My first forays into cooking anything other than scrambled eggs often involved ground beef and cream of mushroom soup. Those dishes weren’t sophisticated, but they were fast, easy and sustaining for a college student for whom “middle-age spread” was still several years away.
Campbell’s got less and less of my business as my waistline expanded and my cholesterol level climbed. Until a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard the delicious slurp of a slug of condensed soup slid out of a can into a casserole dish. But as dove season approached, I was in the market for an easy, delicious way to prepare dove breasts in camp, and I reverted to old habits with a few twists acquired in the intervening decades. The resulting feast was so wonderful, I was eager to repeat it. I got my chance on Saturday, September 17, 2016, which was the opening day of Missouri’s early teal season.
Even more than most waterfowl hunting, teal season is a crap shoot. It lasts only 16 days and if you don’t get a substantial cold front to push birds down from the Dakotas, or if you can’t be in the marsh when a migratory pulse occurs, you will spend the morning looking at empty skies. That has been my experience for the past few years. This year’s season opener, however, was the kind that sustains the zeal of teal devotees through the lean years. We saw more teal before sunrise than we had during the entirety of the previous five seasons combined. When the morning flight petered out around 10 a.m., I had five blue-winged teal to work with.
Back at camp, I fired up my Coleman propane stove and browned the breasts in olive oil in a cast iron Dutch oven. When they were on the dark side of golden, I set them aside, added another two tablespoons of oil and four medium-sized, sliced onions.
When the onions started to caramelize, I added some garlic powder, salt, pepper and cup of full-bodied red wine. I stirred with a steel spatula, taking care to scrape the goop off the bottom, then stirred in two cans of cream of mushroom soup and a can of water. I kept stirring the mixture on high heat until it started to bubble, then turned down the burner as low as it would go and placed the browned breasts on top of the onion-wine-soup concoction. I sealed the Dutch oven with its tight-fitting lid and set my cell-phone timer for 45 minutes.
Before starting this process, I had lit half of a small bag of self-starting charcoal in the fire ring. It was now covered with gray ash and ready to cook. After spreading the coals out in a flat bed, I peeled and sliced a large sweet potato and put the slices on a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. I salted the potatoes, added some squeeze margarine and a liberal sprinkling of real bacon bits, then folded the foil over and sealed the package. Then I laid out another sheet of foil, laid the packet top-down on this second sheet and sealed it snugly. This inverted double wrap makes it possible to turn the packet over and cook both sides without spilling the liquid inside.
When 45 minutes were up, I checked the doneness of the breasts. The larger ones were still a little rare for my taste. The last thing you want to do to waterfowl is cook it beyond medium-rare. The result will be tough, dry, livery-tasting meat. However, duck tartar is not my cup of tea, either. The sweet potatoes were perfectly cooked at this point, so I took them off the coals, wrapped the two too-rare breasts in foil and finished them on the coals. Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to eat. OMG. Medium-rare teal breast and potatoes smothered in mushroom gravy. Heaven.
I ate until I was stuffed, then continued to snack on potatoes and gravy as I cleaned up the kitchen area, set up my tent and savored the left-over wine. That combination, plus having been up at the crack of dawn, beats any sleeping pill on the market. I read only half a page of my book before falling sound asleep. The glow of sunset hadn’t even faded from the western horizon. Perfect timing, since I planned to do it all over again the next day.
Who cares if this cholesterol fest shaves a few days off the end of my life. By then I’ll probably be in a nursing home, eating hot dogs and pureed spinach. It seems like a good trade-off to me.