If that large Thanksgiving turkey overwhelms your holiday table, think about a size-cutting solution. A capon or a game bird such as guinea hen, pheasant, or quail could look wonderful and be quite delicious on your festive platter.
Though unfamiliar to many, capons and game birds don't require exotic preparation with long lists of ingredients that gourmet chefs often create. Most of these fowl can be easily roasted and are not harder than chicken to prepare.
The capon is larger than a broiler chicken, but smaller than a turkey. Holiday diners will find them to be a succulent, plump bird with delicate flavor.
The growing period of capons spans 15 weeks, nearly twice that of broiler chickens. Each capon consumes 40 pounds of feed during its lifetime, which is double the rations for broilers for each pound of weight gained, according to Marc Nichols of Wapsie Produce in Iowa, a grower and marketer of capons.
Call them a rooster or a roaster, the capon is a male chicken that has been neutered at an early age.
According to Jim Meads of K&J House of Meats, capons are about $2.19 a pound locally and average about six pounds. “Capons are like a roasting chicken, but the breast meat is juicer than normal,” he said. “We always have them frozen, but we get them fresh for the holidays.” He estimates that the stores sell easily 100 of these.
When cooked, capon meat looks more like turkey than chicken. For a small Thanksgiving dinner, this entree will leave you with minimal leftovers.
Game birds such as wild turkey, guinea fowl, quail, or pheasant may be closer to the original Thanksgiving than our modern-day turkeys. However, you don't have to be an outdoor hunter to cook one.
Thanks to farms devoted to raising these game birds, they are now readily available, although most are sold frozen and must be pre-ordered.
For years, small game birds had a reputation for strong flavor and tough meat, usually served in the homes of hunters. The farm-raised birds have less of the gaminess of birds caught in the wild. Small game birds are not as difficult to prepare as their often-unfamiliar names would suggest.
Moist and tender guinea hens are described as the “watch chickens” - as opposed to watch dogs - of the Midwestern farmyard. In place of the watch dog, “Guinea fowl always did the job of squawking at anything that came by,” said Judith Fertig, author of Prairie Home Cooking (Harvard Common Press, $16.95).
Although guinea hens were indigenous to Africa, they found their way to North America via Haiti, according to Liz Guenther of D'Artagnan Inc. of New Jersey, suppliers of the fowl.
At a recent dinner for food journalists, Michael Smith and Debbie Gold, superstar chefs at the American Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., prepared Guinea Hen Roasted in Pistachio Butter. They served it with Swiss Chard Bundles with Sweet Potato and Bacon and Cornhusker's Casserole, a mellow savory quiche made with corn and hominy. In the entr e recipe, pistachio butter is used as a rub by spreading it between the skin and the meat of the hen adding flavoring and moisture to the poultry as it roasts.
Guinea hens can be grilled. But, “most people roast guinea hens or braise with a lemon-garlic sauce,” said Ms. Guenther. Guinea hens are more common on European tables than Americans. The succulent light-colored breast meat is said to be more flavorful than chicken and has a lower fat content. Unlike some game birds, guinea hens do not develop an abundance of tendons in their legs.
With smaller birds such as quail, it is suggested that the wing tips be snipped because they tend to burn. Quail weigh only 5 to 10 ounces each. Two birds make an entr e serving; one for an appetizer. They are often sold four to a package.
Quail seasoned with salt and pepper and basted with fresh thyme in melted butter can be roasted at 425 degrees. It can be butterflied (using poultry scissors along one side of the backbone) and then grilled. Baste with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. A molasses glaze gives a sugary flavor to grilled quail.
To saute, butterflied quail should be browned on both sides in olive oil, which takes barely 5 minutes on each side.
Whatever method you use, do it quickly to avoid overcooking. In recent years, partly boned, birds without breastbones and backbones, are available. These cook even quicker.
Farm-raised pheasant are consistently tender and have a more delicate flavor than their wild cousins. Baby pheasants are harvested at 6 to 8 weeks, and adult pheasants are harvested 18 to 24 weeks. One pheasant is 2 to 3 1/2 pounds and will serve two persons.
Pheasants can be dry because they have so little fat. Thus young birds are best sauteed or roasted. Older birds are best braised. Either way they are chewy. To get around the dryness, serve pheasant with a fruit sauce or try Judith Fertig's recipe for Pheasant Baked with Cream.
Locally, items such as farm-raised pheasant and quail are sold frozen, according to Mr. Meads of K & J House of Meats. Pheasants range in size from 3 1/2 to 4 pounds at $4.99 per pound. Quail are 31/2 to 4 ounces with four to a tray for $10.99. Specialty items such as these should be pre-ordered a week in advance or at the minimum, 48 hours.
Louis Boraggina, director of meat operations, at Churchill's reports that the Monroe Street store in Starlite Plaza has a new exotic game frozen meat cases will supply items such as capon, quail, rabbit, and in the future pheasant. “I also have squab and guinea hens right now, about $6.99 per pound,” he said last Friday.
Guinea hens can also be ordered from D'Artagnan Inc., 399-419 St. Paul Ave., Jersey City, NJ 07306 or call 800-327-8246. Guinea hens average 21/2 to 3 pounds, sell for $16.50, and are shipped fresh via UPS overnight, according to Ms. Guenther, marketing manager. Allow 1/2 pound per person.
Armed with these recipes, you can put a squawk instead of a gobble into your holiday menu.