For those of you who know me and my family you will be aware that we have a quirky little idiosyncrasy of no determined origin; we are known to make lists. My Dad does it, my brother does it, I do it, and to a lesser extent, my immediate family of uncles and cousins on my paternal side do it as well. This post is but one of many examples of list-making that will grace the virtual pages of this blog, as is this earlier post.
If anything, lists serve as a jumping off point for conversation, and many a rollicking deer or duck and goose camp conversation has sprung up around the topic of such lists. These can be lists of any sort in a hunting camp: favourite foods, favourite types of foods (soups, pies, fruits, vegetables, cuts of meat, etc), favourite hunting seasons, preferred times of year and weather, least favourite rifle calibres, most-respected ancestors, funniest comedians, and so on in perpetuity. I find nothing more entertaining than seeing the passion with which grown men will work themselves into while extolling the virtues of minestrone soup, or bisque, or why the autumnal equinox is so damn awesome in relation to the vernal equinox. These are memories to cherish, and for the uninitiated, a bizarre ritual of bonding.
I firmly stand by the belief that this proclivity to catalogue and have debates about the order of things with others is what drove me into historical studies as a younger man. It also drives my lifelong affinity with learning and trying out new experiences both in hunting, and in my limited life outside of the sport. This is why I compete in calling contests, read a wide variety of books, the reason that I now own seven harmonicas (and hopefully…soon…a banjo.)
In a semi-corollary vein, something near and dear to my heart and the ultimate goal for me when hunting, is the capture of wild game for consumption.
For those of you who have not tried wild game I can only say that you may be missing out on one of life’s finer pleasures. For the readers who simply say that you “don’t like” wild game, I may posit that you just have not had it properly prepared for you. If you think wild game is one-dimensional, strong, without subtlety of flavour, or something otherwise unappealing, I would direct you to read anything by Gene Hill, a wordsmith and hunter who had the ability to simultaneously paint vivid scenes of the wilderness while also describing supra-palatable culinary adventures in wild game.
So in an unholy marriage between my appreciation for the cooking and consumption of wild game and my compulsively twisted and uncontrollable need to organize things into lists, I give you my top five favourite game meat dishes. One of these is something I’ve had only once, and I long for it again. Others are treats, while a couple are staples at hunting camps or in my suburban kitchen. All the preparations are simple and straightforward.
1. Pan Fried Ruffed Grouse
I’ll start with this because it is my absolute favourite wild game treat, and it is exceedingly simple to make.
Take a grouse that has been field-dressed (also an extremely simple process) and cut the breasts into medallions. Melt as much butter, oil, or other delicious fat as you like in a pan (but not too much, this isn’t deep frying, here…although that would be good too.)
Pat the grouse medallions dry and dust them lightly with flour. In a small bowl or shallow plate whisk two eggs, and in another bowl have some bread crumbs ready (I actually prefer to use soda-cracker crumbs, but to each their own I say). Dredge the medallions in the eggs and then in the crumb coating. Add them to the pan and cook over medium heat until slightly browned and just cooked through.
These can just be eaten straight away as a finger food, but I also find them good in a sandwich with some mayo, ball park mustard, lettuce, and cheddar cheese.
2. Deer Heart
Not only does someone shooting a deer in November mean that I’ll be getting some venison for the winter, but it sometimes means that we’ll be enjoying deer heart for lunch or dinner that day. Those who dislike organ meat should probably move on to recipe #3. Those who do like organ meat, well, it just doesn’t get any fresher (or more ‘organic’ than this).
Soak the heart in cold water for a few minutes to make sure all the nooks and crannies are rinsed out, then (starting at the top of the heart) cut it horizontally into ½ inch thick ‘steaks’. Dust these in flour and pan fry in the same way as in the grouse recipe above. I do recommend that heart be cooked to slightly more ‘well-done’ state…no, I don’t have a specific temperature to tell you. When it is cooked through, give it another minute or two in the pan.
3. Pit Roasted Bear Shoulder
I’ve only had this once and I don’t have the recipe specifics, so I’ll just try to explain the basic method and what it tasted like.
At the end of winter up on the Bruce, some of my friends and acquaintances have a bit of a party to celebrate the close of their winter coyote hunting. In 2009, someone at this (aptly named) ‘coyote party’ brought a bear shoulder roast, put it in a roasting pan, dug a hole in the ground, put the roast pan in the hole and then covered the whole thing with hot coals. And I mean hot coals. I don’t know what they spiced, rubbed, or marinated this cut of meat with, and I have no real clue how long it was in the ground, but they did keep piling coals onto it for a good while.
When this meat came out of the ground, a large group of men chased the aroma into the cabin, and I can say that this bear roast did not last 15 minutes from carving to total and absolute consumption.
Think moist, tender, flavourful, cooked to just a hair beyond medium, and with a texture that was ‘beefier’ than beef. I’ve heard some hunters say that bear meat is only good if it is ground up and masked with fillers in the form of sausages or pepperettes. After this preparation, I would beg to disagree.
If I ever get a chance to have it again, I will ensure that I get the full recipe and share it with my readers.
4. Dry Roasted Venison aux Poivre
This is a concoction of my own design, and it is based on Steak au Poivre. It is pretty rich, but I enjoy it as a comfort food and I personally would rather have this than venison tenderloin (sacrilege, I know). Moose, elk, sheep, or any other big game animal for that matter could be substituted for the venison.
In a heavy, dry skillet toast some ¾ cup of whole peppercorns until they are aromatic. Remove the peppercorns and set them aside to cool. Once they are cool, put them in a plastic bag and beat the bejesus out of them with a mallet or rolling pin until they are crumbled (not a fine grind, just rustic looking). Add a bit of salt to taste and then pour the whole thing onto a sheet pan.
Preheat your oven to 400° F.
Take the venison roast (I prefer shoulder or neck, although some like a shank) and let it thaw to room temperature. In a heavy skillet bring a mixture of vegetable oil and butter to a high temperature (be careful of grease fires!). Sear the roast on all sides and then roll it around on the sheet pan of salt and smashed peppercorns until the roast is coated on all sides. Put it back on the heavy skillet and put the whole thing in the oven until a meat thermometer inserted in the middle of the roast indicates the doneness you desire (I prefer a perfect medium of 145° F; others may like it more or less done). Wrap the meat in tinfoil and let it rest for 15 minutes.
While the meat is resting add a cup of red wine (of your choice) to the skillet and reduce it vigorously over high heat while scraping all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Once the wine reduces by half, cut the temperature to low and add 1/3 of a cup of heavy cream while continuing to occasionally stir. Also, optionally, you can add a handful of whole peppercorns and salt to taste. Once this sauce reaches your desired thickness you can just keep it warm on the back burner.
Carve the roast and dress with a spoonful or two of sauce. This is great with grilled asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes, and heavier red wine (Shiraz, Dornfelder, or red Zinfandel)
5. Rory’s Goose Camp Rolls
Although this is last on my list, it would not be a complete “Top 5” without this little dish. This is ideal for early season geese that may not have a good layer of fat on them.
Remove the skin from the breasts, and then remove the breasts from the goose (don’t forget the tenders!).
Take a goose breast and cut it into thin, flat strips. Marinate these for a couple of hours in a bottle of your favourite vinegar based salad dressing. I am partial to Balsamic vinaigrette, but sun-dried tomato, Greek, or plain old Italian style vinaigrette works in a pinch too.
While the goose is marinating, soak a bunch of heavy wooden skewers in water for about an hour.
Once the marinating is done (after say a couple of hours), lay some bacon out in flat strips and then lay the goose strips on the bacon. Roll them up like a cigar and hold them together with the skewer. Fire them on the grill until the bacon is crisp and the goose strips are cooked until they just barely pink in the middle (I would not recommend eating this dish any less done than medium…I’ve had rare goose…the outcome was unpleasant).
This dish is great because unlike something that is bacon-wrapped, these bacon-rolled pieces have crispy bits of bacon throughout. The vinegar in the salad dressing helps to tenderize the goose meat, and it also adds flavour. One side note for this dish. Historically these get eaten quickly, but they are also pretty heavy and very easy to over-indulge in. Consider yourself warned.
So that’s my top five. There are countless honourable mentions including braised goose legs, deep-fried wild turkey, a variety of chilli permutations, and plain old roast mallard. I’m sure that this will not be the last post on the subject of food and recipes I post though, so stay tuned.