Game Pasta Sauce

Savory Pheasant Meatballs

Eventually, I’ll try Asian and Swedish meatballs with all the pheasant in the freezer, but for this first batch, I’m just making a simple savory meatball with a mushroom cream gravy, so I can focus on both the texture and flavor of the pheasant. Later, I’ll think about matching other flavors with it.

Meatballs are as easy and sometimes as frustrating as making meatloaf. They can be dry if you don’t get the proportions of the added ingredients right. Dry bread crumbs, soft bread crumbs, egg or no egg, milk or stock, fat in the form of some kind of pork—these are what you try to figure out in getting the right mixture for a tender meatball. And then you have to decide if you want to bake or fry or braise them, and how that choice affects the result. I hope I’m choosing the right ingredients and method of cooking, because I don’t really want this first attempt to be a failed test.

I ground the boneless breasts of 5 pheasant—they’re not very big—and it looked like about 1.5-2 pounds of meat (yes, I need to buy a scale). I bought 1 pound of ground pork to add and did add the whole pound in the end. Some recipes for poultry meatballs add ground bacon or pork belly. I would not know where to get pork belly and I didn’t want the smoky flavor of bacon to take over, so I went with plain ground pork. Aside from onion, garlic, and parsley, the only other flavoring I used was a tablespoon of  Worcestershire sauce, which I think will add to that savory taste I’m going for.

We thought the meatballs turned out moist and flavorful, but I think I might try the braising method with the next meatball recipe instead of turning on the oven.

Savory Pheasant Meatballs

  • Servings: about 28 large meatballs
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Preheat oven to 200° to keep meatballs warm while you make the gravy or 350° if you want to finish cooking them in the oven.

Make the Meatballs

2 lbs ground pheasant (or chicken or turkey)

1 lb ground pork

4 small slices (about 4 oz) white bread, torn in pieces

1/2 cup milk for soaking bread (most will be thrown away)

1 medium onion, small dice

2 cloves garlic, minced or grated

1 egg

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

olive oil for sautéing

  1. Place torn bread in bowl with milk and soak for about ten minutes. When ready to add to meat mixture, squeeze out milk and just add moistened bread. Reserve the milk until you see if your mixture needs it.
  2. In large bowl, combine meats, onion and garlic, egg, parsley, soaked bread, and seasonings. You can sauté the onion and garlic first and add after it has cooled—I did not, today. Mix with hands or a large meat fork to distribute the ingredients well without overmixing. I have seen meatball recipes that ask you to beat the meat mixture for 5 minutes in a stand mixer, but that goes against everything I’ve heard about how too much mixing makes meatballs or meatloaf tough.
  3. Form meat mixture into meatballs. Mine were a little larger than golf balls, maybe two large tablespoonfuls each. I didn’t want to be rolling and browning meatballs all evening. Smaller ones would, of course, cook more quickly by sautéing , and is probably a good idea if you plan to cook them on the stovetop. Trying to sauté large meatballs until done in the center would take a long time. Here’s what I did:
    1. Over medium-high heat, sauté meatballs in batches in olive oil in large frying pan until browned on all sides. Give up on them remaining perfectly round and accept that you will have some flat sides. Remove browned meatballs to parchment-lined baking pan.
    2. Place browned meatballs on baking pan in 350° oven for about 15-20 minutes. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness—I think 150°-160° is plenty for these little balls that will continue to cook after removing.
  4. Place meatballs in gravy just to coat. Another alternative to finishing the meatballs in the oven would be to add them to the sauce ingredients before thickened, and braise, covered, for about 10 minutes after browning.

Serve with sauce (below) alone or with noodles.

Make the Mushroom Cream Gravy

6 oz small mushrooms, sliced

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup half and half, plus more to thin sauce as needed

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) all-purpose flour

salt & pepper to taste

  1. While the meatballs are finishing in the oven, or after they have browned and are waiting to be braised, brown the sliced mushrooms in the same pan, adding more olive oil, if needed.
  2. Stir in the flour until combined. Ideally, you want to have equal amounts of fat and flour to thicken the sauce.
  3. Stir in the chicken stock until combined.
  4. Stir in the half and half and continue stirring until thickened.
  5. Optional: If you are braising the meatballs, do that before thickening the sauce, then thicken with the flour mixed with enough water to remove any lumps.

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