”All really wild scenery is attractive. The true hunter, the true lover of wilderness, loves all parts of the wilderness, just as the true lover of nature loves all seasons. There is no season of the year when the country is not more attractive than the city; and there is no portion of the wilderness, where game is found, in which it is not a keen pleasure to hunt.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Cooking is a continuous learning process, and working with wild game is no exception. For me, I tend to focus on building harmonious flavor profiles, and concentrating on that one area takes up more time than I have in a day. However, there are hundreds of aspects in the cooking process that can all be developed, modified, re-evaluated, and maybe even re-invented. I try to break myself of solely focusing on flavor medleys and try to improve and learn in different areas. This recipe, coconut pheasant soup, allowed me to not only work on creating a great flavor profile, but also forced me to look at how textures work together, which is equally important in a dish’s presentation.
I find pheasant meat to have a unique texture. Many people compare pheasant to chicken. I don’t think the comparison is accurate when describing pheasant. Pheasant, like chicken, is a mild flavored meat. Some meats have very strong and distinct flavors, and working with them can be challenging because they fight with other flavors. Pheasant is not like that and can be incorporated into a large number of dishes acting as a base for building flavor.
Where I think pheasant differs from chicken is the texture of the meat. Pheasant is a bit more tough than chicken, which I am sure comes from the differences in how pheasant and chickens live and also how they eat. Pheasant meat is a bit darker and much leaner than chicken also. This difference can best be captured by simply pan frying a chicken breast and pheasant breast and comparing the two. The chicken breast will be moist and light, because of the extra fat in the meat. The pheasant will be tougher and much drier. Because pheasant meat can dry out so quickly when cooked, it is commonly marinated, cooked low and slow, or even wrapped in a fat source, such as bacon, to create moisture and tenderness.
I find myself making a lot of meatball recipes because I think the slight toughness that develops when quickly cooking pheasant works well in meatball form. However, after making a few meatball recipes, I decided that I wanted to try something else with the breast meat. I am a big fan of Thai food, and especially a hot cup of tom kha gai. A coconut based soup, tom kha gai is a spicy soup found in Thai and Lao cuisines. Traditionally, it is prepared using galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, thai chili peppers, mushrooms, and fish sauce. While chicken is the main protein source for the soup, many restaurants also offer shrimp or tofu options. Besides having a deliciously sweet and spicy broth, one of my favorite attributes of tom kha gai is how it uses textures to enhance the soup. The mushrooms are soft and tender, while the chicken, since it is boiled, has a meatier, tougher texture. A little crunch can also be added with a sprinkling of green onions. The broth is very thin and silky.
The last time I had tom kha gai, I made a mental note to try and create a version at home using pheasant, since pheasant has that meatier texture that I love in the soup. So, here the recipe is! And I found it to be a great use of my pheasant.
To a large stock pot, add a tablespoon of cooking oil and heat over medium heat. I used coconut oil for my cooking oil, but you could use vegetable, canola, olive, or whatever oil you prefer. Add in the minced garlic, lemon grass, and grated ginger root. Heat for two minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. If the garlic starts to brown, turn the heat down. There are three different options for the lemon grass with this soup. I used two tablespoons of lemon grass paste, which is found by the fresh herbs in a tube. You could also use a stalk of fresh lemon grass. The stalk can either be added whole to the soup and removed at the end, or you could mince it up and leave it in the soup. The paste or minced stalk both add a bit of crunch to the soup, which some people may not like. If you do not want the bits of crunchy lemon grass, I would suggest just adding the stalk. I like the crunch, so I went with the paste. It is really a personal preference on textures, so go with whatever method you find most appealing.
To the garlic and ginger, add one tablespoons of red curry paste. Stir and coat everything with the paste. Once incorporated, add a cup of the pheasant stock and dissolve any leftover chunks of the paste. You also want to break up any thing sticking to the bottom of the pot, as this will add even more flavor to the soup base. For the stock of this soup, I used homemade pheasant stock. The recipe for it can be found here: Homemade Pheasant Stock. You could also use chicken or vegetable stock.
Once the red curry is fully dissolved, add the rest of the pheasant stock, three tablespoons of fish sauce, and a tablespoon of honey. If you don’t have honey on hand, any sweetener of your choice will do, such as brown or white sugar. Stir everything and bring to a light boil. Once the soup base reaches a slow, rolling boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and allow to cook for twenty minutes. This will reduce the soup base down and concentrate the flavors of the lemon grass, ginger, and red curry. The lemon grass, which is a culinary herb commonly found in Asian style cuisines, adds a subtle citrus flavor to the soup while the ginger gives a spicy, fresh crisp flavor, and the red curry adds a hint of heat.
After the twenty minutes, bring the heat back to medium and add the three cans of coconut milk. The milk will create the smooth and silky texture found in the soup, and you can adjust how creamy you want the soup to be based on which coconut milk combination you use. I used two cans of full fat coconut milk and one can of lite. You could do three full fat, all three lite, or a combination of the two. The more full fat cans you use, the thicker and creamy the soup base will be. Bring the soup base back up to a gentle, rolling boil and add the pheasant meat chunks. In order for the meat to cook correctly, make sure they are cut into bite size pieces all roughly the same size. Allow to cook for five minutes.
Add the sliced mushrooms to the pot and allow the cook an additional five minutes. With the mushrooms, I used white button mushrooms, but you can substitute in other types. A lot of recipes use shitakes, which add a nutty element to the soup. Baby portabellas or crimini would also be great in this soup, as both have an earthy flavor and a slightly meaty texture.
Turn the heat off from the pot and add the final ingredients to the soup: the fresh squeezed lime and orange juices, and the torn Thai basil. I sometimes struggle with finding Thai basil at my grocery store. They don’t always carry it. I tried to substitute in Italian basil, and I didn’t like the way it worked with the curry flavor. Thai basil has more of a spicy bite to it, while Italian basil can almost be described as sweet. They are two very different flavors. If you can’t find Thai basil at your store, I would actually suggest substituting cilantro or green onions instead of Italian basil.
Well, that is it for this coconut pheasant soup recipe! This soup is easy to put together and has a unique flavor profile of spicy and sweet with a hint of citrus, but it also has great textures and is beautiful to look at! Enjoy!