A man must keep his mouth open a long while before a roast pigeon flies into it.
~Danish proverb

Le grand débat: white or dark?

Dark meat is composed of muscle fibers that are termed “slow-twitch.” These muscles contract slowly and are used for extended periods of activity, such as casual walking, thus needing a consistent energy source. The hemoprotein myoglobin stores oxygen in muscle cells, which then uses this oxygen to extract the energy needed for endurance and slower repetitive activity. A strongly pigmented protein, the more cellular myoglobin that exists, the darker the meat and the richer in nutrient levels.

Dark meat is flusher than white in minerals such as iron, zinc and selenium, as well as vitamins A, K and the B complex — B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) B6, B9 (folate) and B12 (cobalamin). Taurine is also found abundantly in dark meat — a nutrient known to aid in anti-inflammation, blood pressure regulation, healthy nerve function, and the production of bile acid (which breaks down fat).

Myoglobin’s color varies depending on the meat’s internal temperature. For instance, with rare beef, the myoglobin’s red color remains unchanged. But, above 140 F, myoglobin loses its ability to bind oxygen, and the iron atom at the center of its molecular structure loses an electron, forming a tan-hued compound called hemichrome. Then, when the interior of the meat reaches 170 F, hemichrome levels rise, creating that characteristic brownish gray metmyoglobin often seen on shoe soles.

White meat is comprised of “fast-twitch” muscle fibers which contract swiftly and are used for rapid bursts of activity, such as jumping or sprinting, and so absorb energy from stored glycogen, a multibranched saccharide of glucose residues. When raw, white meat has a translucent look. When cooked, the proteins denature and recombine, and the meat becomes opaque and whitish to sight. It is admittedly lower in saturated fat and calories, so it has been promoted as the healthier alternative even though white meat has fewer nutrients than dark, is more difficult to digest and contains no taurine. Often obscenely slim on taste, diners often compensate for the dryness and whiteness with sauces, gravies or dressings which render white meat more fatty and less nutritious in the long run.

So, the process of deciding between dark and white will likely prove an alimental impasse. Aromas and flavors should reign instead, and you likely know where my vote lies. By all means though, of course, please make your own call (without presenting ID).

On to the birds. Squabs are simply fledgling domesticated pigeons, typically dressed about four weeks after hatching and even before they even have flown. Thus, they are much easier to snatch before slaughter. They have been bred for centuries, dating back to early Asian and Arabic cultures and now are found on tables across the globe. The term derives from the Scandinavian svkabb which means “loose or fat flesh,” as squabs are dark, tender and moist — often almost silky to the palate.

Damned delectable, dark and sensual critters.

ROAST SQUABS

2 granny smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into sixths

4 squabs, about 3/4 lbs each
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 bay leaves
4 large, plump garlic cloves, peeled and slightly smashed
4 T unsalted butter, softened
1/2 T coriander seeds, roasted and ground

4 medium turnips, peeled and halved
4 parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
4 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 T olive oil

4 T red wine, such as a zinfandel or burgundy
2 T cognac or brandy
1/2 C chicken broth
2 T butter

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Season the cavities of the squabs with salt and pepper. Inside each, place a sprig of thyme, a sprig of rosemary, a bay leaf and a clove of garlic. On the outside, rub with softened butter and season with salt, pepper and coriander. Tie legs together with kitchen twine so they do not spread.

Put squabs in a large, heavy roasting pan, breast side up. Strew the turnips, parsnips, carrots and apples around them. Brush the turnips, parsnips and carrots with olive oil. Cook 15-20 minutes, basting the squabs and vegetables fairly often with juices and turn the vegetables at least once.

Remove the apples, set them aside in a bowl and keep warm by loosely tenting with foil. Add the wine and chicken broth. Cook 10 minutes longer, basting often and occasionally scraping the bottom of the pan. The birds should be cooked slightly pink in thickest part of the thigh, about 130-145 F with a meat thermometer. Please beware that if squab is cooked beyond medium rare, the flesh becomes overly dry and the flavor livery. Overturn a soup bowl and place under one end of a platter or cutting board so it is inclined.

Lift the squabs with a carving fork at an angle and allow the juices to flow into the pan. Remove and discard the herbs and garlic cloves. Put squabs on the tilted serving platter or cutting board breast sides down and tails in the air, loosely tented.

Meanwhile, place the roasting pan on top of the stove. Bring the sauce beginnings to a simmer, add the cognac and then the butter, and blend together, stirring with a wooden spatula and scraping. Add some chicken broth and cook further. With a slotted spoon, remove the turnips, parsnips and carrots and place in a tented glass bowl.

Cut twine, and only if desired, carve the squabs in halves and serve with turnips, parsnips, carrots, apples and bathed lightly in sauce. Accompany the squabs with puréed or smashed potatoes or polenta or rice pilaf and a green du jour.

Pourboire: Other methods that come to mind would be to braise the squabs in wine and broth or place the squabs first on their sides and cook in a sauté pan, turning occasionally, until browned all over, about 15 minutes and then turn squabs breast up and transfer to the oven, roasting for only 5 minutes or so.

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Cuisine is both an art and a science: it is an art when it strives to bring about the realization of the true and the beautiful, called le bon in the order of culinary ideas. As a science, it respects chemistry, physics and natural history. Its axioms are called aphorisms, its theorems recipes, and its philosophy gastronomy.
~Lucien Tendret, from La Table au pays de Brillat-Savarin

Why has browning been such an ultimate culinary goal of so many recipes whether on the stovetop, oven or grill? Although now it seems so basic and intuitive, as with most cooking techniques, there is a chemical explanation.

Several causes of browning exist, which may act separately or in combination at various temperatures. One of the more fundamental and common reasons is the Maillard Reaction, a non-enzymatic chemical response which occurs in foods which contain both proteins and sugars. Maillard derived aromas are extremely complex and many components are formed in trace amounts by side reactions and obscure pathways. This particular phenomenon bears the name of Louis-Camille Maillard, who happened upon it when trying to ascertain how amino acids linked up to form proteins. From research undertaken in the early 20th century, he discovered that when heated sugars and amino acids were combined, the mixture slowly turned brown. Curiously, it was not until shortly after World War II that scientists associated the direct role that Maillard’s original chemical findings played in creating robust aromas and flavors in food.

The Maillard Reaction usually occurs when the denatured proteins on the surface recombine with those natural sugars present in that food. Usually the result of heat, a chemical reaction occurs between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, forming a multitude of interesting but poorly characterized molecules responsible for a broad, intricate range of scents and flavors, ultimately changing the pigmentation of food—the browning effect courtesy of Monsieur Maillard (1878-1936).