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Your goose is cooked!

Got game? If not, read on as Chef Amy Finley makes the case for turkey alternatives.


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Four years ago, numb at the thought of another bedazzled, small-talky evening of rubber chicken or dry, overcooked turkey, I finally started throwing my kind of holiday dinner party. The invitations featured Chevy Chase in all his Santa-hatted Clark Griswold glory, declaring, “This Christmas, my friend, your goose is cooked.”

And yes, I cooked a goose*. (And we watched Christmas Vacation. Which was kind of awesome.)

Despite the well-known Christmas ditty, “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat…” few of my invitees ever thought they’d eat one.

And there was a learning curve, even for a French-trained cook. A goose is nearly a turkey’s size, but it’s scrawny, with breasts proportioned for a supermodel (and not the Victoria’s Secret kind). My first Christmas goose, intended for eight, really fed more like four—five if you count the undercover vegetarian at the table. (Note to vegetarian dinner guests: declare yourselves! In advance!)

In subsequent years, I’ve ordered more than one goose. (This year, though, I’m doing homemade lamb links, growlers of Pizza Port and Stone beer, the movie Bad Santa, and dubbing the party “Sausage Fest 2011.”)

And so I offer you this primer on holiday game, because after Thanksgiving, no one wants to eat turkey. And even if they do, game is still the better choice: think flavor, flavor, flavor. Complex, earthy, memorable—poultry (or factory ham, or industrially-bred beef) pales in comparison. And thanks to our growing cadre of San Diego farmers, we’ve got some incredible local sources. What a gift!

Duck: Green grower Da-Le Ranch in Lake Elsinore has plump, sustainably-raised Pekin ducks. For superb crispiness, prick the skin all over, season inside and out, and roast a 3½ pound duck (feeds 4) at 350° for about 1 hour and 15 minutes for rosy medium-rare. da-le-ranch.com to pre-order. Pick up ducks at area Farmers Markets (contact dave@da-le-ranch.com for days and locations).

Quail: Spur Valley also breeds diminutive quail for the Little Italy market. Serve two per guest—marinate 1-2 hours in oil and herbs, pat dry, season inside and out, drape with mild bacon or pancetta (to keep breasts moist), and roast on rack at 500° for about 15 minutes; or, cut out the backbone, flatten, and grill.

Rabbit: Tasty and lean, you’re best off braising the legs and saddle (a meaty cut comprising the loin)—season, sear, add aromatics (onion, garlic), woody herbs, and white wine and stock to mid-level, then simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes. Feeds 4-6. Find Harbison Canyon’s Spur Valley Ranch rabbits at the Little Italy Mercato, Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. spurvalleyranch.com. Da-Le Ranch also has rabbits (see above for ordering).

Rabbit in Mustard Sauce

Rabbit in mustard sauce, or lapin a la moutarde, is one of the Big Classics of French cooking, originally hailing from Burgundy, the regional seat of which is Dijon, birthplace of the mustard. Word to the wise: keep the rest of the menu simple -- a salad with cider vinaigrette and maybe some freshly sliced pears, a side of buttered noodles or roasted root vegetables. Admonish not your eaters when they literally lick the plate clean of its hearty, lusty sauce. Or maybe provide plenty of good, crusty bread for just that purpose.

1 rabbit (2-3 pounds), cut into 6-8 pieces**
1/2 cup Dijon-style mustard***
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 cup dry white wine
3 branches fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1/4 finely chopped fresh parsley, stems reserved
1/4 cup heavy cream or crème fraiche
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. In a glass or ceramic baking dish, smear the rabbit with the mustard and season liberally with salt and pepper. Set aside to let the mustard's acids start tenderizing the rabbit.

2. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat, add the butter and 2 tablespoons of the oil, and heat until the butter's foam has subsided. Add the rabbit pieces and cook, turning once, until evenly crusted and golden brown on all sides, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer the rabbit to a large plate.

3. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan and sauté the onion until just beginning to caramelize, about 5 minutes.

4. Add the wine to the pan and, using a wooden spoon, scrape up all the delicious browned bits sticking to its bottom. Bring the wine to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and return the rabbit to the pan, nestling it into the liquid.

5. Tuck the branches of thyme, the bay leaves, and the parsley stems in around the rabbit, cover, and simmer gently until the rabbit is tender, about 25-35 minutes. (Your kitchen will smell fantabulous.)

6. When cooked, remove the bay leaves and herb stems from the sauce and transfer the rabbit back to its plate, covering with foil to keep warm. Stir the cream or crème fraiche into the sauce in the pan, increase the heat, and, if the sauce needs to thicken further, let bubble vigorously. To plate, ladle sauce generously over the rabbit and sprinkle with the chopped parsley.

7. Swoon.

** To break down a whole rabbit, run the tip of your knife around the knobby hipbone to separate the back legs, then cut away the forelegs flush against the neck bone (parallel with the backbone). With a cleaver or very big, sharp chef's knife, cut away the nub of tailbone left between where the back legs were located, and the rib cage, leaving the saddle section comprising the loin (on either side of the backbone) and two thick flaps of meat. Separate the saddle into two (each with a loin and flap) by cleaving directly through the middle of the backbone.

*** Keep it local! San Diego's own SoNo Trading Company makes an artisanal Champagne Garlic mustard (available at Whole Foods, Progress in South Park, and several area farmers' markets) that would be just lovely in this dish.

*Frozen goose (from South Dakota) available for pre-order beginning November 1 at Iowa Meat Farms.

Amy Finley is the author of the memoir, How to Eat a Small Country (Clarkson Potter, 2011). 

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