Hungry in the Heartland: Smothered Pheasant

My roots are in the Midwest, and a return to family, friends and feasts is always a highlight of summer. Chicago with its bright lights and smart shops adjacent to the icy blue waters of Lake Michigan beckons me with the smells of Italian beef, Polish sausage, and the best pizza in the world. Even sterile O'Hare airport greets me with the pungent scents of oregano, fennel seed, and yeasty bread crust.

For several days, however, I leave the city behind to explore the tranquil fields of the heartland. Despite the drought, the fields are green and the corn and soybeans sway in a gentle breeze as I make my way about 90 miles south of the city to Roberts, Illinois, and Green Acres Sportsman's Club. Along the way I drink in the massive old barns, silos, and venerable white farmhouses that still grace the trek. Is there anything more graceful than that trio of beauty and practicality?

Club manager Dan and his wife, Cindy Ihrke, take time out of their busy day to greet me. They are hosting a Ducks Unlimited sporting clays event, and as usual, Dan is everywhere at once. His mornings typically begin at 4 AM, which is considerably before the crack of dawn, as he attends to the needs of the farm’s resident hunting dog population as well as his own pack of prized Labrador retrievers and English cockers. By my arrival Dan has already worked a full day and he is ready to unwind a bit, explaining his philosophy of dog training. It doesn’t sound so awfully different from raising children or teaching high schoolers, two areas of which I have vague recollections. Perhaps he will one day show how these techniques can be applied in other areas, Dan muses as he relaxes in the Clubhouse.

Dan’s love and expertise shine through as he works each dog, the wagging tails and sparkling eyes testimony to his credo that the dog must be having fun to be brilliant. And brilliant they are, as they launch into pond, brush, or field with joyous abandon, their ears always listening for his guiding whistle.

Cindy is equally at home in her domain, the clubhouse kitchen. Today she is putting the finishing touches on a so-tender-you-can-cut-it-with-a-fork smoked brisket, which even this transplanted Texas cannot fault. I have brought some fresh corn – a gold kernels mixed with white like pearl surprises. Her words of wisdom are to soak the ears, husk and all, before I set them on the grill. That way they can steam without burning. Even one finicky guest who prefers his boiled eats with gusto.

Cindy, a onetime vegetarian, has taken to her new life as an omnivore by small degrees. The meat, fish, or fowl, if she can help it, is all fresh, organic and locally grown. She caters to her delightful family of four and the hordes of hungry hunters who descend there en masse as regularly as the flocks they hunt with equal skill and love, creating her dishes from scratch.

Even though it is not quite pheasant season, I ask for her famous Smothered Pheasant recipe, the delectable morsels a memory from last Thanksgiving.

If you cannot make it there for a splendid October with autumn gold fields and the blood red leaves of oaks and maples coloring your day, then take a virtual tour of Green Acres.

A short respite and it's north to Wisconsin, where potatoes join the familiar fields of corn and soy. A Midwest storm heralds our arrival at the 15000-acre Prairie Chicken Grounds just beyond Madison, dark sky and thunderbolts as angry as any thrown by Zeus. My sister Ann and her stalwart veterinarian husband George show the characteristics that have landed them and their pointers so many National Field Trial Championships. They do not hunker inside the splendid RV, but see to the needs of the four horses and six dogs before anything else. I lend my amateur hand to their expert ones, and before long each animal is settled. Still sporting a few ugly bruises from a recent fall from my spirited young Arabian, I marvel at the nerves of steel their Tennessee Walkers exhibit in the storm.

Our plans of an outside barbecue are put on hold and we settle in the camper for my sister’s gourmet version of pot luck -- Portobello mushrooms sautéed in fruity olive oil, Italian sausage and green peppers almost as good as they might have been on the grill. Gary, the manager of the Prairie Chicken Fields, makes a dash for the meal and its camaraderie, arriving soaked but happy with his contribution, fresh that day cheese curds.

Cottage cheese was once called curds and whey, but that analogy does not do justice to these saffron colored orbs of delight. (They bread and deep fry them at the Wisconsin State fairs, where “everything must be eaten on a stick,” and nothing is good unless it’s guaranteed to upset your cardiologist.)

Fellow field trialers Doug and Judy drop in with her home made baked beans, sweet, warm and dark with molasses richness. In between courses we feast on her famous bread and butter pickles, and even this dill loving sour aficionado is won over.

The next day is sky blue and cool and I ride Chief, who my sister Ann guarantees will be gentleman. Their golden retriever, Abby, agrees. We glide over the prairie grasses in a smooth-as-glass pace watching the arrow-straight tails of the pointers peek out from beneath the tall grass.

I ride only one brace, but George keeps going all day, ending it with a soggy walk to the creek to water the hard working steeds.

The time passes all too quickly, the splendor in the grass muting all thoughts of clocks or schedules. On Thursday I ride again, this time keeping up with the dogs to see them point several young birds and then stand stock still while a blank is fired. I am proud that I have not held on to the saddle with my right hand today and thank Chief for restoring my riding confidence.

Back at camp we finally have our barbecue, brats on the grill. I bid a reluctant goodbye to my newfound friends, Gary, Doug, and Judy, who cement my belief that the people of the Heartland are about as grand folks as you will ever find on this earth.

Smothered Pheasant , Aunt June's Refrigerator Pickles

Smothered Pheasant 

  • 8 boneless Breast halves from 4 pheasant
  • 8 Slices of bacon 
  • 1 recipe Onion-Bread Dressing 
  • 3 Tbsp. chicken broth or pheasant stock
  • 1 recipe Easy Veloute Sauce

Onion-bread Dressing

  • 1 med onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup Butter 
  • 1/4 cup herb-seasoned croutons
  • 2 tsp. dried parsley flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. dried crushed sage leaves 
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil 
  • 1/4 tsp. marjoram leaves
  • 1 cup chicken broth or pheasant stock
  • 1 egg

In medium skillet, cook and stir onion in butter over medium heat until tender. Remove from heat: set aside. In medium mixing bowl, combine croutons, parsley, salt, sage, basil, and marjoram; mix well. Stir in onions and butter. In small mixing bowl, blend stock and egg. Add to crouton mixture; mix well.

Prepare Onion bread dressing as directed above, adding 3 additional Tbsp. stock. Heat oven to 350 degrees. 
Pound each breast halve so it is of even thickness. Place _ of the dressing on each of four breast halves. Top with remaining four breast halves. 

Wrap 2 slices bacon around each breast and stuffing bundle. Secure bacon slices with toothpicks. 
Arrange bacon-wrapped bundles in 8-in. square baking dish. Cover baking dish with aluminum foil. Bake for 45 min. 

Remove foil, and bake for 15 min longer. Transfer to serving platter or individual plates. Spoon Easy Veloute sauce over each serving.

Easy Veloute Sauce

  • 2 Tbsp. butter 
  • 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • Dash white pepper
  • 3/4 cup pheasant or chicken broth 
  • 1/4 cup whipping cream or half-and-half
  • Splash of cooking sherry

In small saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Stir in flour, salt, and pepper. Blend in stock and cream. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, add sherry, and simmer until thickened and bubbly, 5 to 7 min. Serve sauce warm.

Aunt June's Refrigerator Pickles

“Here is the recipe that I got from my Aunt June, who was a farmer's wife in south central Minnesota. The recipe is a great way to enjoy all those cucumbers that appear in August.” Judy Reisner

  • 3 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 1 tsp celery salt
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric

Sliced onion (1 large or several small as desired)
Peeled and sliced cucs ( ten to twelve depending on the size)
2 quart jar or 2 one quart jars.

Warm the first six ingredients to dissolve the sugar and release the flavor of the spices. Pack the jar with cucumbers and onion mix and pour the liquid into the jars. Keep refrigerated. They are ready to enjoy in a few hours. As they get used up you can add additional cucumbers to the brine for more pickles.

Recipe source: huntgreenacres.com