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Football, Feathers, and Fall

Don’t you just love living in north Alabama? Most of the time, for me, there is no truer statement that could be made. However, there are a couple of times each year that I get confused. Two weeks ago I woke up to a 50 degree morning with no humidity and clear blue skies. This week I am waking up to 72 degrees and humidity that you can wear like a suit of clothes. It’s just hard to know what tomorrow will bring. And as we have all had our fill of heat and humidity, most folks are longing for just a little crispness to the morning air and a little more breeze in the evenings. Just a few degrees here and a few there. Maybe throw in some lower humidity and call it a nice early fall day.

Now, I love the deep fall in Alabama where fallen leaves crunch underfoot at every step and in the country you can still get a whiff of wood smoke from a long-unused wood stove or fireplace as the temps drop. However, I am not fully ready for that yet. I want to ease into fall gradually and a day at a time. But I DON’T want to sit through a 90 degree September either.

Anyway, I say that to preface my thoughts about easing into the fall season. As we anticipate fall and our gradual transition to it, we seek out those physical signs that confirm that the seasons are changing and that the pinnacle of southern living is almost upon is.

As you are reading this, you will no doubt be reflecting on the football games we were inundated with this past weekend. College football kicked off officially last Thursday, but Saturday is game day down south and almost everyone is glued to their televisions and enjoying the contests with family and friends. Football season is one of the signs that the fall is on its way. Another sure sign that the autumn is creeping in is the plethora of fall-ish and Halloween decorations making their way onto the shelves of local retailers. The best sign, in my opinion, is two solid weeks of mild temps and lower humidity. If you can get two weeks put together, I think you are on the backside of the transition and looking at better (milder) days ahead.

If you are an outdoorsman or sportsman in the south, no event heralds the coming of the fall season like the opening day of dove season. While technically, it opens in the late summer, it is considered the herald of fall and is a coveted, revered, and venerated date among southern hunting traditionalists. And there is nothing more traditional than the opening day of dove season for those that hunt them.

The opening day of dove season is, for many, the epitome of the social hunt. The season opens promptly at 12 noon, but hunters gather hours before to meet and greet, reminisce about past hunts, discuss last weeks and upcoming football games, and generally be social until the birds start to fly. This is what truly makes dove hunting unique and enjoyable above other forms of chase. Even during the peak of the shooting, hunters are hollering at each other in congratulations or cajoling over a great shot or good naturedly admonishing a fellow hunter for an easy miss. This is the only type of hunting that I know of where this happens openly and without consequence.

The mourning dove itself is one of the most challenging targets available to wingshooters. They are deceptively small and they are as acrobatic as anything with wings when given a reason. All of this can make them downright frustrating to try and hit. Sometimes they make it easy, but the majority of the time, it’s like trying to hit a grey-feathered major league curveball with a thin wooden dowel – possible, but not easy. That’s all just part of the game though. A few misses makes the hits that much more enjoyable. Not to mention, the mourning dove is one of the mildest flavored dark meat gamebirds that we can harvest. Taken care of in the field, prepared properly, and cooked fresh, the mourning dove is akin to good steak in its texture and flavor. Getting the most out of your dove requires some effort, but the end result is well worth it.

Put forth the effort to properly care for your birds in the field by quickly icing them down at a minimum. It is usually quite warm in the dove field, so the more quickly you can cool the birds down, the better off you are. It’s also a good idea to remove the birds’ internal organs in the field if this is allowed where you hunt. This will remove a possible source of contamination and result in a better overall dining experience. This will also increase how quickly you can cool your game after the harvest.

The more quickly you can get your game from field to table, the better off you are. With other wild meats, people marinate, age, or brine the meat to increase its palatability and flavor. With dove, this simply is not necessary. Its flavor and texture also makes it useful in a number of different preparations. Anything you would do with steak or beef, you can do with dove.

A simple, yet time-honored recipe is to lightly season deboned dove breast fillets with salt and pepper, wrap in a thin slice of bacon, and grill the bundle lightly for a few minutes. The bacon is used to keep the ultra-lean dove breast moist. If you grill until the bacon is done, you have overcooked and toughened your dove breast. If you want to eat the bacon you wrap the dove in, you need to precook it until it’s about halfway done, then warp the dove and continue on the grill until the bacon is done. Variations of this recipe call for adding a strip of jalapeno pepper or onion to the bundle. Both are fine, but I like my game meats as unadulterated and as natural as possible.

Another recipe that I enjoy is making dove breast fajitas. This is pretty self-explanatory. Just cut your deboned dove breast into thin strips and add to your pre-cooked fajita vegetables for a few seconds, just to warm the breast strips up. You do not want to overcook these strips and it’s easy to do with this recipe if you cook them with or before the veggies are done. Standard fajita seasoning is fine, or you can make your own out of salt, black pepper, cumin, chili powder, red pepper, and a little dehydrated lime if you can find it (if not, just a add a little fresh lime juice at the end).

The third and final one that we use is Italian style sandwiches. This take a little more prep and cooking time, but is well worth the effort and a great recipe to use when introducing someone to wild game for the first time. Take about 4 whole, bone-in dove breasts per person. Place them bone side down in a glass baking dish and add chopped onion, carrots, and celery to the dish. This is known in the culinary world as mirepoix. Season the meat and veggies generously with salt and pepper, add a cup of chicken broth, 2 cups of good red table wine, and a half cup of water. At this point add a couple of bay leaves and a beef bouillon cube. Seal the dish with plastic wrap and then again with foil for an airtight seal. Put in a 275 degree oven for about 2 and a half hours. Remove the meat from the pan and cool. Strain the jus from the baking dish and reserve the liquid. Shred the cooled dove meat into a skillet, add pickled banana pepper strips and chopped pepperoncini peppers to taste, add about 1 cup of the reserved liquid, heat thoroughly and serve with melted provolone cheese on top of some bakery fresh Italian bread for some of the best Italian beef (dove) sandwiches you will ever eat.

However you choose to welcome the coming of fall, make sure you include family and friends and thank God for the natural beauty that we get to experience as the seasons change.