The partridge season coincides with the apple season so partridge and apple seemed like a smart combination when I procured a couple of these little game birds last week. I've cooked partridge many times in the past but had never served this particular combination before. It proved to be a winner. Salty bacon lardons were a nice addition, which also seemed appropriate as I was wrapping the partridge crowns in rashers of bacon before roasting, to protect the tender breast meat.
As for the legs, I turned to my reliable old friend: the confit. Confit is arguably the best way to prepare the leg meat of any kind of poultry or game bird. Chicken, duck, grouse, partridge… the list goes on. Pre-salting the legs, then slowly and gently cooking them in goose or duck fat, is a failsafe way to produce something mouthwateringly tasty. I served the roasted breast meat and confit legs alongside a pile of buttered sweetheart cabbage and made a simple cider gravy to drizzle over. Truly excellent.
The cider gravy is a quick sauce made à la minute once the partridge is roasted and resting, using the same pan it was cooked in. The wings and wishbones from the birds, along with the roasting juices from the pan, make a solid base for the sauce. Homemade, unseasoned chicken stock is essential for this because the sauce is reduced several times. If you used commercially produced stock (ie: a stock cube) for this, the sauce would end up far too salty.
You'll want to buy your partridges 'oven ready', which means they've had their feathers plucked and their innards removed. This is typically how they're available from most butchers or game dealers.
Partridge with Apple and Bacon Recipe
- 2 partridges, oven ready
- 4 rashers streaky bacon
- 2 tbsp coarse rock salt
- 500 g duck fat, or goose fat
- vegetable oil, for cooking
- 3 baby shallots, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 200 ml apple cider
- 200 ml chicken stock (homemade, unsalted)
- a little beurre manié
- 200 g block pancetta, or lardons
- ½ medium sweetheart cabbage, roughly chopped
- 20 g butter
- 2 cox apples, cored and quartered
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 small bunch flat leaf parsley
To prepare the confit, you'll need to salt the partridge legs. Using a sharp knife, remove the legs and place them in a tray or container just large enough to fit them in a single layer, skin side up. Sprinkle the rock salt evenly over the legs, then place in the fridge for 4 - 6 hours. The timing here doesn't need to be very precise, but the longer you leave them the saltier the end result will be.
Heat the oven to 110C. Wash the salt from the partridge legs under running cold water, then pat them dry with kitchen paper. Take an ovenproof small-medium sized saucepan or pot and add the duck/goose fat. Place over a medium heat until the fat has melted, then add the partridge legs. Make sure the legs are completely submerged. Place in the oven for about 2 hours, or until the legs are just tender, the meat not quite falling off the bone. Check them every 40 minutes or so – they might need more or less time depending on the age/tenderness of the bird. Once they're cooked, remove from the fat with a slotted spoon, transfer to a tray and put in the fridge.
Heat the oven to 180C. Using a sharp knife, carefully remove the wings and the wishbones from the partridges and set them aside. We'll use these later for the sauce. Cut the rashers of bacon in half to make them a bit shorter, then place them over the breasts of the partridges. Tie them securely with butcher's twine, making sure to not tie them too tight, otherwise they'll not cook evenly – tie them just tight enough to keep the bacon on. Place a large, heavy-based pan over a high heat and add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Once the oil is hot, add the partridges, breast-side down, and fry until lightly browned. Turn the partridges every 40 seconds or so, to ensure they're evenly browned all over. Once they're nicely browned all over, sit them breast-side up in the pan and place in the oven for 4 - 5 minutes, until just cooked. It's hard to describe exactly how you will know when they're cooked, but if you squeeze the thickest part of the crown with your forefinger and thumb, it should feel almost but not completely firm. If it has a jelly-like feel to it at all, it's undercooked and needs longer. Once you're satisfied the partridges are cooked, remove them from the pan and sit them breast side down, on a rack to rest in a warm place.
Whilst the birds are resting, pop the chilled confit legs on a roasting tray or small frying pan and place in the oven. They'll take 10 - 15 minutes to crisp up from chilled. Alternatively, you could fry them on a medium heat on the stovetop in a separate pan.
The partridges should ideally rest between 10 and 20 minutes, which should give you enough time for the confit legs to crisp up and for you to make the cider gravy. Place the pan you roasted the partridge in back on a medium-high heat and, once it's hot, add the reserved wishbones and wings. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they're lightly browned, then add the garlic and shallots. Turn the heat down a bit, and cook gently until the shallots are soft. Add the cider, then turn the heat up and bring to a boil. Scrape any tasty residue from the bottom of the pan with a spoon. Reduce until the liquid is like a syrup and beginning to sizzle, then add half of the chicken stock. Boil until reduced to almost a syrup again, then add the rest of the stock. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into a separate saucepan, and bring to the boil again. Reduce approximately by half, or until you have a rich flavour. Now whisk in some beurre manié, a little at a time, until you have thickened the sauce to a nice gravy consistency. Cover the saucepan with a lid or kitchen foil and set aside.
If you're using block pancetta, cut it into chunky pieces. Place a frying pan over a medium-high heat and add a little vegetable oil. Fry the pancetta (or lardons) until crisp, then remove and set aside. Discard any excess fat from the pan, then add the butter. Once melted, add the sweetheart cabbage along with a little salt and cracked black pepper. Cook, stirring frequently until tender, which will take about 3 minutes. In a separate pan, fry the apples until lightly caramelised all over.
Before serving, you might need to warm the partridge in the oven for a few minutes if it's cooled down too much. Once you're satisfied it's warm enough, remove the butcher's twine and bacon, then carve the breasts off with a sharp knife, being sure to get the tender mini-fillet that sits next to the breast bone. Partridge meat is similar to chicken and the inner part of the breast should be barely cooked, but unlike chicken it's generally acceptable to serve partridge breast ever so slightly pink. If the meat is a little too pink, just put the breasts back in the oven for a few minutes. Remove and discard the tough skin from the breast. Mix the pancetta with the cabbage, and place the carved breast meat on top. Place the crisp confit legs on the side, and garnish with some parsley leaves. Finally, divide the cider gravy between the plates and serve.