Poussin with Chestnut and Pancetta stuffing

A few years ago our eldest daughter requested Poussin stuffed with chestnuts, pancetta and various other exotic ingredients for our Christmas lunch. I asked her where she had seen this recipe, and she replied, “ Just make it up!” So I did, and as luck would have it, it was delicious. But, did I write the recipe down? No, I didn’t. Fast forward to this year, and you guessed it, she’s made the same request. So starting from scratch I did a test run: this time being more diligent and writing it all down.

These little Poussin are delicious, and if you have a small family, as we do, a festive alternative to the traditional turkey. Brining them before stuffing and roasting is an optional step, I like to do this because the birds become exceptionally tender and flavoursome, but it’s not necessary. If you love mushrooms, like me, serve these little guys on a bed of them, just sautéed with a little parsley and garlic, and then enriched with a little stock and cream. Anyway here it is.

For the brine

  • 3.8 litres water
  • 1 cup rock salt
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 12 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 bulb garlic, smashed
  • 2 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 3 large rosemary sprigs
  • 1 large bunch thyme sprigs
  • 1 bunch Italian parsley sprigs
  • Stalks and fronds from 1 bulb fennel
  • Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons

Combine all the ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely before using.

I make this brine the day before I use it, and refrigerate it overnight. Never add meat to warm brine, or leave it longer in the brine than the specified time because it will become too salty.

If you intend to brine your birds, put them in the cold brine and place in the fridge for 4-5 hours, no longer, and then remove from brine and pat dry, inside the cavity too.

Recipe serves 4

For the Poussin

  • 4 Poussin weighing about 500g each. (These are also called Spatchcock)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1½ tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp Unsalted butter
  • Half bunch fresh thyme sprigs
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 6 large cloves garlic
  • 2 brown onions peeled and thickly sliced

For the mushrooms

4 handfuls of mixed mushrooms, whatever you desire. This will depend on the time of year. 1tbsp butter,1 clove garlic, 1tbsp chopped parsley, approximately ¼ cup each of chicken stock and pouring cream.

For the Chestnut stuffing

  • 21/2 cups day old sourdough breadcrumbs, coarsely torn apart
  • 6 sprigs thyme
  • 2 pork sausages, meat removed from casing and formed into little chunks
  • ½ cup hazelnuts toasted, skin removed and roughly chopped
  • 150g pancetta, skin removed, and cut into small cubes
  • 3 eschalots, minced
  • 3/4 cup chestnuts, crumbled. I’ve used a tinned French brand
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup parsley, minced
  • 1tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the breadcrumbs, thyme leaves, hazelnuts, chestnuts, garlic and parsley into a bowl. Gently mix. Heat a small fry pan over medium heat, add 1/2 tbsp olive oil and gently cook the pancetta until crispy. Remove with a spoon, and add to breadcrumb mix. Now gently cook the little chunks of sausage meat with the eschalots and garlic in the same pan until the sausage is just coloured, and the eschalots and garlic are soft. Combine with breadcrumb mix, season with salt and pepper, don’t over do it, remembering that the Poussin will already be well seasoned from the brine. Set aside to cool.

Now preheat your oven to 180C. Take your Poussin, season the cavity only with pepper, and loosely stuff the birds, then truss the legs with cooking twine and rub with 1 tbsp olive oil. (There will be a little stuffing left over, bake it for ½ an hour in a gratin dish with a few nobs of butter on top).  In a medium baking dish, make a bed of the sliced onions, thyme sprigs and garlic, and then place the birds on top. Cook in the oven basting occasionally with the juices, and after an hour test to see if they are cooked by inserting a skewer into the plumpest part of the thigh. If the juices run clear, the bird is cooked. If they aren’t ready, cook for another 15 minutes, and test again.

When ready, remove from the oven and put aside to rest covered with aluminium foil.

For the mushrooms, heat a medium sized fry pan, add the butter and sauté the mushrooms over a high heat for a few minutes, Add garlic, cook for a minute or two without burning, add stock, and reduce until syrupy. Add cream and turn down the heat, letting it gently thicken. Pop in the parsley, season with restraint and spoon onto warm plates. Remove the twine from the Poussin, and place on top of the mushrooms.  I serve a large bowl of crispy potatoes cooked in duck fat, and a bowl steamed green beans with these little birds. Also, amongst family, no need to be too polite, fingers are allowed.