Unique game birds that are so much better than a Thanksgiving turkey

Embracing Change At The Thanksgiving Table

Roasting a turkey has become an unquestioned element to the American Thanksgiving tradition, with roots dating back to the early New England settlers. When prepared well, the robust bird is undoubtedly delicious and can sufficiently feed the gaggle of loved ones gathered around the holiday table. But the turkey is not the only game bird in town. Chefs Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite, the culinary duo behind a couple of Milwaukee’s acclaimed DanDan and EsterEv, are challenging home cooks to explore more exciting fowl options this holiday season. 

Duck, goose, (and even grouse!) can stand out as a main course showstopper on the Thanksgiving table. What these alternative game birds lack in popularity amongst Americans, they make up for in flavor. The distinct flavor of duck pairs well with a variety of ingredients. The layer of fat on a goose prevents it from drying out like the turkey breast so often does. A grouse offers a mild but complex gamey flavor because of the food it forages. Because of their smaller stature compared to turkey, these birds require less time in the oven. This means less stress making sure other side dishes get their time to shine in the oven.

About The Chefs

Jacobs and Van Rite (“The Dan’s” as friends affectionately refer to them) opened DanDan in 2016, gifting Milwaukee with Modern American-Chinese food with a midwestern sensibility. They opened EsterEv, a fine dining option within the same space, that serves up a globally influenced 10-course tasting menu inspired by prominent matriarchal figures in their families. The Peking Duck shines as a house specialty on the DanDan menu. Diners can feast on three courses of Wonton Soup, Duck Breast with Pancakes, and Duck Leg Chow Fun.

Convincing families to shake up their culinary Thanksgiving turkey tradition is an ambitious undertaking, but Jacobs and Van Rite know their way around a challenge. Jacobs went toe to toe (and won) against Iron Chef Bobby Flay on The Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.” He also received a life changing Kennedy’s disease diagnosis the same year DanDan and EsterEv opened. In addition to wowing guests at their restaurants, Jacobs and Van Rite put on an annual event called Dim Sum + Give Some, to engage Milwaukee restaurants and raise awareness for the neuromuscular ailment.

Unique game birds that are so much better than a Thanksgiving turkey
© 2017 Galdones Photography

The drive to incorporate a variety of game birds into the mainstream menu grew within Van Rite after years of listening to his uncle proclaim grouse to be “the tastiest bird out there.” While working as a personal chef in a small Colorado mountain town, he was able to confirm for himself (and his clients) that the ducks and grouse hunted locally were worth the hype. 


A Foray Into Dry-Aging: Anyone Can Do It

To elevate the preparation of a game bird like duck, the DanDan chefs recommend a dry aging technique to tenderize the meat, develop flavor and ensure extra crispy skin. This technique may seem daunting, but most of the effort will be spent clearing out some room in the fridge, as well as the advanced lead time for adequate aging. A dry-aged bird contains less water, and therefore cooks faster.

The breasts should be left intact on the rib cage, while legs and backbone are stored separately. In the designated dry-age area of the fridge (even a mini fridge would work), let the duck chill on a cooling rack for 18 days — it will be worth it!

Prepping the Duck

  • Place the breast and legs in a roasting pan; smother the surface of the skin with 2 tbsp of honey
  • Generously add salt, and lay the duck on a bed of thyme; add cinnamon and garlic inside of the bird
  • Roast in the oven for 12-15 mins at 400 degrees (A duck that has not been dry-aged should be cooked at 350 degrees for 25 minutes)
  • Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing — Although it may be counterintuitive based on how a turkey is prepared, duck is best served like a medium rare steak.