A honey-sweetened brine and a blanket of bacon help give roast pheasants lots of flavor in this warm fall dish. Cranberry juice and dried cranberries bolster a rich sauce to spoon over the tender poultry. If you like, stuff the cavities of the pheasants with small whole lemons, slices of onion, fresh sage or parsley. You can also season the outside of the pheasants with seasonal spices like cloves, nutmeg or cinnamon. This recipe can easily be doubled to serve more people. Call your butcher shop to see if it sells or can procure pheasants, or you can buy them online at Dartagnan.com.
The day before, brine the pheasants: In a small saucepan, heat 3 cups water until just hot to the touch. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt, brown sugar and honey until dissolved. Pour the mixture into a large, gallon-sized container, then pour in the remaining 5 cups cold water. Stir in the lemon juice, garlic, onion and celery, then add the pheasants. Cover the container and refrigerate for at least 12 hours or overnight.
Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the pheasants from the brine and discard the brine. Pat the pheasants dry with paper towels, then place breast side up in a roasting pan. Run your finger under the skin over the pheasants’ breasts to loosen it. Spoon 1 tablespoon butter under the skin on each side of each breast. Then brush 2 tablespoons butter over the outside of each pheasant. Season the outside liberally with salt, pepper and 1/4 teaspoon paprika for each pheasant.
Use 1 bacon strip to tie the legs of one pheasant together; repeat on the second pheasant with another bacon strip. Arrange 4 bacon strips lengthwise over one pheasant to cover it completely, especially the breast; repeat on the second pheasant with the remaining 4 bacon strips. Place the pheasants in the oven and roast until the bacon is cooked through and lightly charred at the edges, 20 minutes. Using tongs, remove the bacon from the pheasants and let drain on paper towels; save the bacon for another use like crumbling over a salad or green beans.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue roasting the pheasants, basting each with 1 tablespoon butter halfway through, until golden brown outside and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thighs and the breasts reads 165 degrees, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the roasting pan from the oven and transfer the pheasants to a cutting board; tent with foil and let rest for 15 minutes. Pour the pan drippings into a bowl and let them settle.
While the pheasant rests, make the double cranberry sauce: Spoon 1/4 cup of the pheasant/bacon fat drippings into a small saucepan. Add the broth, grape juice, cranberry juice and thyme and bring to a boil. Cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 16 minutes. While the sauce boils, combine the butter and flour in a small bowl, mashing until it forms a smooth paste. Once the sauce is reduced, stir the paste into the sauce, add the dried cranberries and continue cooking until the sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and season with the salt and pepper.
When ready to carve, use kitchen shears to cut along either side of the backbones and remove them. Using a chef’s knife, cut through the breast bones to divide the birds into two halves. Serve half a pheasant per person, along with the double cranberry sauce on the side.
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