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
- 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.]