What did this place look like when there were oceans here? There are bivalve shells baked right into the ground, just as there are hundreds of miles away at the beach. I dislodge them sometimes and take them home for the kids.

True story: we struck out. On the opener, we took some shots, but we didn't get a single bird. We did some additional scouting which is always worthwhile, but I'd say it was a bona fide bust.

So we went again. I've learned wise lessons from other seasoned hunters. Take fellow mother and noted huntress Nikita Dalke - whom I follow and respect both for her successes and for her attitude in the field - who says the hunt is not, in fact, about the quarry. It's about the hiking. The nature. The wildlife. The company. The way your senses come alive on a primitive level. You are entirely in the here and now, noticing the smallest movements and filtering out the particular sounds that signal your wanted food source.

If you love animals - and who doesn't? - you find yourself pushing against this long-standing social mandate to never harm one... unless one of the following exceptions to that so-called moral code apply, and the animal in question is:

  • A distasteful insect/spider. 
  • A snake! 
  • Mice, rats, and troublesome squirrels. Moles too.
  • Sharks. 
  • Bears who sneak up on us when we're hiking. Or a wolf, or a cougar. 
  • Oh, and all the animals we don't see unless someone else kills them for our dinner... including fish.

Unless you belong to that small group of farmers and factory farm workers, we are so separated from the act of harvesting meat anymore that most people will tell you that it's a horrifying thought. But once you see the animal for the meat you're eating (usually you're eating it everyday), it seems pretty hypocritical to condemn someone for wanting the honestly of harvesting that meat themselves.

So yeah, we got a couple. You may not understand this (but if you're a hunter you surely will, or if you've ever been really hungry and saw your food coming out from the kitchen at your favorite restaurant, you know a little of the feeling)... but even two doves is exciting!

This video is the best example of hunter's adrenaline that I've ever seen:

Interestingly, you don't even need a long barrel to hunt dove, if you're good. My husband uses this 18" shorty 12-gauge by Escort (yes, it's legal in California) and has great success, both on the skeet range and in the fields.

And I have become the master of breasting out these birds - I mean in seconds flat. Observe my hunting mentor breasting them out here. It's this easy:

To ensure that the meat you've harvested is from the right bird in season, you should leave one wing attached to the breast if you are not taking the entire bird home with you. Here, I've left one wing attached at the breast. Left is white-winged dove, and right is mourning.

I know these look like hearts, but they're actually the breast of the bird. A lot of people think the meat will be white or light pink like the chicken breasts in their cellophane-wrapped meat packages from the store, but wild game doesn't usually look like that.

People also imagine that there will be shell shot to pick out of the meat, but I've literally only found a single pellet in the meat on only one occasion. And we use steel shell shot here now in California (at least we do), not lead. So, no harm no fowl. Foul! That's a good joke, no?

Now for the recipe: I'd been dying to try this Dove-and-Mushroom Risotto from the beautiful field-to-table book Afield by chef Jesse Griffiths, so this day of small bounty was my chance. Did I mention that Afield was nominated for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Book Award? It's thoughtful, inspiring, and filled with beautiful photographs.

As Jessi Cape describes this recipe in a review in The Austin Chronicle, "Earthy and delicious, hearty and nutritious, this recipe was a hit... in a post-dinner phone conversation with my beloved grandmother, she told me she wished she had owned a cookbook such as this when she was preparing the wild game my grandfather brought home to her so many years ago. Whether new skills and recipes are the goal, or finding a gorgeous book that bridges generational gaps and cultural differences, Afield hits the mark."

So, starting with the meat, I simmered our dove breasts as directed:
In a large pot over high heat, add the dove breasts, bay leaf, and 2 quarts of cold water. Bring just to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until tender, about 2 hours.

They stayed amazingly moist as a result, and had that distinctive earthy flavor that only wild game yields. Reserve the water that the dove breasts cooked in; you will use this for the risotto. Dice or shred the meat.

Gather up the rest of your ingredients:

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 slices high-quality bacon, diced
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups thinly-sliced mushroom
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 C arborio rice
  • 1/4 C white wine
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • 1/4 grated Parmesan cheese
  • zest of 1 lemon

Heat the olive oil over M-H heat (I used an enameled Dutch oven) and cook the bacon until crispy, about 5 min.

Add the onion and mushroom and season with salt and pepper, cooking and stirring often for about 5 more minutes.

Add the rice to the pot and cook a couple minutes more, stirring and stirring, letting the rice become fragrant and toasty. Add the wine, and scraping the pan well, cook until the liquid has almost evaporated, about 2 min.

Add a large ladle of the reserved warm/hot dove stock from above to the pot and cook, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed. Continue to add stock to the rice, a little bit at a time, waiting until it is absorbed before adding more, and until the rice is tender but not mushy, 20-25 minutes total. The rice should have a little bite left to it, and should be very saucy and slightly pourable, not dense. Adjust as necessary with additional stock; you may not need all of it.

Stir in the butter, cheese, lemon zest (don't leave that out, it really makes the dish!), and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately on warm plates.

DOUBLE the recipe to serve a family.

Hope you enjoyed this post, and remember that you can make this dish with chicken breasts or even pork chops if you so desire. Either would be quite tasty with the mushroom and risotto.

Happy hunting and happier cooking! xo


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