Spring has sort of sprung, and with it, a harbinger of the beginning of the end of Arctic winter: ptarmigan. This time of year, you can spot hordes of these fluffy wood chickens traipsing all around Yellowknife. Snow white in the winter, they’re known for their adorable, plush-toy appearance and dim wits. But they’re also known for their deliciousness—at least according to Yellowknife chef Robin Wasicuna. It wasn’t love at first bite, though. “I first tried ptarmigan in 1983. I did not like it as a 13-year-old. It was also boiled, very bland, and over cooked,” he says.
Because ptarmigan aren’t the smartest birds in the bush, they are fairly easy to catch. But these days, most of Wasicuna’s ptarmigan are gifted to him by friends. The executive chef at Twin Pine Diner, he’s known for taking chances with food—whether it’s the much-missed Falafel Waffle, or serving up special dinner menus using unusual ingredients and cuts. He has no problem plucking a ptarmigan. “We should use ptarmigan, absolutely! They are a local, sustainable protein. If you have the opportunity to do local, you should. This is also what makes them so damn tasty!” he says. “They are a lean, mineral-rich source of protein. Very much like polar bear, walrus, and other Northern cold-weather proteins. You don’t need to eat much.”
Because they’re so lean, it’s important to cook them low and slow in fat so they don’t dry out, says Wasicuna. Try it yourself with his crispy confit ptarmigan recipe. “You can serve these with just about any sauce. I like them on a waffle with chilli butter and birch syrup.”
Crispy confit ptarmigan
- 4 cleaned ptarmigans (plucked and gutted)
- 6-8 cups duck fat
- 8 dry or 16 fresh juniper berries
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 clove of garlic
- Salt and pepper
- 2 cups flour
- 1 cup cornstarch
Season ptarmigan well with salt and pepper. Melt duck fat on low heat, then add the juniper berries, bay leaf, and garlic and let steep for 10 minutes.
Place ptarmigan in a small deep pan and pour melted duck fat over top until fully submerged. Wrap in foil and bake at 300F for 1 hour.
Remove from oven and let cool for 3 hours, still covered. When it’s cool, remove ptarmigan from the duck fat. Strain the fat and set aside for later. Refrigerate ptarmigan overnight.
The next day, put the duck fat in a deep pot with an instant-read thermometer and heat to 350F. Meanwhile, mix the flour and cornstarch together in a separate bowl and dredge the ptarmigan in it, shaking off excess. Allow the birds to rest for 15 minutes so the flour mixture will adhere to the birds. Use a pair of tongs to lower each ptarmigan into the hot duck fat. Fry for 4-5 minutes or until they are floating in the oil.
Place on a rack and season with salt and pepper immediately.