Two Reasons Why Spring is Such an Exceptional Season: Wild Turkey and Pheasant Back Risotto

After the doldrums of late-winter—those weeks when the ice has started to thaw on lakes statewide, leaving little opportunity for fishing—spring is a welcomed reprieve from cold days with little sunshine. For us hunters and foragers in particular, spring represents the opportunity to pursue some of the rarest, most-elusive table fare the year will have to offer and serve it up in some classic or new favorite dishes. 

As early as late-February, once temperatures start to warm, toms (mature male turkeys) start to strut among circles of hens. In woods inhabited by turkeys, loud gobbles announce the sunrise each day and can be heard for a quarter mile or more. Approximately a month later, wild mushrooms begin to sprout. Serious foragers take to the woods, baskets in hand, seeking to spy and perhaps pick a delectable bit of fungus.

This year in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities area, we experienced a fairly cold, wet early spring, so pheasant back mushrooms were (and still are) in abundance. While pheasant backs are not as cherished as morels, they are tasty and have a hint of cucumber as an aftertaste. They are very good when simply sautéed in butter with some salt and pepper.

This year I killed my first tom in Minnesota. I was joined by my good friend Dave Orrick (Pioneer Press outdoors editor). We both walked away with a gobbler apiece on public land before 11 in the morning. The following week, my wife and I foraged for wild mushrooms and came across a hoard of pheasant backs.

Because a couple were too large and would have exhibited the texture of rubber, I decided to use them to make stock. Stock is simple: in a large, tall pot, sauté a sliced onion and a few ribs of diced celery in butter with a couple tablespoons of kosher salt and handful of black peppercorns. Add two washed and diced pheasant backs the size of your face, heat until brown. Fill pot with water and add bay leaves. Simmer for approximately 1 hour. Stock is done when color is dark-ish brown and mushrooms pieces no longer float. Drain stock through a sieve, thus removing ingredients, and store in mason jars. A large pot, with these ingredients, should yield approximately 12 cups.

If you don’t wish, or simply don’t have the opportunity, to make pheasant back stock, chicken stock will work just as well for this recipe.

Risotto is always a great answer to any homemade stock, whether it’s made from wild mushrooms or leftover bones from a roasted pheasant or other game bird.

Finally, because it is imperative when mushroom hunting to know the difference between safe and poisonous mushrooms, please review the following links. Pheasant backs (also known as dryad saddles, hawks wings or Polyporus squamosus) should look like the photo for this dish and their underside, the pores side, should smell like watermelon rind. However, WHENEVER UNCERTAIN, DO NOT PICK.


Makes four servings.

1 whole wild turkey breast, approximately 16-20 ounces, butchered into four pieces. 

Turkey brine (Overnight, no more than 12 hours):

1 gallon cold water

1/2 cup non-iodized salt

1/2 brown sugar

5 ounces fresh ginger, smashed

1/4 cup black pepper corns

1/4 cup anise seeds

5 bay leaves

10 dried red chili peppers

1/2 large bulb of garlic, cloves peeled and smashed


2 cups Arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

3 to 4 cups pheasant-back or chicken stock

3-1/2 tablespoons butter (mixed use)

1 medium-large shallot, finely minced

8 ounces pheasant back mushrooms, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 poblano peppers, diced

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Intermittent dustings of kosher salt and ground black pepper

Garnish (optional):

Freshly minced sage


To brine, butcher and grill wild turkey: Fill a large pot or container with gallon of cold water and stir in salt and sugar until completely dissolved. Add ginger, black pepper corns, anise seeds, bay leaves, dried red chili peppers and garlic. Stir. Cut turkey into four fairly equal cuts (butterfly if necessary for even width) and fully submerge in brine. Let turkey soak in brine in refrigerator overnight (no more than 12 hours) then THOROUGHLY RINSE brine from turkey, making certain to remove any ingredients stuck to meat. Heat barbecue grill until coals are red and flaming or propane is set to medium heat. DO NOT add any salt or pepper to breast cuts. Place on grill, cover grill and flip once underside receives grill markings, cook to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover with aluminum foil and set aside in oven or warming drawer set to very low (no more than 200 degrees) until risotto is finished.

To prep pheasant back mushrooms and poblano peppers: Thoroughly rinse mushrooms and cut off majority of stem. Cut mushrooms into bite-size pieces, no larger than 1-inch by 1-inch. Cut poblano peppers in half and seed. Cut into approximate half-inch by half-inch squares.        

To make risotto: Heat a large, deep skillet to medium-low heat and add 1 tablespoon butter. Add chopped poblano peppers and lightly salt and pepper. Stir often and cover pepper squares in melted butter, turn to high heat to received seared texture on poblanos. Turn heat back to medium-low and stir in mushrooms with another 1 tablespoon of butter. Lightly salt and pepper again. Once peppers and mushrooms are cooked to right texture (soft but not mushy), remove and set aside. Add half tablespoon butter to skillet, followed by finely minced shallot. Lightly salt and pepper. Cook until brown and soft. Add 2 cups Arborio rice and 1 tablespoon butter. Stir frequently until rice is pale brown. Add half cup dry white wine. Stir until rice absorbs wine. Add stock half cup at a time, stirring frequently rice absorbs stock. Lightly salt and pepper, once more. Continue to add stock until rice has al dente texture (firm to bite, little resistance at center, not soft but also not hard). Should take between 3 to 4 cups to achieve this texture. Once desired texture is achieved, salt to taste. Finally, remove skillet from heat and stir in parmesan cheese until melted.     

To serve: Risotto is best served immediately after rice reaches desired texture. Add an approximate 1-1/2 cups risotto to a plate or bowl. Thinly slice a 4- to 5-ounce cut of grilled wild turkey breast and place overtop, followed by a garnish of freshly minced sage (optional).