As I sit here about to write-up this recipe for pheasant meatballs with sweet apples and onions in an apple and brandy sauce, the one who made this all possible is curled up right on top of my feet. I call her my puppy, but she is no longer a puppy. She is a seasoned, seven year-old chocolate lab with a passion for pheasant hunting named Sienna. I am not a bird dog trainer. To be honest, I am not even much of a day-to-day discipline dog owner. Sienna knows a few simple commands, like sit and lay, and she is probably the best heeler I have ever met. I didn’t teach her that though, she just kind of naturally decided that her place when walking with you is pressed against your right knee. And like I didn’t teach her to heel, I certainly didn’t teach her to hunt.
I have only been bird hunting for a few years, and Sienna has been hunting even less than that. She spent her first five or six seasons wandering around through the reeds, most of the time behind you, smelling everything but bird scent. I had actually given up on pheasant hunting trips being anything more to her than just walks through horribly thick vegetation. I was trying to learn the ins-and-outs of pheasant hunting myself, I certainly didn’t have time to learn how to train a very unenthusiastic chocolate lab.
Three seasons ago, something changed in that little chocolate lab that I can’t explain. She was wandering around, sniffing at her leisurely pace, lackadaisically pushing reeds and brush out of her way. Our hunting group ignored her as usual and continued on our way. She jumped a bird, and no one even took a shot because of the shock of the entire situation. She jumped three more that day, and left the field a new girl.
This season was a very uneventful one. In three weeks, we jumped one bird, which of course we missed. There just wasn’t anything out in all the usual places. Sienna seemed bored while we were hunting, returning to her old habits of smelling flowers instead of working. I complained a lot about carrying my shot gun and having to walk through such rough terrain. It was a disappointing season, which resulted in a sour attitude.
I had given up on the whole idea of even trying to hunt anymore when the closing day arrived. I’m sure everyone has experienced that feeling. You go out into the field, it is empty and lonely. That desolate atmosphere makes you think life must not even exist in this area because there aren’t even bugs. You dramatically decide to give up hunting forever. And then the closing day arrives, and you can’t ignore the nagging desire to go out just one more time, just to make sure there really is no hope. I had hit that point. I thought Sienna had as well, but I was wrong. Closing day of the season was one of the best hunts ever. Sienna was jumping roosters and hens, tracking them down, retrieving, flushing. You name it, she was doing it. It just goes to prove, you never know what is going to happen out there in the field.
In honor of a memorable closing day to the 2016 pheasant season, I decided to make a pheasant dinner for everyone out in the field with me and my splendid chocolate pooch. One of my favorite methods for preparing pheasant breast is to grind them, straight from the bird with no added fat or other meats, and make them into a flavor packed meatball. I used the same meatball base for this recipe as I did for pheasant marsala meatballs. The recipe can be found for those at this link: Pheasant Marsala Meatballs.
To start, cut two pheasant breasts into large chunks and drop them straight into your meat grinder. I use the 3/8″ hole meat grinder plate when I make meatballs. It is also a good idea to have the meat at a relatively cold temperature when grinding. This will help to prevent the machine from pulverizing the meat, or as some people term is “mashing” the meat through the plate. A lot of people even partially freeze the meat before grinding it.
Preheat the oven broiler to high. To the ground pheasant, add panko bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, fresh chopped parsley, a dash of nutmeg, salt and pepper, milk, and a beaten egg. Mix everything together, and my suggestion is to use your hands for this part. They let you really get down in there and work everything together. Another suggestion I have when making meatballs is to not take the recipe word-for-word. For example, it says to use a cup of panko and two tablespoons of milk per pound of ground pheasant, but you might want your meatball a bit drier or a bit wetter. Also, the moisture level of the meat can play into how dry or wet the meatball turns out. When I am making meatballs, I always start at a base point of one cup panko and the two tablespoons of milk, but if the meat isn’t rolling into nice balls that hold together well, I will add more panko or milk slowly until they start to form the way I want. Also, you can roll the meatballs into whatever size you want, but for this recipe I used about a tablespoon of meat mixture per ball.
Place the meatballs on an ungreased baking sheet and put in the oven for five to seven minutes. They will not be cooked all the way through, but that is okay. They will finish cooking in the sauce.
While the meatballs are broiling away in the oven, it is time to start on the brandy apple and onion sauce. Slice the apple into wedges about a half to an inch thick (be sure to remove the core first). Cut the onions into long, slender slices. To a large skillet, add a tablespoon of cooking oil, I used olive but you could use canola or vegetable if that is what you have on hand. Heat the pan to medium high heat and drop in the onion slices. Allow them to cook for two to three minutes and then add in the apple slices. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle in the minced rosemary and cinnamon, and cook for five minutes more. If you like a little heat to your dishes, add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes.
Once the apples and onions are starting to soften, and the room should be filling with the rustically sweet smells of cinnamon and apples, deglaze the pan with a half cup of brandy. Brandy is a fruit-based wine that is distilled into a liquor and the taste varies depending on the fruit used. I think the subtly sweet fruit flavor of brandy really highlights the apple and onion flavor in this dish, and nothing can compare to the aromas that brandy adds to a dish. The house smells great at this point! Let the apples and onions simmer in the brandy for two or three minutes.
Next, add two cups of apple cider and two cups of chicken broth to the pan. In a small cup, mix a tablespoon of cornstarch with two tablespoons of water. Mix until the cornstarch is broken down and there are no chunks. Add the cornstarch mixture to the pan and stir. Bring the pan to a light boil and then let it simmer for about five minutes. The sauce should start to thicken and become glossy. After five minutes, add the meatballs to the pan, coating them in the sauce, and let the entire beautifully orchestrated dish simmer for an additional five minutes. The flavors will really start to develop, with strong tastes of sweet apples and onion, and the meatballs will be cooked perfectly.
I served the pheasant apples and onions over simple white rice. If you are someone that likes a little more hearty dish, a great substitute would also be a mashed sweet potato or russet potato. The sauce created from the brandy, cider, and stock really soaks up well in some type of a meal base, but if you were so inclined you could also just eat the meatballs straight-up. Garnish with some nice fresh minced parsley.
Pheasant, apples, and onions are a tasty combination! Pheasant is actually quite a mild meat, so it really pairs well with robust flavors like apple and onion. The brandy also adds a new depth to the sauce of this dish and really kicks up the rustic flavor of the apple cider and hint of cinnamon. This meal is perfect for a quick meal during the week, but it is also a great one for introducing friends and family to pheasant. Enjoy!