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gifts and giving

Recipe: pheasant and morel vol au vent

It seems that everyone is checking out for the summer. People are on vacation and no one is reading blog posts. I get it. I get that. If I didn’t feel the compulsion to document my summer activities and my summer recipes (because OCD), I’d go dark over here until Octoberish. I’ll admit I often wonder if I stopped blogging throughout the summer, would I ever pick it up again in the fall? But hey, I probably use my recipe archives more than anyone, so I keep growing it for me and hence, for you. Besides, how else could you experience Neva’s progression from a crazy bad dog to a crazy good dog?

neva enjoying her first paddle of the season (and staying on the board)

a storm cell lets loose over fourteeners in the distance

After spending the past several weeks witnessing reports of spring morel flushes starting in the southern US and spreading north along the East Coast and into the Midwest, and the West Coast reports chiming in throughout, we in the Rocky Mountains have begun to see our flushes. Of course, our morels are going gangbusters after the harvest is nothing more than a memory for the rest of the country, but our time is NOW. I only started foraging black morels (the kind that grow in the Colorado high country) last spring when I found them near Crested Butte by accident. Searching similar environments back home on the Colorado Front Range yielded two very separate and very lonely specimens in 2016.

When you are just starting out on your own, it’s hard to know if you aren’t finding mushrooms because it’s a bad year or they don’t grow there or you’re looking in the wrong environment or because you suck at foraging that kind of mushroom. But now I am into my second season, so I can add the dimension of time to my morel data. Yes, they came up again in Crested Butte, but better than that – Jeremy and I found a motherlode on the Front Range based on what we know about morel environments and what we scoped out last fall. Countless hours and miles of reconnaissance, tracking snowpack and precipitation history, studying satellite imagery and topographic maps have paid off because SCIENCE WORKS!

a little party of morels (4 in the picture, but 12 total)

a pretty nice haul

My foraging buddy, Erin, has also been on the prowl for black morels on the Front Range since last spring with an even worse record than my two mushrooms. She found one. We email one another about mushroom hunting in the dead of winter, contemplating places to check when the snows finally recede. We research, document, study, archive, search for, and have lengthy discussions about mushrooms. Erin and I had a foraging date set for the morning after Jeremy and I found the motherlode, but we hadn’t decided on where to go because we didn’t know where the morels were at the time. I don’t give away my mushroom spots to anyone except for Jeremy (natch) and Erin. Erin is my partner in foraging crime. We are both afflicted with this extremely nerdy obsession/sickness and we happen to be damn good hawkeye foragers. It was time for a Righteous and Proper Mountain Girls’ Foray, so I took her to the magical kingdom of morels. Biggest haul ever! [We left our pups at home because the environment would have made Banjo unhappy and I’m pretty sure high-energy Neva would have crushed every single morel underfoot, twice over, before we could even get eyes on them.]

erin harvests a morel


and that’s just her share – what a happy girl

When you spend seven hours crawling through the woods giving yourselves eyestrain headaches and experiencing highs and lows (finding and not finding morels) like a drug addict, it’s inevitable to talk about a whole host of topics, including your plans for the morels. My early haul morels are almost always slated for recipes that I want to test and shoot for the blog. Once I meet that quota, the rest will be sautéed in butter and stored in the freezer for winter or dried for various projects. Today’s recipe came about because my neighbors’ teenage son gave me two whole pheasant breasts from a hunting trip last fall as a thank you for a career brainstorming session with me and Jeremy. Game birds pair nicely with wild mushrooms, and now I had both!

morels, bacon, salt, pepper, brandy, egg, puff pastry, shallots, water, cream, butter, pheasant breasts

I decided the recipe would have to involve diced pheasant meat because all but one of the breasts had been torn through with pellets. Pheasant and morels served in puff pastry? Yes! How about some bacon? Yes! And some cream and a splash of brandy? Aw, hell yes! After several hours of walking cross country through the mountains in a Tai Chi-esque semi-lunge looking for morels, I don’t feel like making puff pastry from scratch when I get home. These morels don’t clean themselves and these recipes most certainly don’t make and photograph themselves. It’s okay to use store-bought puff pastry, as long as it is good puff pastry. Vols au vent are basically little baskets of buttery, flaky puff pastry deliciousness with space to hold even more deliciousness of your choice. It’s like an edible cup with all the calories you’ll need for the week.

cut out the bases and rings of the vols au vent

dock the bases

brush with egg wash

layer the rings and brush the tops with egg wash

I’m fairly certain you can purchase pre-made vols au vent in the freezer section at some grocery stores. I prefer to make my own because the pre-made ones leave a weird hydrogenated oil film on my mouth, which I cannot stand. Proper puff pastry made with real butter has a limited shelf life and costs more, but it’s totally worth it. Another reason to make your own vols au vent is that most of the ones in the store are canapé size – smallish. I like to make bigger ones for dinner. My only gripe about the pre-made dough is that it shears a little when you roll it flat and as a result, doesn’t bake into perfect circles like it would if I had made my own pastry dough. But most people don’t make these to be photographed. Most people make these to stuff into their pie holes.

set a silpat or sheet of foil on top (for even rise)

bake until puffy and golden

The vols au vent can be made up to a day ahead. If you are entertaining, this takes some of the last minute pressure off. Actually, the filling can also be made ahead and gently reheated before serving, so this might be a great make ahead appetizer or entrée if you are into high payoff for moderate effort and a little planning. I realize that planning ahead for some folks is akin to cutting off their right hand. I no longer press the issue when I spend time with non-planners. I just smile and pretend to enjoy myself while everything around us goes to hell in a hand basket. It’s a slightly less stressful route than fretting over lack of planning while everything around us goes to hell in a hand basket.

Now you can use any wild edible (key word is EDIBLE) mushroom in this recipe, but right now, I have fresh morels. Morels are the only mushrooms I willingly wash in water as opposed to wiping clean with a damp paper towel or a mushroom brush. If I foraged the morels myself, I simply swish each one in cold water several times to dislodge debris from those little pits and then fill the hollow with water and shake the water out. For caked on mud or dirt, I will run cold water over the spot and gently rub it with my finger or pick out debris from the pits with a toothpick. You have to be careful when manhandling morels as their ridges are brittle and quite fragile. When the morel is clean, I cup my hand and fingers around the mushroom like a cage and gently shake out any excess water. Then I lay it on kitchen towels or paper towels to dry for as much as an hour or two. Store-bought morels are a different matter. I find those can and usually do contain worms, so I slice them in half lengthwise and then clean them. If they are too wormed out, I chuck those mushrooms into the most morel-friendly habitat in my yard in the hope that they will someday fruit.

slice the morels

prepped: pheasant, morels, shallots, bacon

While I only use one sauté pan for the filling, it does require cooking each ingredient separately. But you only have one pan to wash! I dry fry my morels to extract most of the water and have it boil off before searing them in butter. Since I cook on stainless steel (because I like the sear), the morels do stick as the liquid boils off. Most will eventually release from the pan, but if there are a few stubborn ones, a quick scrape from a sharp, thin metal spatula should get it right off. Don’t worry – all of the flavorful browned bits on the pan will be incorporated into the filling one way or another.

fry the bacon

cook the pheasant in a little of the bacon grease

when done, remove the pheasant from the pan

dry fry the morels

boil off all the liquid

Now we’re ready to make the filling using that same pan because you don’t want to throw out all of the delectable residue from the bacon, pheasant, and morels. Sauté the shallots in a little butter until soft, then add another pat of butter and the morels. This is when I try to get a little sear on the morels. Next, the pheasant and bacon and brandy are stirred in. If you don’t want to use alcohol, I think you could substitute with chicken broth, roast chicken broth, or pheasant broth. But that brandy adds such a nice flavor. After the liquid is almost simmered off, stir in the cream and let it simmer for a couple of minutes to thicken. Then season with salt and pepper.

fired up and ready to go

add butter and the morels to the sautéed shallots

stir in the pheasant, bacon, and brandy

when the brandy is almost boiled off, add the cream

simmer until the cream thickens a little

When the filling is done, spoon it into the vols au vent and let the sauce spill over the sides because creamy sauce and flaky puff pastry is a match made in heaven. I don’t recall having had pheasant before, but this meat was so sweet and flavorful that I don’t think I can ever look at chicken breasts the same way again. It did remind me of grouse, another favorite wild game bird which would also be amazing in this recipe. We made sure to send some over to our neighbors who originally gave us the pheasant – a sort of thank you for the thank you gift – and they loved it (okay, the son doesn’t like mushrooms which meant the father happily got double morels). And while fresh wild morels and wild pheasant may not necessarily be easy to come by, you can certainly make this with other edible mushrooms and other fowl or game. This recipe is so good it makes me contemplate getting a hunting license and training my CRAZY Neva to be a bird dog! Okay, maybe just the first part.

plated with asparagus and butter-seared morels

gifts from the land

Pheasant and Morel Vol au Vent
[print recipe]

vol au vent
1 lb. puff pastry dough (here is a good scratch puff pastry dough recipe)
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp water

4 oz. bacon, medium dice
12 oz. pheasant breast, medium dice
6 oz. fresh morel or other wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thick
2 tbsps unsalted butter
2 shallots, minced
1/4 cup brandy
1 cup heavy cream
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make the vols au vent: Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll out the puff pastry dough to about 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Using a 3-inch diameter circular cutter, cut out as many circles as you can, making sure to cut straight down without twisting (this can press the layers together and prevent rising). Use a 1 1/2-inch diameter cutter to cut a centered hole in half of the dough discs – again, no twisting. Evenly distribute the solid discs on the baking sheet and dock (poke several holes into) each one with a fork, taking care not to poke all the way through the dough. Mix the egg yolk and water together. Brush the discs with the egg wash and top each disc with a dough ring, aligning the edges. Brush the tops of the rings with egg wash and make sure you don’t let the egg wash drip over the sides (it could prevent rising). Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Place a silpat or sheet of foil on top of the pastries (to encourage even rising) and bake for 10-15 minutes until the rings have risen and turned golden. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and remove the silpat or foil from the pastries. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Make the filling: Fry the bacon in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until crisp. Remove the cooked bacon to a bowl and drain off all of the bacon grease except for 2 tablespoons. Turn the heat to medium high and add the pheasant to the pan. Sear the meat until almost cooked. Remove the pheasant and any juices to the same bowl as the bacon. Keep the heat on medium high and add the morels. Dry fry the morels until they give up their water. Let the water boil off. Flip the pieces when they stop sticking to the pan and let the other side dry fry for a minute. Remove the mushrooms to a different bowl. Drop a tablespoon of butter in the pan and add the shallots. Sauté over medium high heat until soft. Add the second tablespoon of butter and the morels. Sear the morels. Stir the bacon, pheasant, and brandy into the pan. Let the brandy simmer off until a tablespoon of liquid remains. Pour in the cream and reduce the heat to medium. Let come to a simmer and cook for a few minutes until slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper.

Assemble: Fill each vol au vent with hot pheasant and morel filling. Make sure to drizzle some of the cream sauce over each pastry. Makes 8 3-inch vols au vent.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

fried morel mushrooms morel asparagus prosciutto lemon pasta morel bourbon cream sauce seared duck breast with huckleberry gastrique

28 nibbles at “gifts and giving”

  1. Melissa says:

    I was gifted with 6 whole pheasant breasts by my coworker this fall. I still have three left. They’ve been delightful! Never had them prior, so it’s been a nice food discovery.


    And agree about the recipe archiving. I know I don’t have to tell YOU this, but I learned long ago that I care about it for ME, even if no one else ever reads it. I use my archives constantly and I’m sure I always will. It’s like our grandparents keeping little notebooks of recipes, for their own reference, but, you know, online. I love my own stuff and it’s worth getting it down for keeps. :)

  2. Kristin says:

    Still reading all of your posts!! This looks scrumptious, though I just saw a gorgeous pheasant while we were driving through Iowa this weekend, so perhaps I would use chicken…not that chickens can’t be gorgeous…guess I shouldn’t go down that road!

    I post oodles of garden photos on FB, mainly for my reference as it is interesting to compare bloom dates for different years, and also for my gardener friends. It’s kind of funny when someone decides to say a photo isn’t good enough. I usually laugh it off, but sometimes feel the need to explain that I am shooting w/o a tripod, so I am holding my breath, and the flower is moving in the breeze, you don’t have to look at the photos if they don’t please you, etc. But it’s easier to say, “Hey, I’m just posting for my own self!

  3. SK Anderson says:

    Rarely comment but always look forward to your posts. Really appreciate the effort that goes into them.

  4. Debbie Smith says:

    I always read every post. Love your blog, such amazing photography & recipes. You make such interesting & beautiful dishes.

  5. Kelly says:

    Wow impressive! We are actually visiting CO right now on vacation and I could not help but reflect on your pretty pictures that describe the beauty so well! The quick rising storms also scare me. Happy morel hunting!

  6. Sophia says:

    I’ve never posted before, but I wanted to say how much I appreciate the work you put into each post. I’ll be at my desk in London this summer working (and dreaming of the mountains) so please keep posting photographs and recipes. They truly brighten up my day.

  7. Bette says:

    >> I realize that planning ahead for some folks is akin to cutting off their right hand. I no longer press the issue when I spend time with non-planners. I just smile and pretend to enjoy myself while everything around us goes to hell in a hand basket. It’s a slightly less stressful route than fretting over lack of planning while everything around us goes to hell in a hand basket.

    LMAO! So true!

  8. debbie says:

    Always read your posts regularly and comment occasionally. Love the ones about Neva! My last post was over a year ago. I have found that once I gave myself a break it was hard to get back into it! I also used to read many more blogs years back but so many are just filled with advertisements so there are only a few I read regularly anymore.

  9. Ouida Lampert says:

    I have unsubscribed to so many blogs for so many reasons. Of those that I continue to receive, I read few because of time constraints and changing interests. But I read yours, through to the end. It doesn’t matter a whit that I cannot make many of your recipes (food allergies), or that I can’t train my dog (it’s me, not her), or that I live in a flat place with no glorious mountains, or that the level of physical fitness that you practice leaves me breathless. None of that matters because you write so well, so engagingly. And that is a rare quality, rare enough that I want more.

    Thank you for the treat.

  10. Engrid says:

    Please, please don’t go “dark” because I look forward to every single one of your blogs. Thank you for sharing your life.

  11. angelitacarmelita says:

    What a haul and look at those beauties! I never thought about freezing morels, only drying them. What a great idea… now if I can only get my hands on them here in NOVA… it’s still cool enough and it’s been damp enough, but we’re starting to see more 80 degree and above days now (so late for us this year). My local Whole Paycheck continues to carry them, so someone around here is locating them. We had a bumper ramp season here, and I’ve pickled a ton of those and blackberries are coming in. Ah, my favorite time of year…

  12. Pey-Lih says:

    Vacation? What vacation? I am still reading your blogs! Keep them coming….I am just quietly observing.

  13. Cathy says:

    Of all the blogs I follow, yours is my favorite. I look forward to reading it and enjoy seeing all your photos of Neva and Colorado. And of course, your recipes are always mouthwatering!

  14. Mary Karen says:

    Please know that your Blog brings me such JOY, which sadly is becoming more of a rare commodity in these troubling times. So to put it bluntly, I NEED your blog! It speaks to me on so many levels I can’t (and you’ll thank me that I won’t) go into it in depth here…but trust me on this. I’m certain your faithful readers would miss it greatly if you took some time off for “refreshment”, but would encourage you to do what you fell you need to do to keep is enjoyable for YOU as well. FYI ~ I don’t “reply” much because I’m not a great writer and don’t want to bore people with mundanities (spell ck seems to think I made up that word…?). And finally (see, I DO drone on once I get started), I even purchased some morels (@ $39.99/lb…ouch!) in order to try some of your oh so delicioso-looking recipes.

  15. Veronica says:

    I read your blog even when I am on vacation. Please don’t go “dark” especially during the summer when everybody else is on vacation ! Love your blog !

  16. Veronica says:

    I read your blog even when I am on vacation. Please don’t go “dark” especially during the summer when everybody else is on vacation ! Love your blog, thanks for sharing.

  17. Christine Zarp says:

    Hi, I read your posts and love your stories, photos and recipes, I always look forward to the dog pic. Even though I love cats, I find your stories about Neva so touching……I have been reading for several years but never comment, I think a lot of others do too so please know that people are reading and enjoying your excellent blog. I have never tried those mushrooms but you make them look delicious!

  18. maggie says:

    I would miss you all summer if you disappeared till October! Jealous of your morel hauls… I found not a one here in NJ this year. ~pouting

  19. Lisa says:

    I read every post. One of my favourite things about Google is the automatic notification that my most read blogs have a new post up.

  20. Beck says:

    I’m another following your exploits through summer as I work through winter in Australia, so no holidays here for a while! And I also enjoy reading about skiing whole we swelter through summer :)

  21. jillian says:

    another “read every post”er! i love your recipes but also your puppy pictures and philosophizing on your good life. i would miss you!

  22. Jill Hyde says:

    I hope you know I read your blogs…only go dark if you need to. Honestly, I love the Neva updates and living vicariously through your adventures, and then the recipes. I only make the simplest of your recipes (pork chops), but I LOVE all the photos.

    Look how many people have posted in the past 2 days, and some are dedicated readers, but not posters. I’ve been part of an organization for years, and as president I put out a monthly newsletter. I rarely got feedback on it, even if I spent hours on it. I tried not to take it personally. I would notice if you left without explanation!

    Enjoy your summer. xo, jill

  23. Kara says:

    Lots of us are still reading!

  24. Liz says:

    Those of us who are reading are drooling right now. I love reading about you and your food and I really appreciate you.

  25. Heather says:

    Please keep posting! I check every day or so for a new post even though I know your schedule isn’t that frequent. Blog reading is my guilty pleasure. I am sitting on my cabin deck, watching the sunset with a glass of wine while I am half-thinking you are a cruel, cruel woman for using puff pastry, cream, bacon, mushrooms and peasant all in the same recipe. (I am joking)

    I adore pheasant cooked in all manner of ways. I come from a family of hunters and grew up in an area with prime pheasant hunting. It’s been a few years since we were gifted any birds :(

    Your thoughts on diced duck breast as a subsitute for the pheasant?

  26. Susanne says:

    Omg, thank you for this inspiration! I’m totally making this.
    Jen, I love your blog. Thanks for keeping it going!

  27. Rose says:

    Add me to the list of those who completely appreciate the gift of this blog. I read each post; devour the commentary; love the photography (you are my inspiration for food photography; gather inspiration from the recipes.

  28. jenyu says:

    Melissa – Oh you LUCKY DUCK!!! I *love* pheasant! I think I need to learn to hunt, because just about every wild game fowl tastes a bazillion times better to me than chicken :) And a *fistbump* to you sistah for keeping it real on your blog and maintaining it for you. I have to say, sometimes I pull up an old recipe and read a story about Kaweah that I had forgotten about. It’s like a recipe diary of sorts :)

    Kristin – Chicken could work, although I do think pheasant or grouse have a sweetness to them that chicken lacks. And chickens can definitely be gorgeous :) Seriously? Someone tells you a photo isn’t good enough? Some people… Kudos to you for posting for yourself. I kinda love that aspect of archiving!

    SK Anderson – So nice of you to comment, and thank you! xo

    Debbie Smith – Thank you, that is sweet of you to say!

    Kelly – Thanks and I hope you had a nice visit to Colorado!

    Sophia – Oh, I really appreciate your commenting for the first time :) And I think summer is when I tend to post photos the most, so I hope it helps your office hours go by faster :)

    Bette – *wink*

    debbie – Yeah, I think that’s what I’m afraid of – losing my mojo after enjoying a break! But I feel that doing this regularly is a good thing for me and maybe for others who read and want to use the recipes ;)

    Ouida Lampert – You are too kind, my dear. Thank you and I am happy that this little corner can bring you some enjoyment xoxo

    Engrid – Don’t worry! So far I have well over 50 recipes in queue to post :)

    angelitacarmelita – Our local Whole Foods has morels, too. They come from Oregon (I have read that commercial foragers pick in burn sites which produce crazy amounts of morels). But even if you don’t find any, at least you have ramps! I’ve never tried a ramp before!

    Pey-Lih – :)

    Cathy – That is an incredibly sweet thing to say – thank you! xo

    MK – I promise to do what I feel I need to do, but for now I am happy to keep posting. If I ever run out of recipes to share, I might just resort to posting dog and mountain photos ;) And you know, the Superior Costco carried morels for cheap last year, but I never saw them this year! Poo :(

    Veronica – Aw, thanks! xo

    Christine Zarp – I like cats, too (I’m just allergic to them) and have many “cat” people for friends :) Thank you for chiming in and I’m glad you enjoy the blog xoxo

    maggie – I completely understand the pouting and I really really hope you find a morel this season (even one is better than none!). And while it would be great to take the summer off, I actually think some of my favorite recipes are from summer!

    Lisa – :)

    Beck – Oh Australia, such a beautiful land! Happy to be able to share my corner of the world with you! xo

    jillian – xxoo

    Jill Hyde – Dear friend, I would never go dark on you – not to worry :) xo

    Kara – Thank you! :)

    Liz – Really glad to know that and thank you for commenting! xxoo

    Heather – First off, you are one lucky girl to come from a family of hunters. I have only recently enjoyed the fruits of hunting from my many friends who hunt (deer, elk, grouse, pheasant, duck, etc.). Second, I think you need to remind your family that you are in need of some pheasant. Lastly, I also wondered if duck would make a good substitute for the pheasant. I think it would, although the flavor would be less sweet. I just love all those wild game birds :)

    Susanne – I hope you liked the recipe! :) xo

    Rose – Thank you, sweetie. I apparently have the best readership in the world. You are all such wonderful people! <3

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