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Black Bear Bourguignon

There had been four shots all told, and whomever had fired them had not been sitting too far away me. The startled adrenaline was flowing as I quickly went through the mental mathematics on who it could have been, all the while readying my own rifle in case the deer came running past my stand.

It was a cool and calm November evening, the first we had experienced so far for the 2019 deer season, and I strained my ears for hooves thumping through leaves or the snapping of twigs that happen when fleeing whitetails move fast and heedlessly from danger. The reports had come with the cadence of an autoloading rifle, and that disqualified a few hunters in the group from being responsible, and only two or three hunters would be in the vicinity of where all the action was happening so I had my list of suspects fairly soon.

Calming down in the silent minutes after all the noise and having had nothing sprint through the hardwoods around me, I pulled out my phone and texted the group. No one that responded fessed up, so I went back to my business of peering through the woods as darkness descended around me. Before I even broke out of the woods and into the field surrounding the cabin, I could hear the stories being told.

Someone had seen some shooting, and I hoped to find a deer gutted and in the hanging tree. To my surprise though, we were soon talking about a bear, and the only man in camp holding a tag for one was my dad.

The tale was not without drama, and those details are for another day, but when all was said and done, I was happy for dad to get his bear, but I was most excited for the bear meat. I already had my mind well set on a special type of dish. Now, eating predators gets a bad wrap in some circles, and bears in general get their share of flack. But a truly wild bear, cooked correctly, is a rich and complex meat, and to the non-hunter it is not dissimilar to beef.

I have been fortunate enough to have had slow roasted bear, BBQ pulled bear, and bear burgers, and all were exceptional, and yes all were “beefy”, but they were also all deeper than that. I cannot find the word to exactly do the taste justice but heavy, musty, intense, and rich all come to mind, all with the most positive of meanings.

I have always thought that bear stew would be excellent, and I fiddled with Irish Bear Stew or maybe a Bear Brunswick Stew, and those would be excellent choices, but they were just too rough in my mind. As an experiment, I wanted something just slightly more refined, something still rustic but also elegant that would be a way to show that all those bold and concentrated bear flavours could be married with something luxurious and a cut above “stew”.

So, Black Bear Bourguignon became the plan. A once rural preparation of stewed onions mushrooms and beef that had been heightened by French masters, and in place of the beef, we were going to insert the bear. Was it as easy as throwing it in a slow cooker? No. Did it take more than half a day to make? Yes. Am I being a food snob? Maybe. But what matters most was that it was good, in fact it was better than good. It was both objectively and subjectively the best wild game dish I’ve ever eaten. The methodical process, the range of ingredients, and the patience needed all make it worth it, and the taste is something you need to experience to understand.

Shot a bear? Make this. It is worth all the efforts and really the bear deserves no less.

Ingredients

8 slices thick bacon, chopped

3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

3-4 pound bear roast, cubed roughly

2 medium carrots, sliced into coins

1 medium white onion, sliced thinly

2 tablespoons flour

3 cups red wine (authenticity demands Burgundy or Beaujolais, get the real stuff, you won’t regret it)

3 to 4 cups beef stock

1 small can tomato paste

4 cloves mashed garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf, crumbled

24-30 pearl onions

3 1/2 tablespoons butter

1 pound mushrooms, fresh and quartered

Salt and pepper

Preparation

  1. Cut the bacon into chunks and begin crisping them in a dutch oven or deep stock pot. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon, reserving the fat.
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230C).
  3. Ensure the bear cubes are dried. Add the bear to the bacon fat and brown on all sides. Do this in small batches so that the bear meat browns and does not steam in a crowded pot. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside with the crisp bacon.
  4. In the same bacon (and now bear) fat, brown the carrot and sliced onion. Once done, pour out as much of the fat as you can.
  5. Return the bear and bacon to the pot on top of the vegetables and stir with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Then sprinkle on the flour and stir to coat the beef lightly. Set pot uncovered in middle position of preheated oven for five minutes.
  7. Stir the meat again and return to oven for four minutes or until the flour is just beginning to brown and make a crust on the meat.
  8. Remove the pot and turn oven down to 325 degrees F (160C).
  9. Pour in the wine and two to three cups beef stock, just enough so that the meat is barely covered.
  10. Add the tomato paste, garlic, and herbs. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
  11. Cover pot and return it to the oven. Let this simmers very slowly for four hours. The meat is done when you can tear it easily with a fork.
  12. Go have a glass of any of that wine that may be leftover. You’ve got time.
  13. When the bear meat has one hour left in the oven prepare the pearl onions and mushrooms.
  14. Heat one and a half tablespoons butter with one and one-half tablespoons of the oil in a large pan until the butter is melted and bubbling.
  15. Add the onions and sauté over medium low heat browning them evenly.
  16. Add one half cup of the stock, salt and pepper to taste.
  17. Cover and simmer slowly for 45 minutes until the onions are tender and the liquid has evaporated. If the liquid is gone but the onions are still not tender, add more stock and get back to simmering them.
  18. Set the onions aside, and heat remaining oil and butter over high heat. As soon as you see butter has begun to bubble again, add the mushrooms. Brown them and then set them aside.
  19. When the meat is finished, strain the meat and vegetables, reserving all the cooking liquid.
  20. Put the bear, vegetables, mushrooms, and pearl onions back in the pot.
  21. Skim as much fat as you can off the cooking liquid, and then boil down the sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. The sauce should coat a spoon lightly when you are done. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper.
  22. Pour the reduced cooking liquid over the meat and vegetables. Simmer two to three minutes, stirring to coat the meat and vegetables with the sauce.
  23. Serve with crusty bread or pour over egg noodles.
  24. Dark beer or good red wine are mandatory when eating this.

Pan Seared Canada Goose Breasts with Raspberry Balsamic Sauce

Sadly, and as discussed previously in this forum, for many hunters Canada Geese have a terrible reputation as waterfowl table fare.  Far and away most people laud the specklebelly and they salivate for plump roast canvasback as the pinnacles of goose and duck meat respectively.  Sandhill cranes, if only they were legal to hunt in Ontario, are apparently the finest game bird you can consume, but I haven’t yet had the pleasure.

But as for the common Canada Goose, I’ve prepared it stewed and simmered, while other times I’ve slathered them in jalapenos, cream cheese, and bacon, such that the goose is merely a vehicle to carry the other ingredients.  We’ve made pulled goose sandwiches regularly in waterfowl camp, and our group recently started grinding goose breasts and bacon together to make sausage patties for breakfast sandwiches a.k.a. “McHonkers”.  This says nothing of the countless pounds of pepperettes we churn out and consume annually. All good preparations, but also all aimed at “using up” the birds and mingling them all in with other ingredients.

I ask you “Where is the goose?”

So, I get it, I’m strange.  I harvested and fried up goose hearts this fall, while my compatriots looked at me suspiciously.  I turned down part of my share of pepperettes this year in favour of taking home a pile of goose breasts and legs, while more than one shooter in our group remarked about me eating the ‘trash birds’.  But, at the end of the day I really do like the taste of a Canada Goose. If they are migrators with a layer of corn-infused fat on their breasts, then all the better.

To that end, here is a simple goose recipe I cooked up for myself over the holidays. With some degree of modesty, it was pretty much the best goose I’ve ever eaten, and it will just keep me coming back for more, instead of skinning and portioning all the birds for the grinder.

Be sure to score the breasts, so that some of that tasty goose fat can render off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ingredients & Preparation

Pan-Seared Goose Breasts

2 Canada Goose breasts, skin on

Salt & Pepper to taste

Preparation

  1. Preheat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Ensure the goose breasts are at room temperature and are patted dry with a paper towel
  3. Score the skin in a cross-hatch pattern.
  4. Season the breasts with salt & pepper thoroughly.
  5. Add the goose breasts to a pan, skin side down, and turn the burner on to medium heat.
  6. Sear the breasts until the skin is brown and crisp. I find this takes eight to ten minutes depending on the size of the breast and temperature of the burner. To get an even sear I like to ‘press them’ with a heavy pan, otherwise the ends of the breasts curl up and don’t get as crispy. Watch the breasts closely, because if they burn, they are essentially ruined.
  7. Turn over the breasts and place the pan in the middle rack of the oven for 10 minutes until the meat is medium-rare to medium. If you feel it needs more time to reach your desired level of done-ness, I recommend keeping them on the heat until you are comfortable, but over-cooking will make them chewy.  This is also a good time to add any additional salt, pepper, or seasoning that you may want to freestyle onto the skin side (I prefer a bit of cayenne pepper, but that’s just me).
  8. Remove the breasts from the pan and rest them, skin side up, on a cutting board for five to ten minutes.
Be sure to keep the goose medium-rare at the very most.

Raspberry Balsamic Sauce

½ cup raspberry jam

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Preparation

  1. Mix the mustard, jam, and vinegar in a small mason jar and shake vigorously until mixed well.
  2. If this is too thick, use a small amount of warm water to thin it out to the desired consistency.

Serving

Once rested, slice the goose breast into strips, skin side up. Drizzle a generous amount of the glaze over the goose. The sauce is tangy enough to cut through the very rich goose. I had this with over the holidays with some roasted brussels sprouts and spicy, sunny-side-up egg, but this goose breast goes well with pretty much anything.

Piles Makes Smiles…Or Do They?

We shot a lot of geese the other weekend, or as they say in the current vernacular we “made a pile”. In fact, that’s precisely what we did.  In the tradition of almost every successful waterfowler since time immemorial we made a pile of dead geese, and we took a photo of it.  It is without a doubt a common practice to take such a picture, in fact there are pictures of hunters and dead waterfowl going back for as long as there are photographs. I’ve heard people make a connection between ancient cave paintings of hunting and the act of taking photos, arguing that they share a common ancestry; I’ve always considered that to be a bit of a “reach”.

Regardless, in my advancing age, I’ve developed an increasingly tactful approach with my ‘pile pictures’ in the age of social media.  In a pre-social media age, pictures of hunters grinning behind some stacked up mallards or a row of belly-up geese lived in print photo albums, pulled out for the occasional trip down memory lane, and then tucked safely and inoffensively away until the next time.  But with the culture of sharing (and some might argue, over-sharing) prevalent, I’ve opted not to subject my non-hunting friends, coworkers, and acquaintances with big body counts on their Facebook, Twitter, and other news feeds. If they want to see that sort of thing, they’ll follow the website pages, and not my personal page.  Which leads me to the handful of social media hunting forums I frequent, where I felt I was among brethren.  It was there I posted an evening photo showing a tailgate-bending pile of sixty-two geese for their perusal. Just eight birds shy of our 14-man limit, we’d had a truly unforgettable hunt and I was generally, if not a little naively, certain that if there was feedback it would be positive, after all I really enjoy seeing other waterfowlers having success and I’m not shy with my Facebook ‘likes’.

I was more or less right, but one hunter took exception.  He likened the photo to ‘market-hunting days’, labelled it disrespectful and twice called the character of myself and my friends (total strangers to him mind you) into passive-aggressive question.  He said (I’m paraphrasing) that only through those kinds of interactions could waterfowlers “get better”.  Now, it was certainly not metaphorically a mountain nor was it a molehill of chastising on his part, and since I really try not to argue with anyone on the internet I just kindly thanked him for his feedback and apologized in true Canuck fashion for my misreading of his sensibilities. Other hunters had the expected feedback, defending the photo, the hunt, and my responses, which was an unexpectedly pleasant outcome.  In the end though, even that it all ended in a surprisingly respectful fashion, it did give me extensive pause for thought.

Because although I won’t stop shooting piles of geese, nor will I likely stop taking pictures of those piles of geese, objective self-assessment is healthy so here’s what I came up with.

The offending photo.

First off, waterfowlers ceasing their ‘pile pictures’ or ‘grip and grins’ or ‘hero shots’ or whatever you want to call them would only be constitute the situation getting “better” if you take as fact this anonymous commentator’s opinion that we are currently in a state that needs some manner of improvement…and I’m not so sure we are in that situation. After all it would certainly not be a faulty argument to state that ‘pile pictures’ give a nod to conservation.  There was a time not too long ago when seeing 100 geese in a whole season would have been unthinkable, never mind shooting almost 100 in a weekend. To be certain there are several contributing factors to the current plentiful state of goose populations, and the efforts of hunters and other conservationists are surely part of that equation, so why not reap the bounty?  All our geese get processed and eaten, and several recipes have graced this website previously (and more are coming) which would put us on the vanguard of field-to-table culture, and we have introduced many young kids to the tradition, future conservationists and hunters with awe in their eyes while hundreds of geese trade the skies and whirlwind into the decoys.  So, excuse my ‘pile photo’ if it offends you, but sorry I’m not really that sorry.

That said, I’m not so pedantic to think that we as hunters should not temper our pride or prowess with an understanding that a whole lot of people don’t like to look at heaps of dead animals.  I just hadn’t experienced it with and from other hunters. But such is the world we live in now. After all, just what are we exactly celebrating in this photo? We almost shot a limit, so do pile photos illustrate restraint, proof that we stayed under the legal maximum? Were there hints of vanity or an air of dominance of man over flying beast? Objectively, there probably is a sense of “Look at us and what we did!”, and in the submission to my peers I’d be lying if I said there was not validation sought and gained.

Of course, with every piece of technology now a camera, is it time we re-assess what hunting photos even are anymore.  The old saying “photos or it never happened” seems haggard and overused, and more than once I’ve rued the requirement to accumulate images and engagements and that oh-so elusive “content”. There are so many of them, I don’t think I’m out of line to ask if all hunting photos are even celebrations anymore or are they just becoming the perfunctory and ubiquitous by-product of our time?

If I put myself in the mind of this commenter, I have even further questions.  For example, in that individual’s eyes what would be the acceptable number of geese or ducks to show in a photo? Would it be zero?  If it were to be zero, would that in some way sanitize the hunt or show some elevated level of respect for the birds? As much as I respect the non-hunter viewpoint when expressed rationally and respectfully, at the root of things to hunt is to kill. If we take the kill out of the medium and narrative, why take photos of anything? Why tell any stories? Nay, why hunt? Why anything at all?

Okay, so it got absurdly nihilist there for a moment but I’m back.

This all boils down to the theory I’ve had for years, and written about here clumsily, around what I call the Hypocrisy Line; that nebulous and elusive stage where the things you could reasonably participate in cross the line into the things you find offensive when others do them, but are still okay for you to do for no other reason than that you yourself are doing them and can use rational gymnastics to justify the act. It is the hunting embodiment of “Do as I say, not as I (might) do.”

There absolutely are hunting photos I find distasteful. I once saw a harvested wild turkey in close-up with half of its face blown clean off. That wasn’t for me. I found a photo of a legally-hunted rhino draped in an American flag. I had reservations and a few questions. There has always been something a little off to my eye about shooting and then posing with a lion or a giraffe or a leopard, but that’s a bias of my upbringing more than any deep-seated objection to the act.  But in all those scenarios, and the sporadic others I see now and then, I’ve never been so incensed that I took it public with another hunter and their posting.

Because sometimes that’s hunting, warts and all.  Also, I refer you to my earlier remark about not arguing with people on the internet.

Anyhow, I debated a bit about the ‘offending photo’ and whether I’d leave it up in the social media group.  In the end I did, and I’ve put it in this post too, because if you’re reading this far you’re either very generous with your time for my rambling, or you’re in consensus with me.  And if you’re not, that’s fine too; shout at me on the internet if you want.

I’ll probably not engage in the banter though.

Easy Grilled Goose Breasts

Some people in the hunting world like to dump on Canada Goose meat.  Call it contempt for the commonplace, or maybe they’ve just had poorly-prepared meals, but I am a staunch apologist, nay a champion, for the bird as table fare.  I love Canada Goose meat, and I’m not too ashamed to admit it anymore.  Properly-cooked Canada Goose (and I can’t overstate that term enough) is great.  Improperly-cooked Canada Goose is a crime.

Early-season geese that are pin-feathered or that lack a good layer of fat are ideal for butchering into “breast steaks”.

When it is done correctly and simply (spoiler alert: it isn’t that hard) it eats like a good cut of beef, and our favourite way to cook goose breasts is to treat them just like a steak and do them on a good, hot grill.

Of note is that the heat and times I mentioned below work for my grill on room-temperature goose breasts of average size.  Over years of doing this I know that these temperatures and times will give me rare to medium-rare meat, which is how I like it. If you’ve shot a huge goose, you may want things to be on the grill a bit longer, if you’ve got a bunch of smaller juvies, lessers, or cacklers, then shorten up the time.

IT IS COMPLETELY OKAY TO EAT GOOSE BREASTS MEDIUM-RARE.

I cannot stress this enough; if you cook a goose breast to anything past MEDIUM (i.e. no longer warm and still a little pink, but brown-grey throughout) you are probably not going to enjoy the experience as things get chewy and grainy and dry. I am of the belief that medium-well and well-done goose breasts have contributed to more people labelling Canada Geese as ‘trash’ than anything else.

When I make this, I treat it like a nice steak. With red wine, asparagus, and a salad as a dinner, or served cold on toast with tomatoes and a fried egg the next morning, grilled Canada Goose should be in your recipe book.

Ingredients

  • 2 (roughly 1.5lbs total) skinless goose breasts
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp Tabasco sauce
  • 1 tbsp dried basil
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp crushed garlic

Cooking Steps

  • Whisk all ingredients together and pour over the goose breasts. These measurements make enough to ‘cover’ two breasts in an 11 x 7 x 1.5 inch glass casserole dish. Scale these measurements up or down depending on how much goose you are grilling.
  • Let the breasts soak for anywhere from 6 to 24 hours.
  • Heat your grill to a high temperature (mine was holding between 550 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit throughout cooking).
  • Remove the breasts and let most of the marinade drain off, but do not pat them dry.
  • Place the goose breasts on the grill and close the lid. After 3 ½ minutes, give the breasts a quarter turn, but do not turn them over*.  After 3 ½ more minutes, turn the breasts over. After 3 minutes give them another quarter turn.  After three more minutes, remove them to a plate or a rack.
  • Let the goose rest uncovered for 5-10 minutes. Slice the meat into strips across the grain and serve warm as you would a steak.

*I like to do this because it makes nice cross-hatch grill marks.  If you do not care for this, then do not make the quarter turns and just do 7 minutes on one side, then flip the breasts and do 6 minutes on the other. If you are unsure of how “done” they are there’s no shame in giving them a quick slice and deciding if they need more time to reach your desired level of cooking.