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Discerning Diner:
If you serve squab, don't forget to invite Ernie
By Elan Head

December 17, 2005

I live in a third-floor apartment, and the ledge outside my living room window is extremely popular with pigeons.

It is my cat’s firm belief that pigeons exist solely to torment him. I’m not so sure that he’s wrong.

So it was with a nod to Ernie that I impulsively bought a squab when I saw it in the Whole Foods meat case recently.

This was my first encounter with squab — in its featherless form, I mean. A squab is a young pigeon, generally around four weeks old at the time it’s butchered.

It is a little smaller than a Cornish game hen and has very dark meat, like a duck’s.

It can be roasted whole, just like a Cornish hen, and one squab serves one person (or one cat) nicely.

However, I was auditioning this bird for a dinner party, so I opted to butcher it into six parts — two each of breasts, wings and legs — and remove most of the bones, a rather delicate operation.

I rubbed each piece with salt and five-spice powder, a mixture of fennel, anise, ginger, cinnamon and cloves, available at Asian markets like Lee Lee (at Dobson and Warner in Chandler).

Then I seared the pieces in a hot skillet and finished them in a 400-degree oven. Squab parts are pretty small, so this takes just a few minutes.

And do you know what? They were delicious! Squab meat, I discovered, is the beef tenderloin of birds: very tender, with an appearance and texture not so different from filet mignon.

I decided I needed to serve squab at my party. So a few days later, I called the friendly folks at the Whole Foods meat department to reserve four of the frozen birds.

“Well, theoretically that shouldn’t be necessary,” said the man who took my order. “They’re not our most popular item.”

I guess I’m not the only one who’s been missing out.

Should you choose to experiment with squab yourself, note that it’s best served medium-rare.

But if you get caught up in conversation, as, er, I did, it’s fine on the rather more done side as well. Just don’t cook it very well done, or it will turn rubbery.

I paired my squab with a red Burgundy wine and served it with a pinot noir syrup inspired by Mark Bittman’s terrific cookbook, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner.

This is an easy and delicious sauce based on caramelized sugar.

Here’s what you do:

In a small, heavy saucepan, heat ¼ cup sugar over medium heat without stirring.

The sugar will liquefy, then start to turn brown. When the liquid is golden amber in color, remove the pan from the heat, then carefully add one cup of pinot noir or other red wine, like Côtes du Rhône. The wine will sputter as it hits the hot syrup.

Return the pan to the heat and stir until the hardened caramel dissolves. Then reduce the mixture until it’s syrupy and about ¼ cup in volume. This should yield enough sauce for two.

When I tried to triple this recipe, the sugar on the bottom of my pan started browning before the sugar on top had dissolved.

When I stirred the sugar to redistribute it, things got worse: the mixture seized up into hard rocks.

But I persevered, stirring and smashing the sugar until my rocks were evenly brown. Then I added the wine and proceeded with the recipe, and the sauce turned out just fine.

Ernie, it should be noted, prefers his squab unadorned. Indeed, he’s just waiting for his chance to catch one on the wing.







































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