Bucket list foods, everyone has them. There’s a number of them still on mine, but a little while ago I got to scratch peacock off the list.
My girlfriends mother build a farm community in Wisconsin in the 70’s and is still very much plugged in to the local scene. She knows who grows which crops where, what their personal history is, and those little tidbits of information you can only get from being a local. A while back she and I were talking about the possibility of helping her friend sell a bunch of surplus garlic. Someone had agreed to purchase a bunch at the beginning of the season from him, but then reneged after the harvest-no good if your on the selling side.
She also mentioned in passing that he produces a tasty variety of Scotch Highland beef, and had peacocks. I love good beef, but I was curious what he kept the peacocks for, since ever since I’d read about them being served in Ancient Rome I wanted to eat one, along with a swan. Turns out the peacocks were pets, starting with one bird that appeared after leaving a nearby farmstead. Her friend did some checking around with the peacock’s previous owners and found out they didn’t exactly expect/want it back, long story short they let it stay and eventually decided to find a mate for it.
Why didn’t the neighbor’s care about the loss of their pretty bird? I’m assuming, but there’s more to a peacock than it’s beautiful feathers: they also make a *very* distinct sound. There’s probably someone out there that would love their day’s punctuated by peacock noises, which I’ve heard compared to a woman and or children screaming, but it isn’t everyone.
I asked my girlfriend’s mom to inquire about getting one to eat. The landowner agreed, and a couple months later I was on the property with two men and a rifle.
A few sets of mating birds (and little baby peacock chicks) strolled around the yard as they pleased, so as much as I’d like to tell you a heart-pounding story where I tracked a peacock through rugged Wisconsin valleys by a breadcrumb trail of blue feathers, I can’t, we just walked into the front yard and shot it. It was an ugly shot too, through both breasts and a leg-not the pretty professional ending you think of (or don’t) from time to time when you eat poultry.
After we took down the bird (a 4-year old male) I got to hear the sound a peacock makes from a nearby bird. I can see where the scream comparison comes from, but I thought it had more of a primal edge to it. To me it was like a pteroydactyl flying through the sky ready to eat some terrified four-legged creature. Needless to say, I’ll stay with chickens if I ever have backyard birds, maybe ducks.
After an arduous two and a half hours of blanching, plucking and a quick gutting it was done. The old boy was a lot harder to pluck than a young bird, that’s for sure, as I needed a needle-nosed pliers to finish the job. After that I even shaved it with a straight razor to get it perfectly smooth since lets be honest: if an animal’s got skin that can be rendered a salty, crispy, golden brown, you want to eat that, yes you do.
Finally the fun part. First thing I did was separate the bird into breasts, leg quarters, neck/head, scrap trim and bones. Scrap and bones made a fantastic stock, which you’d expect, but I knew the rest of the bird would be challenging, as tame as it seemed it was still a wild thing, with four years of exercise under it’s belt, I knew a tender bird wasn’t what I had.
It wasn’t my first rodeo with poultry though-here’s some things you could do with older peacocks, or any birds really. Their flavor is probably closest to pheasant or turkey, so that’s a good place to start thinking about flavor combinations with them.
Cooking Different Parts of the Bird
These are probably the most difficult to work with, since they’re don’t have the fatty, slow-twitch muscle fiber of legs that takes well to long cooking. If your bird is plucked, you can always make the skin crisp and pan roast it, then slice it very thin, but most people will probably still find the meat tough.
One of my favorite tricks I keep up my sleeve for scrap or tough meat is the good old forcemeat, which is great if you’ve just breasted-out your birds, or you’ve been given some that weren’t plucked. Take the skinless meat, dice it up and add a fake fat, most of the time being breadcrumbs and cream or milk. It works wonders on lean meat, and I’ve used it to fix everything from faulty ravioli fillings to sausages that lack the proper meat-fat emulsification ratio.
Of course, you could also just take the meat, grind it, then mix it with breadcrumbs soaked in milk, and a couple eggs as per meat loaf, which will give you a less smooth, more chunky result, perfect if you want to make a terrine or meatballs.
I knew these would be my favorite part since they’re surrounded by fat and bone. For me, there’s no better method for tough poultry legs than confit. I season the legs with salt, fresh bay leaves and thyme, then allow them to sit overnight. The next day, you cover the legs with lard in a covered cooking vessel and cook at 250 until the meat is nice and fork tender, which should take a good 2-3 hours, then I remove the legs from the fat and carefully take out all the pin bones from the drumsticks. Afterwords the legs are allowed to cool in the fat, and as long as there’s an unbroken, air-tight seal of fat, the meat can be allowed to age for months or more.
When I prepare them to eat, I just heat an oven to 250-300, then sear the meat skin side down and cook in the oven until hot throughout. The thigh on the peacock was big enough for me to have a complete meal, but you could probably eat a whole, impressive looking leg as a large entree or a meal for two, mine was about the size of a goose leg.
The Head, Neck, Guts and Feet
The funbits. The feet were cleaned and put into stock. The head I roasted to crisp up the skull and make it brittle, so you can cleanly cut it in half to extract the brains which were great, mild and not very gamey at all-I eat them with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of crunchy salt.
The gizzard, heart and liver I cleaned and since I only had one bird, soaked them overnight in milk, then ground them with some of the forcemeat I made from the breasts to make sausage.
The real prize was the neck, it was so long, I’d never really seen anything like it. Other birds like ducks and turkeys will have a similarly long neck, but I’d never seen a carcass with such a long neck before. I wanted to do something special with it, specifically I wanted to stuff the peacock neck full of forcemeat sausage, it turned out very good.
Here’s the recipes I’ve developed so far for them