Hunting for Dinner: Sandhill crane au poivre

jamie carlson at cooks

I have been working with Cooks of Crocus Hill on a setting up a wild game cooking class and earlier this month, my first class took place. It was a huge step outside my comfort zone and I will admit that I was nervous as hell going into it. I think as a cook I am always afraid that I don’t know as much as I think I do and that I am going to fail. Or worse, one of my dishes is going to fail. 


For the class, the team at Cooks came up with the title “Classics with a Twist.” I had picked three of my favorite dishes to make and hadn’t realized that they were classic dishes that I had incorporated some kind of wild game into. The first dish was going to be a Vietnamese spring rolls using panfish. Then, I was making a pheasant and dumplings followed by a juniper roast venison loin with a bourbon cream sauce. I have made these three dishes dozens if not hundreds of times in the past, so I was very comfortable making them. I was still a bit nervous because there were a few restrictions I had to work around. Because the class was part of a business, I wasn’t going to be able to use actual wild game. I had to use all farm-raised game, which I had never used before. 


Farm-raised game versus wild game has a milder flavor and is bigger. The pheasants we used for the class looked a lot more like chickens than pheasants. Each one was about three pounds, where a wild pheasant might only be 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. The farm-raised game was fattier than the wild pheasants and venison I usually work with. I also had to substitute the fish; the fish purveyor they went through couldn’t get bluegill or crappie so I ended up using ocean perch instead. 


My hope for the evening was that I would get a group of people I didn’t know to sign up for the class. I had asked my friends and family not to sign up because I wanted to see who would sign up for this class. Other than my wife, and one of my buddy’s girlfriends, the class was filled with complete strangers. None of them had ever heard of my blog or my articles for Simple, Good & Tasty. I think some of them signed up for a class about classic dishes and weren’t expecting a wild-game cooking class. I am pretty sure they were all pleasantly surprised. 


Every dish I made that night turned out just the way I wanted, except the pheasant and dumplings. They were a little under-seasoned, but I passed around the salt and that took care of the problem. Hopefully, I was able to convert a few of the attendees to try some wild game at home. 


I have been thinking about the name of the class all week, Classics with a Twist. A lot of the dishes I make are classic dishes that I find a way to add wild game to. My General Tso dish uses turtle instead of chicken, my ceviche uses carp, and I make fried squirrel and waffles. So to continue the classics with a twist theme, I broke out an ingredient most people don’t even know is hunted in Minnesota, let alone eaten: sandhill crane. 


Last October, I fortunate enough to hunt in Northwestern Minnesota and get a sandhill crane. These prehistoric-looking animals are enormous, when standing in a field they appear to be as tall as person. The one I got was about as tall as I am, and weighed about 30 pounds. Sandhill Cranes are often referred to as the “ribeye of the sky.” They have a dark red meat that reminds me of a cross between duck and beef. I have eaten crane a couple of times in the past and it is delicious. Each breast on the crane weighed about 18 ounces, so with one of the breasts I thought I would try a classic from Julia Child's Mastering the art of French Cooking, steak au poivre. The dish is just a steak, or in this case, a crane breast that has been rubbed with cracked peppercorns and then sautéed in a pan and topped with a brandy pan sauce. Because I am not a fan of brandy, and I do love bourbon, I use bourbon in mine. I also add just a bit of garlic as well.


Sandhill Crane Au Poivre


One crane breast

2 tablespoons roughly cracked peppercorns

1 small shallot minced

1 clove garlic minced

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup beef stock

1/4 bourbon


Roughly crush the peppercorns and rub them into the crane breast, wrap in plastic wrap and let sit in the fridge for a few hours.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, when you are ready to cook the breast, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a pan and sear the breast skin side down to start. Sear for 4-5 minutes on each side then transfer the breast to a baking sheet and put in the oven while you make the sauce, about 8 to 10 minutes for medium rare.


While the breast is in the oven, sauté the shallots and garlic in the pan with all the drippings still in the pan about 2 minutes.


Add the beef stock and reduce by half, then add the bourbon and continue to cook until most of the alcohol is boiled off, 2 to 3 minutes.


Slowly whisk in the remaining butter 1 tablespoon at a time, taste and season with salt as need.


Remove the breast from the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before cutting. 


Slice the breast and cover with the sauce. 


Jamie Carlson lives in Burnsville, MN with his wife, Amanda, and their two kids Eleanor and Charlie. He works as an RN at the Minneapolis VA hospital. He enjoys hunting, fishing, foraging, and, of course, cooking. He believes that all food can be tasty if it is prepared with care, and he writes about his adventures on his food blog, You Have to Cook it Right. Follow him on Twitter at @youcookitright.