The Healing Powers of Sopa de Paloma
An ancient dish, a new life
Squab is an elegant and tender little bird, a delicacy since ancient times across Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, the Americas, and the Middle East. It is uncommon in modern American kitchens, partly because its reputation is spoiled by their wayward cousins. The ones we eat aren’t flying rats; they are lovebirds, raised by attentive human caretakers and strictly monogamous parents in the countryside. Some people believe that squab helps with every stage of baby-making, from attraction through postpartum recovery. Also, squab is delicious.
I had squab for the first time in November in a pigeon pie at a French-Cajun restaurant in Newburgh, NY called Mama Roux. It was the first night out my wife Zoraida and I had since our baby was born a few months earlier. The place was candlelit, the windows foggy on a cold night, and a friend sent me a late-birthday whiskey sour as we were being seated.
The pie — paired with a Château La Naude, Bordeaux — was luscious and flavorful, filled with wild boar lardons, walnuts, kabocha squash, maitake, and purple potato. The morsels of squab themselves were exceptionally succulent and a little gamey. The tangy bramble gravy on the plate cut through nicely.
The Chef, Matt Hutchins, explained that squab has only dark meat and is best cooked to a medium-rare. It stays perfectly moist and tender because of the layer of fat under the skin that bastes the bird as it cooks — and because squab is harvested between 28 and 30 days old, before it can fly and toughen the breast meat.
I passed a forkful across the table to Zoraida, and her forehead softened ecstatically as she chewed.
Driving home, we reminisced about our early dates, when we pretended to be a pool-playing Bonnie & Clyde, going bar to bar on our motorcycle. (We’re not actually good). We decided to stop at a dive for a few rounds of pool and more drinks. We had more fun than we’d had in a long time, and we made it home later than expected.
When we walked through the front door that night, glowing and fully charged, we found my mom cooing with our baby Naeem in a leather swivel chair under a reading light in the front room. Before heading to bed, we had a hushed conversation with her that turned to labor and recovery, a hot topic because my sister Katie was also expecting. She asked Zoraida how she was feeling and said, “You know, after I had Lisa [another sister], Abuelita served me sopa de paloma for thirty days straight.”
“What’s that?” I said. “Pigeon soup? I just ate pigeon for the first time tonight. It was great.”
She continued, unmoved by the coincidence. “Yeah, I guess so. I thought it was weird at first. It was a whole little bird in a broth with some potatoes. The meat was really tender. I don’t know where they got all those birds, but I felt great after thirty days.”
My mom’s postpartum recovery plan was to eat 30 days of her mother-in-law’s squab soup, sopa de paloma, something that was still common in Colombia at the time — the ‘70s — but foreign to my American mom. Another coincidence that none of us realized at the time: My sister Katie was thinking of naming her incoming baby Paloma.
I’m not one of those “things happen for a reason” people, but the universe was pushing squab, so I became curious.
People have been eating squab for both vigor and pleasure for millennia. There is a 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet with a recipe for squab soup and there are ancient dovecotes — man-made structures that house single-family pigeonholes — still standing around the world: The mud-brick dovecotes in the Nile Delta. The marvelous honeycombed towers in the Yazd province of Iran. The ornamented dovecote castles on the Greek island of Tinos. The stone dovecotes once kept by the lords of the manors across Great Britain. And adobe dovecotes throughout the Tierra de Campos in Spain.
Jane Canova wrote in the Spring 2005 issue of Gastronomica, “Few other birds have been so revered by man or served him so well.” Under the Muslim Al-Andalus empire on the Iberian peninsula, “Pigeons were regarded as the birds of the prophets and accomplices in amorous intrigues …” Specialists in dietetics and hygiene recommended pigeon and squab meat for their hot and moist complexion, she continues. Their eggs were also eaten as an aphrodisiac along with turnip juice and onions. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain’s Golden Age, eating squab reached a peak; dishes like pigeon pie, squab with truffles and marrow, squash with stuffed squab, and sweet pigeon turnovers with bacon, were being eaten by the most well-fed Spaniards.
The practice of raising squab traveled to Latin America. In Honda, a colonial city on the Magdalena River in a valley of the Colombian Andes, my Abuelita’s neighbor had a small dovecote or palomar; that’s where she got all of those birds for my mom’s soup. My father told me that when he grew up there, he and his seven siblings would have a big bowl of sopa de paloma with three or four birds in it when they were sick. My grandfather — the town pharmacist — thought it was especially important for women postpartum because it was loaded with iron.
The idea that squab is extremely healthy — and has mysterious powers to conjure love, boost fertility and ensure marital fidelity — has existed almost everywhere squab has been part of gastronomic culture. The centuries-old Egyptian squab dish hamam mahshi, roasted squab, stuffed with a nutty cracked green freekeh, used to be served to the bride and groom on their wedding night for an extra boost. The symbolic association likely came from the domestic habits of the birds themselves.
In their little private cubby, the mother and father have a lot of sex, though that aspect wasn’t as blissful as ancient peoples assumed. If the mother isn’t in the mood the father pecks her on the forehead and shirks his household duties until she comes around. Otherwise, unlike other poultry, they share all domestic tasks: foraging supplies and then weaving a nest together, trading day and night shifts for brooding, preparing the “pigeon milk” by chewing up their food, and feeding it into the beaks of their hatchlings. They remain loyal to each other for life. Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan told Food & Wine, “If you lose the male or the female, then the other one is never going to couple again.”
The birds are altricial: They depend on their parents to feed them and can’t really be factory farmed. According to Dalton Rasmussen, the president of Squab Producers of California, it also means you have to “feed four mouths instead of one” (they lay two eggs at a time). This makes them expensive to raise, which contributes to their relative scarcity. Still, if you want to try squab, there are two primary sources in the US: Rasmussen’s California operation, which is a cooperative of 65 independent farmers, and the Palmetto Pigeon Plant in South Carolina.
Rasmussen kindly sent me some samples: a whole bone-in squab, a semi-boneless squab, meant to be stuffed, and some squab breast, which I’ll probably pan roast and serve with a berry sauce.
After learning all of this, and then getting that package of squab in the mail, I was inspired. There are thousands of years and a whole world's worth of recipes for squab that I wanted to try — a sweet glazed, spiced and deep-fried Cantonese dish was really calling my name, and also, Matt Hutchins’ pigeon pie, for which he shared the recipe.
First, I needed to make my sister soup.
My sister Katie and her wife Julia had the baby on Sunday, January 9, and they named her Paloma. The delivery, a C-section, was violent and Katie will need a lot of strength to recover.
I took Monday off, threw everything I had on hand into a pot in the morning — the semi-boneless squab, stock, carrots, potatoes, garlic, celery, onions, Aleppo pepper, saffron, pimentón, bay leaf, and black peppercorn — and let it simmer until every last nutrient was integrated into the liquid; then I packed it into two Ball jars and marked my niece’s birthday on the lids. I showed up to the hospital that evening unannounced, cradling a cooler packed with the jars like they were vials of an antidote.
I didn’t call ahead because visitors aren’t permitted up to the room as part of the hospital’s COVID precautions, and I didn’t want to give them time to think of ways to turn me away. No family member besides Julia had seen my sister for several weeks because there were complications with the pregnancy and she had been hospitalized for the past month. I told the woman at the front desk, “I don’t need to go up, I just need this soup to get to my sister.”
She looked at me closely and then called up to the room and told my sister there was a visitor. She then told me, “Go ahead up to the second floor waiting area — it’s quiet up there — and look out for someone you know, but I didn’t tell you this.” Julia came down first and was shocked to see me. I explained my purpose, and then she left and came back twenty minutes later wheeling Katie in a wheelchair. I recounted the story of the soup and some of the history I had learned, and they teared up. When I told them what a dovecote is and the Spanish word for it, palomar, they both turned to each other, smiling, and said the word slowly. I left after telling them to order some white rice, herbs, and lemons from the cafeteria to go with it.
They each had a bowl of the sopa de paloma that night while their baby Palomita was in the NICU on oxygen and under observation.
The next morning, she was able to breathe on her own and drink a bottle of her mother’s colostrum for the first time; in it, there were traces of her special soup.
Matt Hutchins’ Pigeon Pie at Mama Roux, Newburgh, NY
Though I have worked with squab many times over the years, I have only made this recipe once this past fall. It is a fun take on the comforting warmth of a chicken pot pie, but literally turned upside down. The gaminess of the squab is accentuated by the fall flavors yet balanced and lightened by the sweet acidity of the bramble gravy. Enjoy!
Wild Boar Maple Bacon
I included this recipe even though I know that most people do not have access to wild boar belly, however, I wanted to share this recipe for the more adventurous chefs out there who would like to try it. The wild boar could be easily substituted with farmed pork belly, for the brave ones, but another even simpler solution would be to simply purchase a slab of bacon and go from there. Double-smoked applewood bacon would be my recommendation.
If making this recipe, be sure to plan ahead, as it requires over a week’s time to produce.
Wild boar belly, skin-on: Rinse belly and pat dry with a paper towel or cloth.
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup kosher salt
1 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon pink curing salt (optional)
1. Mix all other ingredients in a mixing bowl until smooth. Spread mixture over top of bellies evenly and rub into meat. If using curing salt, be sure to wear gloves when handling.
2. Cover and refrigerate for 5 days.
3. After 5 days, turn bellies over and rub the juices all over to incorporate.
4. Cover and refrigerate for 2 more days.
5. Remove bellies from cure and rinse under room temperature water.
6. Pat dry with paper towels or cloth thoroughly.
7. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 1-2 days until pellicle is formed (the surface will become tacky to the touch, important to develop for smoking, as the smoke flavor will adhere to the meat more effectively).
8. Smoke at 265°F for 3 hours with wood chips, preferably applewood.
9. Cool completely before removing skin with the tip of a knife.
10. Refrigerate until needed.
This recipe is a basic brine that I use for many different types of game birds, pork, or boar.
2 cups apple cider
1 cup unoaked white wine
6 garlic cloves
¼ bunch thyme with stems
4 bay leaves
½ cup sugar
½ cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon star anise
1 tablespoon juniper berries
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 quarts ice
4 whole squab
1. Place all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, including a quart of water.
2. Reduce to a simmer and let cook 5 minutes.
3. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.
4. Remove lid and stir in ice until melted and liquid is cooled down.
5. Pour brine over pigeons, then place a small plate or bowl on top and push down to help keep them submerged.
6. Refrigerate overnight for up to 12 hours, then rinse squabs and pat dry until needed.
Pigeon Spice Rub
I also use this rub for a fall duck breast dish with butternut squash and a sour cherry mostarda with Brussel sprouts and sunchoke, it’s a simple and easy seasoning for dark poultry.
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground pink peppercorn
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground juniper
1 ground bay leaf
½ ground teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ground star anise
Enough olive oil to cover the birds
1. Mix all ingredients thoroughly.
2. Lightly oil squabs, then season with spice rub.
3. Roast squab for 5 minutes at 375°F
4. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
5. To butcher the squab, remove the leg fist by drawing the blade around the hip bone at the thigh, from front to back, over, under, then through. Next, slice along breast bone, then continue the motion, down the ribcage until the entire breast has been removed, starting with one side, then moving to the other. Remove the wing from the breasts by pressing the knight near the joint and gently folding the wing back. Interlock the coinciding wings and legs and reserve them for plating. Chop the breast meat into medium dice or so, with the skin still attached. Pull any excess meat from the carcasses and reserve with the breast meat to use in the pie filling. Reserve the carcasses for the stock.
This is a simple stock recipe that is usually reserved for darker meats like lamb, goat, venison, elk, or beef, but I will also use sometimes for darker poultry, such as squab or duck.
4 squab carcasses
Olive oil blend, to coat
1 cup peeled and diced carrot
1 cup medium diced celery
2 cups medium diced onion
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
3 garlic cloves
¼ bunch thyme, with stems
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1. In a mixing bowl, lightly coat squab carcasses with oil, then transfer to and spread out on an unlined sheet tray.
2. In 450°F oven, roast until browned, then remove from tray and place in a pot.
3. Using the same tray, coat carrots, celery, and onions in oil and pan drippings, then place back in the oven.
4. Cook until browned and onions are translucent.
5. Remove aromatics from the tray and mix with a wooden spoon in the mixing bowl with tomato paste until evenly coated.
6. Transfer mixture back to the tray and spread out evenly.
7. Roast until tomato paste is caramelized, but not burnt.
8. Using a metal spatula, scrape aromatics into the pot with the squab carcasses.
9. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to release the drippings.
10. Scrape all the wine and drippings into the pot.
11. Add all remaining ingredients starting with the garlic cloves to the pot and bring to a boil.
12. Reduce to a low simmer and let cook for about 4 to 5 hours (or a minimum of 2), adding more water as needed.
13. Reduce the mixture by 50 percent, then strain through a chinois or other fine-meshed sieve.
14. Let stand until a fat layer forms on top, then skim off the fat with a ladle and discard.
15. Cool completely until needed or use immediately for other applications.
Pigeon Pie Filling
The ingredients in this filling could be replaced as you see fit, as it’s really a personal choice. Also, if you cannot find some ingredients, like kabocha squash or maitake mushrooms, try to find something similar. For instance, kabocha could be substituted by another winter squash or pumpkin, and maitake could be exchanged for shiitake or oyster mushroom, or a combination of your favorite foraged mushrooms if you’d like!
Wild Boar Bacon, cut into 1”x¼” lardons, rendered at high heat, until 75 percent done, stirring occasionally
1/2 cup butter
2 cups small diced onion
2 cups medium diced purple potato
4 cups large diced kabocha squash
2 cups medium diced turnip
1 cup julienned leeks
4 cups maitake mushroom
1 head minced garlic
1/2 cup AP flour
6 cups Pigeon Stock
2 cups unoaked white wine
1 tablespoon minced marjoram
1 tablespoon minced thyme
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1 teaspoon minced sage
¼ cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
8 squab breast, medium dice, plus scraps pulled from baked carcasses
Baby red mustard greens
2 cups toasted walnut halves
1. Add butter to a large pot, stirring until melted fully.
2. Add remaining ingredients one at a time in sequential order, cooking until 50 percent done before adding the next ingredient.
3. Add flour all at once, stirring with a wooden spoon until flour is fully incorporated.
4. Whisk in herbs and spices and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
5. Slowly whisk in stock and wine.
6. Reduce to a very low simmer and let cook for 15 more minutes.
7. Remove from heat and fold in the squab, mustard greens, and walnuts.
8. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
9. Cool mixture to room temperature before filling pies.
I have given this recipe next because it’s something that can be made while the pie filling is cooling down. If needed, reheat the bramble gravy just before plating the dish.
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup minced shallots
2 tablespoons AP flour
4 cups blackberries
1/4 cup port
1/4 cup sweet vermouth
1 cups pigeon stock
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1. Melt butter over medium heat in small pan.
2. Add shallot and sweat until translucent.
3. Using wooden spoon, mix in flour until smooth.
4. Add all remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.
5. Reduce to a low simmer and cook until berries have fallen apart and the mixture has reduced by 25 percent, about 5 minutes.
6. Cover and let stand 10 minutes.
This recipe is for a rich savory dough; depending on the size of your food processor, the recipe may have to be cut in half. Most likely for the 8 pies, the recipe will have to be doubled or perhaps tripled, depending on how thick you want your crust. Alternately, you could also make a fairly nice crust using puff pastry dough, which you can buy at most grocery stores. If using puff pastry, roll out the dough with a rolling pin on a floured surface, the dough will not puff as much and will hold its shape better. Form, cut, and brush the pastry in the same method as described at the end of this recipe.
4 cups AP flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 egg yolks
¼ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unoaked white wine
8 tablespoons cubed butter
1. Place all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse until all ingredients just come together, scraping the sides with a rubber spatula as needed.
2. The mass should form a shaggy ball and pull away from the sides of the processor bowl.
3. Adjust with flour or water as needed, only using tiny increments.
4. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until needed.
For assembling the pies
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Make an egg wash by whisking a couple of eggs in with a couple of tablespoons of water. Set aside.
2. Find a 16 oz. bowl or pan to use as a mold. Cut the dough into manageable pieces.
3. Roll out the dough on a floured surface with a rolling pin to 1/8” until the dough is about an inch wider than the bowl, then set aside. Roll out another piece until about 3 inches wider than the bowl.
4. Place the larger piece in the bowl, pushing out the air around the sides, letting the excess dough hang over the sides.
5. Fill the bowl with the pie filling evenly to the top.
6. Using a pastry brush, brush egg wash on the edges of the pastry, then brush one side of the smaller piece.
7. Lay the smaller piece on top of the bowl, with the egg-washed side down, gently pressing the edges down, while pushing out any excess air bubbles.
8. Place a plate on top of the bowl, then, holding the plate and bowl firmly, quickly flip the pie.
9. Using a pasta cutter, cut around the edge of the bowl, removing excess pastry, and reserve to add back into the rest of the dough if desired.
10. Remove the bowl. Transfer the pastry to a sheet tray lined with a silicone pad, then repeat the same process until all pastries are assembled and transferred.
11. Egg wash the top of the pastries, then sprinkle with a little kosher salt and cracked black pepper.
12. Using a small sharp knife, cut two slits in the top of the pastries, to release steam during the baking process. If desired, garnish the top of the pastry with marjoram or sage leaves by arranging and pressing on the egg wash until it sticks.
13. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking process, until the pastries are golden brown.
Reheat bramble gravy and wing/leg garnishes if needed, then spoon gravy around the edge of 1/3 of the plate. Place warm pastry in the center of the plate, then sprinkle amaranth cress (or substitute another microgreen like micro bull’s blood or sorrel if amaranth is not available) over the gravy. Set the wing/leg garnishment on one side of the gravy, against the pastry. Serve immediately.
I would recommend pairing this dish with an Old-World Pinot Noir if drinking with wine, but if you prefer beer, an American pale ale or brown ale would pair just fine. If in the mood for something stronger, I would recommend a port barrel-aged whiskey on the rocks or a classic Manhattan or Old Fashioned. If visiting Mama Roux in the fall, perhaps try pairing this dish with one of our fall bourbon cocktails, like Cigar Bar, with Mac’s Fingerlake Bourbon, Averna, Malmsey Sherry, Drunken Cherry Syrup, Ango and Orange Bitters, a lit cinnamon stick, and a twist.
Recipe adapted from Matt Hutchins of Mama Roux. This recipe has not yet been tested by TBP.