Saturday, February 20, 2016

Peacock and Vegetable Pie

NPR's Planet Money recently had a podcast, "We Cooked a Peacock", where they made a peacock pie following a Dutch recipe from a cookbook published in 1612. The podcast opens with a phone call from David Kestenbaum, one of the Planet Money team, to Exotic Meat Market where he asks the owner, Anshu Pathak, if he has whole peacocks for sale. Anshu, in his very colorful way, responded that he did, head, legs and tail included. The rest of the podcast details the Planet Money team's cooking adventure. 
A 1618 painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Senses of Hearing, Touch and Taste. Note just left of center the peacock pie to the left of the woman in the red dress. 
An enlargement of the peacock pie from the same painting. Note the actual head and tail of the peacock sticking out of the pie. 
I live in Southern California, not too far from Grand Terrace where the Exotic Meat Market warehouse is located. I have been buying different kinds of meat from Anshu for years and have gotten to know him. So I emailed Anshu and told him I would like to cook a peacock pie on President's Day and invited him and his wife over to our house to eat it, along with some other of my friends. Anshu accepted. I've eaten peacock once before, roasted, and it was great. 
A 1627 painting by Peter Claesz, Still Life Peacock Pie. This peacock pie is even more elaborate, having not only the head and tail, but the wings sticking out of the pie and a rose in the peacock's beak. 
In the interim, I started to look at what I would need to cook a peacock pie.  The 1612 recipe used by Planet Money provided that a peacock, of course, would be used. The peacock is the more colorful male of the peafowl, the drab female is called a peahen. The Indian peafowl, which is blue, originates from India and Sri Lanka. The green peafowl, which is green, originates from Myanmar, Indochina and Java. So not only did the peacock have an exotic looking tail and head, it had an exotic origin, a wonderful showpiece for those enjoying the fruits of the terminus of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam. 
An Indian (blue) peacock.
A green peacock.
The recipe provides that the peacock insides be sprinkled with: (a) pepper; (b) cloves; (c) nutmeg; (d) cinnamon;  and (e) salt. Aside from the salt, these ingredients were were almost as exotic as the bird. Black pepper, or the peppercorn, is the dried out fruit of the pepper plant, which is native to south India. Cloves, the flower buds of a tree, are native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia and the Dutch East India Company, which tried to control the spice trade in the 17th century, tried unsuccessfully to monopolize the trade in cloves. Nutmeg is the seed of a tree that is also indigenous to the Maluku Islands, also known as the Moluccas, or Spice Islands and the Dutch East India Company did have a monopoly in the nutmeg trade of the 17th century. Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of several types of tree. There were four types of cinnamon at the time, one from Arabia and Ethiopia, one from Sri Lanka, one from northern India and one from China. The Portuguese had the monopoly on cinnamon from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) at the time the Dutch recipe  was developed, but the Dutch East India Company dislodged the Portuguese from their monopoly in 1638 and expelled the Portuguese by 1658. 

The 1612 Dutch recipe then called for added lard and panicles of sweet fennel, to be added to the peacock cavity, to make it tender. Fennel is a flowering plant indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean. Though not as far afield as the other ingredients, fennel was probably an exotic ingredient as well. The legs of the peacock were then chopped off and the breast and thighs stuffed with cloves. The bird was then placed on a pastry bottom covered with thin slices of lard, then slices of lard were placed over the peacock and then even more spices before the top layer of pastry was added. The head of the peacock stuck out, wrapped in paper to protect it from the heat. However, the recipe noted that the head of the peacock could be cut off and put on the pie after it was baked, the most common method as of 1612. 
NPR's Planet Money peacock pie. 
Planet Money elected to cook their peacock with the legs attached and the resultant pie was very uneven. And of course there was no way to delicately cut into the pie because it was full of bones. 

Then I found a 1757 recipe for "peacock pye" at a blog known as Researching Food History. This was from an English cookbook called The Art of Cookery by John Thacker. Thacker recommended cutting of the head of the peacock, putting a stick up the neck to the head, then drying it in an oven. He also recommended cutting off the legs, keeping them, and keeping some of the short feathers of the tail. The peacock was trussed up, as for boiling, the breast bone broken down, then seasoned with pepper and salt. Put a piece of butter in the cavity, roast it about half through, then let it cool. The recipe then called for making a raised pie crust form, placing the half roasted bird in, the cavity filed with ten hard-boiled egg yolks, then six sweet-breads (brains) blanched and diced and laid around the bird filling up the pie crust so that it was even at the top. Over the top, put thin slices of larded bacon, then butter, then close the pie with pie crust on top with a funnel in the middle to let out steam. 
Peacock pie from here
Example of a raised pie painted by Peter Claesz in 1637, from here
There were several things I liked about this recipe. It gave guidance for how to deal with the head, the peacock was partially cooked before going in to the pie, reducing the likelihood of rare peacock, and I liked the idea of other ingredients being added to bulk it up, in this case egg yolks and sweet breads, making it more like an early version of an English meat and potato pie. It would make the pie even, unlike the undulating top of the Planet Money pie. 

Then I found that the Researching Food History blog also had a recipe for boning a turkey from an 1862 book titled Mrs. Somerville's Cookery and Domestic Economy, respectfully dedicated to the Ladies of Scotland.  This was intriguing to me because a boned peacock in a pie would make it so it could be cut and eaten like a traditional pie. To bone the turkey, you singe it, draw the sinews from the legs, cut off the head and neck and leave four or five inches of skin on the neck. Then it goes into detail about preparing it in such a way that it can be sewn up in a way to make it take its original form again. 

The more I thought about peacock pie, the more I thought about the meat and potato pie, an English staple I ate quite a few times when I lived in England. Vegetable ingredients along-side the de-boned peacock would allow the pie to be filled evenly and cut and eaten more easily. The final piece of my recipe puzzle came together as I watched a Gordon Ramsay video on cooking slow-roasted pork belly. I'd been thinking about using pork belly as the lard layer next to the pastry. Ramsay used fennel and liberal amounts of fennel seed and star anise to season the pork belly. I decided to focus on fennel as one of the vegetables, which was also in the 1612 recipe, and fennel seed and star anise as spices. 

On the Friday before President's Day I showed up at the Exotic Meat Market warehouse in Grand Terrace to pick up a peacock. Anshu was not there, but one of his employees was. He picked out a 6.5 pound peacock for me. The only problem was that it did not include the head or any tail feathers which I'd hoped to insert in the pie. The employee improvised and found the head of a Muscovy duck they had - at least it would help create some semblance of what the traditional peacock pie would like like. 
Head of a Muscovy duck.
It occurred to me that Anshu might have some of the fat trimmings from the wagyu beef he has butchered - that would be even better than pork belly as the lard layer to put next to the bottom and top crusts of the pie. The employee provided me with several packages of wagyu beef lard.  

Monday morning, after defrosting the peacock, I brushed canola oil over the entire carcass and rubbed in pepper and salt. 
6.5 pound peacock, oiled and rubbed with salt and pepper.
I wanted to half-cook the peacock, as called for in the 1757 recipe, and then de-bone it. I put the carcass on a cooking rack and put it in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, covered in tin foil. Then I pulled off the foil and roasted it for another 30 minutes without the foil. 

The peacock after roasting for 50 minutes. The peacock has a very distinctive yellow fat. 
While the peacock was roasting, I put together the vegetable component of the pie. I cut up one bulb of fennel, one large onion, cut small potatoes into thin slices and sauteed them in a pan with olive oil and liberal sprinklings of fennel seed and star anise. I also headed several large heaping spoonfuls of crushed garlic. As it was about cooked to where I wanted it to be, I added in frozen sweet white corn kernels and frozen peas, and let the ingredients cook together long enough for the peas and corn to mix well with the other ingredients. Then I set those ingredients aside in the refrigerator.
Vegetable mix: fennel, onion, potato corn and peas with fennel seed and star anise.
The boning of the peacock was quite a chore. As I boned I cut the meat into bite-sized pieces with kitchen shears to aid the end product as being one that would cut like a pie. I separated the meat into two piles, one pile with more cooked pieces and one pile with pieces that were more raw. 

I've never made pastry before, so Judy did it for me. The ingredients are pretty simple, water, flower and vegetable shortening. The tricky part was rolling it into a square and inserting it into a pan for the bottom crust. 
Rolled out pie crust.
Fitting the pie crust into the pan.
Once the pastry was put into the pan I layered in the ingredients: first, a layer of wagyu lard, second, a layer of the more cooked peacock pieces; third, a layer of the vegetables; fourth, a layer of the lesser cooked peacock pieces; and fifth, another layer of wagyu lard. 
The first layer of wagyu lard.
The second layer of more cooked peacock pieces.
The third layer of vegetables.
The fourth layer of lesser cooked peacock pieces.
Judy rolled out some more dough and skillfully put the pastry layer over the top, then scalloped the edges with her fingers. It looked great. She then put some slits in the top, somewhat in the shape of a peacock's tail feathers, to allow steam to escape. 
The pie, which was very heavy, was put in the oven at 375 degrees for about 1 3/4 hours. My biggest fear was that it would be under-cooked, so I let it go longer than I should have. It came out a beautiful golden color and retained its shape. The Muscovy duck head which was put in the oven for 40 minutes covered in a napkin, with chopsticks inserted in the neck to hold it up, was inserted in the pie. 
The peacock pie out of the oven. Taking a cue from one of the recipes, a melted an entire cube of butter and poured it over the top when it was finished. 
The peacock pie with the inserted Muscovy duck head. 
Judy set a wonderful table with a cheap tablecloth we got in Egypt with Egyptian geese on it, appropriate for this occasion. 
The peacock pie turned out well. The pastry was flaky and flavorful. The vegetables mixed well with the peacock and the peacock had nice flavor. The only negative was that some of the more roasted bits of peacock were a little over-cooked and chewy. Overall, I was very happy with it and I was surprised at how much the pastry really added to the dish. Usually with pie, I'm all about the filling. With the peacock pie, I was actually seeking for bits of pastry with each bite. 
The peacock pie cut into sections and the first piece removed.
Peacock pie at the front of the plate with a nice bison filet and roll at the back. 
Anshu asked for a second helping of the peacock pie, and specifically asked for more pastry with it. It was obvious he liked the pastry as well. It was a wonderful excuse to get together with friends and enjoy an unusual dinner. I would highly recommend anyone else with similar interests to give it a try. 


  1. I don't think I knew peacocks came in green. I can't say I thought the duck head made it more appetizing, but it certainly made it more interesting!

    1. Oh that's right! I've actually seen a white one; never a green one :).

  2. I'm not always that keen on some of your bizarre food concoctions, but this one was really, really good. I'd actually like to try it again. It would be fun to make it as a shallower pie, possibly made in a regular pie plate and definitely without a head sticking out of it.