On a wing and a skewer

Dove season in South Texas means male bonding and gourmet barbeque

This is a confession of sorts: In my callow youth I was involved with marksmanship competitions for the .22-caliber rifle. Somewhere I have the badges to prove it. Much later in life, I even managed to score a clay pigeon or two with the unfamiliar shotgun. But when it comes to doves, I'm a dud. Couldn't hit one to save my life. On my sole attempt, referred to as the South Texas Dove Debacle, the only thing I managed to bag was the better part of a bottle of Veuve Clicquot - after hunting, of course.

That these babies can fly at around at 50 mph may be one reason this first-time hunter suffered marksmanship misfire. "They dodge and dart, climb and dive; it's like playing pinball," says Randy Mathews of Boudro's. The other reason is likely a certain ambivalence: I love to eat doves, but I'm not so sure about shooting them.

This may be correctly construed as a lame excuse, but there's more to the hunt than mere bird count. "It's a ritualistic thing to go out on opening day (September 1 in the central zone above Highway 90, later south of 90); it's male bonding to the 10th power," says John Crain, a graphic designer and accomplished amateur cook. "You need to arrive (at a hunter-friendly farm or ranch, preferably one where maize or sesame has just been harvested) before daybreak, when the doves start flying ... there might already be 50 pickups at the fenceline, and you get funny looks if you show up in a Volvo." Before donning a hunting vest, room for shells in front, a pouch for doves and spent casings (Crain reloads his) in the back, "you stand around and shoot the shit for a while" - the only shooting some of us should ever do and the real reason many hunters go.

Chef Nelson Gonzales' skewered, bacon-wrapped dove breasts with jicama-papaya salsa

12 split dove breasts
4 slices smoked bacon
1 jalapeño, seeded and cut into slivers
Skewers (soaked in water if wooden)

Marinade for 12 dove breasts:
1 c extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 c balsamic vinegar
1 T chili flakes
2 rosemary stems

Marinate breasts for 10-15 minutes. Remove and season lightly with salt and fresh-cracked pepper. Insert a sliver of jalapeño into the center of each 1/2 breast and wrap with 1/3 of a slice of smoked bacon. Secure the ends of the bacon to the breast with the skewer. Continue with as many breasts as will snugly fit on each skewer. Brush with the marinade and grill over medium heat until bacon is cooked. The breasts should be medium-rare to medium. Glaze the dove skewers with your favorite bbq sauce.

Jicama-papaya salsa:
1 medium jicama, diced
1 ripe papaya, diced
1 serrano pepper, minced
1/4 bunch cilantro, chopped roughly
salt to taste
Combine all ingredients
Serve over dove breasts
The birds, principally the migratory mourning dove and the now indigenous white-wing, stop flying when it gets hot - allowing time for more male bonding - and don't venture into the air again until late afternoon. The break also allows time for dressing the unlucky doves, not that it's time-consuming, especially for those who believe the skinned breast is the only part worth fooling with. "You can open the skin like a zipper, push up, and they fall off," says Mathews.

This is perfect for Boudro's Executive Chef Nelson Gonzales, who likes to cook dove breast in a smoker/grill hauled to the hunt and fueled with mesquite. Gonzales is a fan of the traditional South Texas dove recipe: a sliver of jalapeño tucked into the breast, a wrapping of bacon secured with a toothpick, and a quick grilling or smoking to medium rare. To gild the bird a bit more, he often uses his own chipotle barbecue sauce. (Another classic ploy for adding salt and fat is to marinate the breasts in bottled Italian dressing before grilling.) "You can eat at least 10 of these" says Mathews, but to give the less-sure shots a taste (the hunting, not eating, limit is 12 per day this year), Gonzales sometimes serves the breasts atop a Caesar salad, making for a field lunch that seems worlds away from gun racks and gimme caps.

The New Texas Wild Game Cookbook by Judith and Richard Morehead waxes poetic about dove, but the authors are fans of the whole bird. "You get more funny looks if you pluck them `in the field`," says Crain, but his wife Russi, also an accomplished cook, insists on having at least some dressed that way. Her favorite recipe, adapted from one for squab in Gloria Bley Miller's The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook, is a red-braising in water and soy sauce with tangerine peel, cinnamon, star anise, and fresh ginger root (she also adds one cup sake), followed by deep-frying. "They have some crunchy parts," she admits. Fried dove, molded dove salad, dove pie, and dove casserole, some of which involve pressure cooking whole doves, are among the recipes presented by the Moreheads.

There are also several dove recipes in the Corpus Christi Junior League's Delicioso! Cookbook. But the perfect compromise between breast lovers and whole-bird buffs may be a recipe developed by Diane Mathews. She uses the bony parts to make a stock, then fashions a kind of dove breast bourguignon with red wine, shallots, maybe a few mushrooms ... It's South Texas to the 10th power.

P.S. While researching dove regs in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Outdoor Annual Hunting and Fishing Regulations, I came across this caveat: "It is against the law to intentionally feed a free-ranging alligator" (emphasis mine). Just thought you'd like to know.