On the hunt
As the pursuit of wild fish and game grows, so does the desire to prepare them
Into the wild: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported that the number of American hunters increased between 2006-2011. Doubtless this is due in part to those inspired by the locavore movement. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune)
For decades, that was a well-kept secret among a small band of outdoors enthusiasts, who knew there were other ways than deep frying to prepare fish and shuddered at the thought of dumping a can of cream-of-mushroom soup over a hard-earned pheasant breast.
But inspired by books such as Michael Pollan's 2006 "The Omnivore's Dilemma," a new generation is embracing the idea of hunting or catching dinner and is determined to find sophisticated ways to prepare it. A burgeoning industry has sprung up around it, with classes aimed at teaching adult beginners how to hunt for the table; author Steven Rinella hosting the hunting-for-food show "MeatEater" on an outdoors-themed cable network; and writer and cook Hank Shaw, of California, developing terrific recipes both for his books and his popular blog, Hunter Angler Gardner Cook (honest-food.net).
Game recipes also are hitting the mainstream: The fabled New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace published a game cookbook in 2008 ("Commander's Wild Side"), and James Beard Award winner John Besh included several game dishes in his 2009 cookbook, "My New Orleans," including one for a gumbo made with "poule d'eau," the Cajun term for coot.
Now comes Jesse Griffiths, an Austin, Texas-based butcher and culinary teacher, whose new book, "Afield: A Chef's Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish" (Welcome Books, $40), is one of the better game cookbooks in recent years, equally accessible to avid hunters and fishermen and those who are just starting out, as well as those who are debating whether to begin.
The recipes themselves range from the prosaic (beer-battered fried fish) to the adventurous (squirrel cooked over a campfire) to challenging (small ducks cooked in a glass jar). Several will make their way into my repertoire this fall.
Handsomely illustrated with some of the best how-to photos on game preparation I've seen, the book also includes well-written essays on fishing and hunting as introductions to each set of recipes. For a reader who knows the magic of a duck blind at sunrise, the writing is evocative; for the novice, it offers additional insight into why hunting and fishing are favored pastimes for millions in this country.
As a matter of fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported that the number of American hunters increased between 2006-2011, a surprising reversal following decades of decline. Doubtless this is due in part to those inspired by the locavore movement. "Afield," an enticing appetizer to great adventures and great eating, could help swell those numbers even more.
Tips for cooking game
Hank Shaw has this advice for cooks who want to try game dishes but aren't ready to hunt themselves: "Find a good butcher."
An avid hunter, fisherman and forager, Shaw turned his passion into the 2011 book "Hunt Gather Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast" (Rodale, $25.99) and is working on an upcoming cookbook tentatively titled "Duck: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Ducks and Geese."
Source: Some gourmet supermarkets stock duck, rabbit and pheasant that can sub for wild game. Less-common items such as venison, bison, wild boar and squab can be ordered by many butchers, and mail-order purveyors such as D'Artagnan (dartagnan.com) and MacFarlane Pheasants (pheasant.com) can ship game.
Differences: There are differences between the hunters' quarry and the domestic equivalents. Domestic rabbit, Shaw notes, is larger and softer than a wild cottontail, and wild ducks are denser and leaner than their domestic cousins. A pen-raised pheasant tends to be blander than a wild bird, though it has extra fat that can be a bonus in some preparations.
Subs: Heritage pork is an admirable substitute for wild boar, and a heritage turkey is "virtually indistinguishable" from its wild counterpart, Shaw says. Almost any dove recipe can be replicated with squab.
Hunt: Yet there is no substitute for some game, such as the delicate ruffed grouse or the delicious specklebelly goose. For those, "you've got to pick up a gun, learn to hunt and get out," Shaw says. "These are some of the greatest foods on the planet, and you can only get them through hunting."
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 6 to 8 hours
Note: From "Afield," by Jesse Griffiths.
2 ½ pounds venison trim, shanks and necks
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 dried chipotle chilies
1 onion, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 whole cloves, ground
2 dried bay leaves, ground
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a slow cooker; cover with cold water, about 2 inches. Cook on low until very tender, 6-8 hours. (Alternately, cook in a large Dutch oven at a low simmer.)
2. Remove the meat from the pot; cool slightly, reserving the liquid. Shred the meat, removing the bones; moisten the meat with a few ladles of the reserved broth.
3. Adjust seasoning; serve with tortillas, chopped raw onion, cilantro, limes, salsa and a vinegary hot sauce.
Per serving: 395 calories, 8 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 254 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 70 g protein, 544 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
Pasta with crab, basil and garlic
Prep: 1 hour (15 minutes, if using already picked crab)
Cook: 20 minutes
Note: While Jesse Griffiths' "Afield: A Chef's Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish," is very specific in the type of wild meat or fish used in each recipe, this is one where he cheerfully suggests using the picked blue crabmeat found at many fishmongers and supermarkets as a substitute for catching and cooking your own. In that case, Griffiths suggests using "as much crab as you desire."
6 to 8 live blue crabs (or 1/2 pound picked crabmeat or more)
1 pound linguine, spaghetti or other pasta
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
Crushed red pepper flakes
Zest of 1 lemon
1. Rinse the crabs well under cold running water. In a large pot, heat 2 gallons well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the crabs; lower heat to a simmer. Cook, 5 minutes; turn off the heat. Allow the crabs to sit in the water, 5 minutes.
2. Remove the crabs; let cool, reserving the cooking liquid. Pick the meat from the crabs. Set aside the meat in the refrigerator.
3Strain the cooking liquid; heat to a boil. Add the pasta; cook just until tender.
4. Meanwhile, insert into the pasta pot a heat-proof bowl that is wide enough that the rim sits on the edge of the pot. (This allows the steam to heat the bowl.) Add the picked crab, butter, garlic, basil, a bit of red pepper flakes and the lemon zest to the bowl. When warm, and the pasta is done, remove the bowl.
5. Drain the cooked pasta well; add it to the warmed bowl. Toss, season with salt and serve immediately.
Per serving: 615 calories, 15 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 87 g carbohydrates, 30 g protein, 228 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.