Valentine’s Pigeons, a recipe for lovebirds

There is a legend that recounts that Saint Valentine miraculously helped two young people fall in love by rounding up a pairs of amorous pigeons to fly around them, inspiring the Italian term for lovebirds, piccioncini, which more precisely (and aptly) translates as ‘little pigeons’.

Since then, lovebirds (or little pigeons as the case may be) all over the world have been celebrating the Saint’s day on February 14th all in the name of love and what a better way to do it than romancing your better half by cooking them a pigeon. Aside from this appropriately romantic story, pigeons are known as the king of poultry. They have wonderful gamey meat that is dark, juicy and tasty with very little fat – absolutely delicious. Bought from specialty butchers, domestically-reared, farmed pigeon is known as squab, and is usually younger and plumper than their wild pigeon or dove cousins.

Pigeon, piccione in Italian, like any game with feathers, is and has always been popular in Italian cuisine. Roasted, or made into a rich ragu dressing handmade pasta, you can find piccione in many forms in countryside osterie (rest assured, these are wild pigeons, not the ones you see scavenging outdoor cafes in Florentine piazzas).

My favourite 19th century Italian cookbook author, Pellegrino Artusi, lists several ways of preparing pigeon, from braising them with sweetbreads and truffles to grilling them on skewers. He even throws in a traditional English recipe of pigeon pie. And although Elizabeth David is sometimes not keen on pigeon, in Italian Food (1954) she agrees with Artusi that their favourite way of cooking pigeon is with peas.

But the recipe I want to share with you is inspired by a Venetian way of preparing young pigeon or squab known as Piccione Farcito col Pastin. The pigeon is deboned, filled with sausage meat, wrapped up in pancetta and roasted with herbs. This simple, special dish would be served with some soft polenta in the Veneto. Will it make two people fall in love? There’s only one way to find out!

Squab stuffed with sausage and herbs

Serves 2

  • 2 squabs* (pigeons), cleaned and deboned
  • 150 grams of Italian sausages, casings removed
  • 12 thin slices of pancetta bunches of fresh sage and rosemary
  • olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Take a handful of sage leaves and rosemary leaves and either chop finely by hand or in a food processor. Mix the herbs with the sausage meat (remove and discard the casings) and set aside.

Debone the squab, removing the wishbone, rib cage and spine. You can keep the drumsticks and wings on if you like or remove the wings for use in a stock. If you have never done this before, what are you waiting for? There is a very good explanation and video for deboning a quail here, which is very similar to squab, just a little smaller. Ideally, try to keep the skin intact, but if you have trouble you can simply cut along the back bone and are saved by the fact that the pancetta will act as a second skin and butcher’s twine will wrap around and hold the bird together.

Stuff the squab with the sausage and herb mixture – enough to fill the cavity of the bird so that it is roughly the same shape as before you deboned it. Carefully wrap the pancetta around the birds and tie with kitchen string to hold the shape. I like to tuck some fresh herbs into the kitchen string too.

Brown the birds on all sides in a hot skillet with some olive oil for a few minutes then place in a baking tray on top of handfuls of fresh herbs and roast in the oven for 25 minutes.

Remove the squab from the oven and allow to rest, covered with tin foil in a warm place, for 15 minutes before serving. Squab can and should be (and is delicious) served slightly pink.

For the side dish, try a simple fennel and potato gratin: slice the vegetables finely and layer them in a baking dish. Pour over about 100ml of fresh cream, dot with butter and top with a handful of finely grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for about 20-30 minutes or until golden. It’s a nice side to go with roast poultry or fish in general and of course Italians love fennel for its positive digestive properties so this is a good choice if you have a romantic night in mind!

*[I should thank Ben Shewry for pointing me in the right direction regarding where to find squab in Melbourne. For anyone looking, Glenloth and Wangara are the sources for wholesale in Victoria; I found Wangara squab and other Glenloth poultry at John Cesters Poultry at the Prahran markets.]

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Comments

11 Responses to “Valentine’s Pigeons, a recipe for lovebirds”
  1. Rosa says:

    Oh, a fantastic and tasty meal! I’ve eaten pigeon only once and loved it.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. Louisa says:

    This looks great. I don’t have much experience cooking pigeon but this really makes me want to give it a go!

  3. Fantastic recipe! I saw squabs @ the market the other day !!

  4. It seems a slightly cruel fate for the piccionini that inspired Valentine’s Day to end up in the lovers’ stomachs…but I’m not complaining, pigeon is far too delicious not to give this a go! I love pan frying pigeon breasts as they taste so wonderfully meaty, but this looks like a much more decadent way to enjoy them for a special occasion. My boyfriend would absolutely adore this – thank you for the recipe :-)

    • Emiko says:

      I see what you mean! But I look at it a bit like the way chocolate bunnies are popular at Easter time :) Pan frying is also a lovely way to prepare pigeon – this recipe makes a really generously sized portion too, you could almost share the one pigeon between two depending on how hungry you are!

  5. Sarah says:

    I have eaten squab in restaurants, but never prepared it at home. What a beautiful recipe to start with!

    • Emiko says:

      Aside from the deboning, which can be fiddly until you get used to it, it’s an easy first-time squab recipe and the pancetta makes a forgiving cover up in case the deboning goes awry!

  6. chanette says:

    Love the idea of stuffed pigeon… However, trouble is that in Denmark I cannot find already made italian sausage. I’ve tried to make them but my recipe is not all that tuscan and I am not satisfied. Do you happen to have any you would like to share? :)

    • Emiko says:

      The recipe I believe is 70% pork meat, 30% fat, fennel seeds (definitely!) and for the salt, measure 20g per kilo. At Poggio Alloro where I watched them making sausage, they also added some garlic which had been macerated in plenty of Chianti riserva ;)

  7. leonardo mckeono says:

    Hello again Emiko
    are you in Italy or OZ ..?

    Pigeon /Squab sounds absolutely delicious….

    I used to shoot them in the country when i was young and we would
    make a simple casserole / stew in a camp oven ..always remember how
    beautiful they were , although they had little meat except for a plump breast
    so a few pigeon were needed for the meal……

    Had a giggle at your herb bundle and reference earlier to the late and great Elizabeth David
    who described sage [ and her dislike of ] as tasting like dried blood….hahaha..

    Nice burnt crisp in oil to flavour it ..Tarragon is my poultry fave…also Sweet Marjoram ,
    Lemon Thyme…mmmm…am making a pasta for my dinner..just been picking Lemon Thyme
    and almost ‘ picked ‘ a red bellied black snake ..after all our rain ..
    it’s having frogs and lizards for dinner…thankfully not me.

    xx..Len

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