It was opening morning of archery season. My daughter, Kerri, and I headed out of camp to hunt downhill to an ancient elk wallowing area in the bottom of a bowl of fir, pine, and quaking aspen. We hadn’t gone a hundred yards from camp when a blue grouse flushed off the trail and into a huge subalpine fir. My broadhead-tipped arrow whistled through it, and the bird tumbled from the tree. I quickly gutted it, saving the heart and liver, and then took it back to camp where I laid it upon some ice; it would be the making for a fine dinner later in the week.
For me, grouse are a treasured addition to the larder during my September elk and deer hunts. There are three species that inhabit my area: ruffed, spruce (better known around here at fool hens), and blue grouse (also known as sooty, dusky, pine, and mountain grouse, but I will always call them blue grouse). All of them are excellent table fare, and there are myriad ways to prepare them: sautéed, baked, braised, stuffed, or boned and wrapped in bacon are some of the ways I prepare them. However, one of my classical preparations when in elk camp is to roast them in a Dutch oven over an open fire.
In my opinion, all game birds should be plucked if at all possible —I even pluck dove and quail. Not only does the skin add an exceptional flavor and texture, it also helps keep the bird moist while cooking. Game birds are lean, and can become quite dry, so cooking with the skin on, and not overcooking them, brings a welcomed dish to the table.
Here is one of the simplest recipes I use, which will feed three to four ravishing bowhunters in camp:
Dutch Oven Grouse Recipe
- One large grouse, preferably plucked
- One large onion, sliced in rounds
- 4 carrots cut in half
- 4 medium potatoes cut into quarters
- 3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, sliced in quarters
- 2 small tomatoes, halved (adds acid and helps tenderize the meat)
- 1 cup chopped or canned mushrooms
- Olive oil
- Cooking sherry or Marsala (makes a lovely sauce)
- 1 can Golden Mushroom soup (or plain mushroom if you can’t find Golden)
- 3/4 cup water
- Johnny’s Seasoning Salt or other seasoning of your choice
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon curry powder (optional, but adds immense flavor)
You will need to get your fire going early so you will have enough coals to cook with. Sprinkle a tablespoon or two of sherry over the grouse, then season with Johnny’s Seasoning Salt or other seasoning salt, pepper, and curry, rubbing the mixture over the entire bird. Set aside to marinate while you prepare all your vegetables. You can add any vegetable of your choice, but the basic mirepoix of carrot, celery, and onion adds sweetness to the dish. I have used turnips, corn on the cob, sweet potato, zucchini, wild mushrooms…it’s really up to you!
Once you have enough coals, shovel an even layer under a tripod for hanging the Dutch oven. You can also set the oven on the coals directly, but hanging it above the coals will allow for a more evenly distributed, and manageable, heat. Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to the oven and once it starts to smoke brown the grouse quickly and set it aside. Add the onions first to provide a bed to keep the bird off the bottom of the oven and prevent scorching. Put the grouse on top of the onions breast side down (this helps keep the breast juicy), and then add the rest of the vegetables. In a bowl, empty the contents of the soup and blend with ¾ cup of water and pour over everything. I add a tablespoon of sherry as well to the mix, which creates a beautiful sauce. Cover, adjust the height to get the oven up to cooking temperature, and shovel a layer of coals on the lid. This helps cook from the top as well as the bottom. You will have to add more coals to the top as the old ones turn to ashes.
Cooking time will vary depending on how much heat you have and how full the oven is. Normally, I wait until I see steam coming out from under the lid and then start keeping time. After 40-45 minutes, I pull the oven off the tripod and pull the lid. I keep a meat thermometer in my grub box and poke the breast and thighs, looking for about 160°F to 170°F. You can also poke a knife into the breast and check the color of the fluid to make sure it is clear. Once cooked, cover and let it rest for ten minutes before diving in. Make sure you ladle the sauce over the meat and vegetables, and enjoy!