by Donald Wilson on February 16, 2011

Pheasant Risotto with Scotch Whiskey

“Andrew, what do you want to do tonight?” I inquired, thinking that he would want to see a movie or something else fun on this Saturday night.

“I want to stay home, watch a video, and eat a big tub of ice cream,” came the reply from behind the bathroom door where he was luxuriating in a big tub of warm water.


“And what do you want to have for dinner?“ I prodded, hoping for some inspiration.

“Hmm, can we have pheasant risotto?” he asked without a hint of how absurd this would sound in any other home.

Man, I love this kid!

Risotto is my comfort food and my fast food all rolled up into one big creamy heap of all that is right and good in the world.

I got started in the kitchen and 40 minutes later (see recipe on how I pull this off), I was serving two big bowls of steamy pheasant risotto; each bite is like a big kiss and hug from an Italian grandma.

Tonight we decided to eat in front of the TV, and I managed to sway the movie choice from action to drama.  We started with an old Steve Martin movie, “L.A. Story,” that is about a man who receives personal messages and clues from a freeway signpost that tell him the direction his life should take.

The movie is very funny, especially if you know an Angelino and are old enough to remember the late eighties:  Open season on the freeways, driving two doors down the street to visit your neighbor, high colonics, and all the rest of L.A.’s craziness is lovingly portrayed with a lemon twist.

But it’s that signpost that gets me every time.  It touches me in a way that a signpost shouldn’t be able to.  I think I get it though.

Life is complicated and there are so many decisions that we have to make.  Each one, no matter how mundane, can have huge life-changing implications.  If you have ever had a car accident, you will remember thinking a version of: “If I had just not gone back in the house for my coffee mug.”  I have often made a last minute decision to buy a lottery ticket, imagining my interview with the nightly news, “I almost didn’t buy it, but decided at the last minute…”  You get the idea.

As we watched the movie, I looked at Andrew and thought about all the decisions that I had to make to have been in the right place, at the right time, to be his teacher during the year his mother passed away.

The year I met Andrew was my first year at the school.  I had been teaching at another school for ten years, when I made a quick decision to change schools after a friend’s phone call with an off -the-cuff remark about an opening at her school.  What if she hadn’t called?  What if they had put me in a different grade?  What if?

That “what if” is why Steve Martin’s signpost can bring tears to my eyes.  Too much of our lives seem to be directed by chance and I often wish I had a mystical, but clear, sign to point me in the right direction.   It would be so much easier.

That’s not the way life works.  Signposts don’t send messages.  Still, I continue to look, to listen, and to search the world for signs.  I often find them.  They don’t come in showy displays of Moses-like revelations; I’ve never seen a burning bush.  But I have been directed.

More often than not, they have come as an opportunity:  An opportunity in which I have to make a leap of faith, or not.   The important decisions are always scary.  Do I leave California and move to Oregon to buy my first house? Do I leave Oregon and move to Mexico to start a restaurant?  Do I leave the safety of my school district and move to the charter system?  Do I apply for that principal’s position after only one year of administrative experience?   Do I bring an orphan home?

Each life-changing decision came as an open door.  The choice was whether I would walk through it or not.  I can honestly say that I have never regretted any time I have answered, “yes.”  Each one of those “yes’s” has led me to where I am today.  Each one was a steppingstone to the best decision so far: to be Andrew’s dad.  Without any one of those choices, I wouldn’t be writing this blog today.

At the end of  L.A. Story, Steve Martin is asked by Victoria Tennant what he will do if she decides to get on the plane and leave.  He tells her, “All I know is, on the day your plane was to leave, if I had the power, I would turn the winds around, and roll in the fog.  I would bring in storms, and I would change the polarity of the earth so compasses couldn’t work, so your plane couldn’t take off.”  She does decide to get on the plane, but this is Hollywood, and the signpost takes over and the winds change and the fog rolls in.

There were many obstacles in the way for me to take Andrew.  It would have been so easy to just “get on a plane” and leave the decision behind.  In desperation, I looked for my own signpost and prayed, “I hear you God, loud and clear.  I know that I’m supposed to be Andrew’s dad.  So much stands in the way, but if you open the door, I will walk through it.”  Maybe it’s because I live in Hollywood, but I believe it’s because I was ready to walk through that door:  The winds turned around, the fog rolled in, the storms came, the polarity of the earth changed, and three days later I was a dad.

Now as I look at Andrew and contemplate what the future has in store, I stand ready to walk through many more doors.  I just hope I have the insight to recognize them as they are opened.


Now I understand that most families can’t go to their fridge and pull out pheasant; however, with all of my family living in Utah, I always have a freezer full of game: elk, venison, quail, duck, and pheasant.  Still, game is not a daily staple and I usually consult a cookbook for guidance.  Recently I saw a recipe for pheasant that was served with a “Cumberland sauce” which sounded interesting:  Scotch whiskey, shallots, thyme, orange zest and juice.

Using that as my inspiration, I came up with Andrew’s pheasant risotto. This recipe is exceptional.  So good, in fact, that I had to share it with neighbors who, Weight Watcher’s aside, couldn’t stop eating it.  I’m sure it will work with chicken or any fowl, but if you have a hunter in your life, definitely try it with pheasant.

Serves 4

2 full pheasant breasts (or any fowl) (about 2 cups shredded meat)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped fine

2 small shallots, chopped fine

3 ounces pancetta, diced

1 ½ cups risotto

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 cup Scotch whiskey  (A peaty/smoky one is best.  Trader Joe’s has a nice one for $17 that’s perfect for cooking.)

5 cups chicken stock

½ cup orange juice

Zest of one large orange

½ teaspoon pepper

Salt to taste

3 tablespoons parsley, chopped

2 tablespoons butter

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

Place the pheasant (or fowl) in 6 cups of chicken stock (homemade if you have it) and bring to a boil.  Let simmer for about 15 minutes and check for doneness.  Remove the breast from the stock and shred or chop the meat; set aside.  If the stock has scum from the breast, strain it and put it back on the stove over a low flame to keep it warm.  You want to have at least 5 cups of stock.

Heat the oil over medium heat and when hot, add pancetta.  After the pancetta renders some fat and begins to brown, add onions and shallots.  Allow to sauté for about 5 minutes.

Set a timer for 18 minutes:  This is an optional step, but if you are new to risotto it helps to keep you on track and know approximately when the rice will be done.

Add the risotto and start timer if using.  Stir over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes.

Add the Scotch and scrape up all the brown spots on the pan. When absorbed, add 1 cup stock and add the both red and black pepper, thyme, and zest.  When absorbed, add another ½ cup and repeat one more time.

At this point, add the orange juice and cook until it is absorbed.  Continue to add broth at ½ cup increments.  Around the 15-minute mark, add the meat and some salt, but go easy and add more at the end if needed.  Continue to stir, adding stock until it is gone.  Around the 18-minute mark, test for doneness.  You want it firm, but creamy.   Turn off the heat and stir in the butter, parsley, and cheese.

Serve in a pasta bowl with a salad and warm, crusty bread.


{ 1 comment }

Donald Wilson February 24, 2011 at 2:44 pm

A friend made this with Chicken and bacon and loved it. She did find that the amount of Whiskey was a bit overpowering and suggests that lowering the amount to 3/4 cup or even 1/2 cup would be better. I was worried about the strength of how much whiskey at first, but with the pheasant it worked well. I also had a very strong homemade stock. Thanks Julia for the feedback. Glad you enjoyed the dish.

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