Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Diversification of Mastication

Despite its title playfully derived from The Book, this is not a food blog and I am not a food blogger.  While I do occasionally stumble into mentioning that pickled pike or smoked grouse are friggin' awesome, food blogging has not been my intention from the outset.  Look to the right there on the blog roll, and you'll find a small fraction of food bloggers I admire.  They are light years ahead of me in their beautiful, concise, and and thoughtful prose (and photography) concerning all things cuisine.  For the most part, I leave it to them to enlighten the world with their varying styles of food writing.

Venison loin au poivre, an updated classic
That being said, I've been hovering around a food related idea I believe important enough to brave a toe-dip into the deep waters of food blogging.  This idea is not especially original or profound, but I think it's worth discussing.  It is something I believe in completely.

If you peer into the cupboard of any cook worth his or her whisk you'll find a stack of cookbooks.  Sometimes you'll find an entire library.  They're sorted and enjoyed by ethicity, region, and method; by course, by season, by specific dish.  Anyone who cooks will have a stash of literature and guidebooks on the topic, dog-eared and stuffed with markers.  Mine also sport a nifty patina of stains and goop of unidentifiable makeup.  While the internet now provides the ways and means of frying an egg to anyone who cares to Google, cookbooks still prevail in the matter for most of us.  From classic American burgers on the grill, to salting Finnish whitefish in a hole in the ground, there are cookbooks written and collected for every technique and foodstuff under the sun.

If one were to then peek into the pantry of dedicated hunters and fishermen, most often there'd be a cache of cookbooks dedicated solely to the preparation of wild game.  As in much of the rest of the culinary world there are cookbooks dedicated to the preparation of venison and salmon, ducks and geese, walleye and trout.  While there are international options for cooking all of this game (obviously), and as many methods for cooking them as any other food, I find most of these books in the kitchens of my fellow outdoorsmen are filled with recipes that fall mostly to three general categories or combinations thereof.

  • Ignite the fires and crack a beer
  • Grind it up and stuff it into sausage
  • Any myriad of attempts to get around "gamey-ness"

Where the first category is concerned, I have no pause.  As far as I know there is little more sublime than a well-grilled chunk of meat and a frosty one in hand.  It would be inane and nearly treasonous to aver otherwise.  And by "well-grilled" I do not mean well done, of course.  If you enjoy your game meat well done I suspect you may be in need of intensive counseling and perhaps a vegan cookbook, but that's a matter of personal preference in the end and has no bearing here.

By "well-grilled" I mean to say cooked over fire with a bit of skill.  Finesse, even.  Delicacy, dare I say.  Not, as we've all seen too many times, venison shellacked in a bucket of marinade and vaulcanized to the consistency of a steel belted radial.

I recall such a moment that found Frisbee and I standing in the yard at camp while dinner was being prepared by our elders during a summer party.  With beer flowing freely among us all, one of the men in attendance exited the cabin and doused an already lit charcoal fire with enough lighter fluid to produce a satisfying fireball and an amusing jump back on his part.  As we looked on, another fine gentleman then appeared, not a minute later, to unceremoniously flop a tray of venison steaks on the barely subsiding benzene inferno.  We ate petroleum infused venison that night, and enjoyed ourselves in good company, but that was something less than the pinnacle of venison cookery done correctly.

Blackened sauger tacos
We'll leave sausage making to be addressed further on as it ties better into my rambling thesis here, and deal next with the volumes of recipes and articles dedicated to removing the "gamey" flavor from all sorts of fish and game.

On this topic I have only one thing to say (though I'm certain I can manage to stretch it into a few verbose paragraphs)-- I don't get it.

When properly dressed, stored, and cared for, venison tastes like venison.  That's it.  What's more (and this is quite shocking) woodcock tastes like woodcock and catfish tastes like catfish.  Moose tastes like moose, goose tastes like goose, and bear tastes like bear (and a lot like beef to me).  There are recipes and techniques that put the individual flavor profiles and consistencies of each of these meats to better use than others, certainly.  And they should be employed or avoided as such, but I do not believe that we should attempt to dull the taste of any game meat.  We should endeavor to accentuate it through wise choices that come from practice and following the instruction of those who know better.

I suspect most of the days-long milk baths and ice water soaks in all those old game cookbooks have more to do with less than desirable food handling practices than the intrinsic taste of the meat.  And perhaps a national palate less attuned to natural food (you find a lot of these harried attempts to obliterate the flavors of game meat in happy housewife cookbooks from the 1950s and 60s when America was obsessed with TV dinners and Jello molds, and refrigeration for the masses was a relatively novel concept).

If all you want to eat is frozen pizza that tastes like nitrates and cafeteria floor that's fine, I guess, but attempting to claw the flavor from a hunk of protein gifted to you by an animal in order to better approximate processed food is folly.  Learn to preserve and cook it with a bit of respect, learn to enjoy the taste, or get your candy ass to Arby's.

Pulled BBQ pheasant pizza
Charcuterie, the culinary art of making sausages and cold cooked meats, holds a strong and deep tradition in the preparation of game meats.  It's something that I unfortunately find little time for in my kitchen, but remains important to most hunters.  And while it does, charcuterie is often "farmed out" by the hunters I know.  Most deer in this part of the world are field dressed by the hunter, and perhaps boned and packaged at home, but the "scrap meat" is then taken to a meat market to be processed into sausages, bratwurst, landjaegers, and any number of other delectable treats.

I have no problem with this, in theory.  Sausage making is a time consuming affair, rife with possible pitfalls, and requires the purchase of fairly expensive equipment at the outset.  Not only that, but in the particular case of our deer camp, the meat market we've chosen to have make our sausage produces all manner of meat treats I only wonder if I could duplicate or even approach on my own.  It's difficult to consider making your own sausage when the place an hour down the road does it as well as anyone in the country.

Stunningly resplendent books like the recent smash hit Charcuterie (Ruhlman & Polcyn) may be changing that thinking in the minds of many hunters, myself included.  In this luscious tome and during many associated interviews, the authors repeatedly intimate that in the process of sausage making and smoking, game meats will "play" just as well as farm raised beef or ham.  In fact, that's where the entire practice started.  People were preserving protein of any sort in just such a manner long before you could cram your SUV into a space at the grocery store to trade currency for meat.  The cook acquired that protein with careful stalking and a well placed shot, and preserved it with salt, smoke, or some combination of the two.  I believe this cookbook and many like it are bringing us full circle.

Let's return for a moment to the cookbook hoards of the hunting and non-hunting cooks above.  While both are collections of instruction on cooking, the two are plainly disparate.  While the shelves of the hunter and fisher are populated with those books dedicated to preparation of game and fish, the collection of the non-hunter is generally more diverse.

Here's the thing (and finally, a tad breathlessly, the point).  There should be little difference between the two libraries in my opinion.  Just as in charcuterie, game meats and wild-caught fish very often lend themselves to more mainstream cooking and cookbooks.  With a few caveats.

Game meats do require more careful treatment than a fatty farm-raised duck or marbled beef from the store.  Most of our game animals are Olympic level athletes in human terms, and live on a skinning knife's edge of caloric intake versus effort required to gain those calories their entire lives.  As such, their meat is lean and mean.  This immediately informs the wise game cook.  With most cuts of game there are only two ways to go when it comes to temperature; low and slow or fast and hot.  We can either braise or blaze.  Slow cook that shoulder until it's nearly falling apart or flash that steak on and off the grill before things start heading dangerously into Michelin territory -- the tires, not the stars.

Deer liver dirty rice
And there are obvious seasoning differences.  All that wailing and gnashing of teeth about soaking the flavor out of our game meats came from the fact that they do have a stronger taste, in general, than the protein normally found sitting on that gross blood diaper in the store.  Seasonings have to be adjusted.  Stronger herbs and sauces can come out to play, more smoke can be applied.  It takes practice, but nearly any recipe from a mainstream cookbook can be adapted to similar game meat or fish.

Once the cook begins to consider the act of preparing food more in terms of ratios and techniques than measures and stopwatches, an entire world of game cookery can be conveniently pilfered from the world of cookbooks never intended to be addressed to venison or duck or bear by their authors.

There's a whole bountiful world of crossover out there, simply waiting for hunters and fishers to try, no longer constrained by recipes found only in fish and game cookbooks.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Green Tomatosplotion

The fall canning season has been going fast and strong, and now I find myself in possession of a mountain of tomatoes that didn't quite make it before the oncoming freeze tonight.

I'm happy to can, pickle, fry, fire roast, and do just about anything else I can think of to get these lovelies gobbled down or put up for the winter.  If you happen to have a favorite green tomato recipe, please comment below.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pretty Fly for a Bait Guy

I've fallen away from my roots in the last decade.  Or perhaps I've evolved.  I'm not entirely sure there's a difference.  One thing is certain, I don't fish with conventional rod and reel nearly as much as I used to.  I don't fish with anything nearly as much as I used to, period, but we'll cast that aside for the time being.

It's a natural progression, much written and talked about in fly fishing circles.  Some of us, through boredom or the love of a challenge or the coveting of more sexy gear, eventually leave our spinning rods and baitcasters standing in a forlorn corner obelisk to chase fish and dreams with fly rods.  It happened to me, and it had been quite a few years since I'd been in a good old fashioned bait shop, until recently.

Buddy on planer board watch. Como Lake.
At the farmers market one morning I spied a woman sporting earrings similar to, but not quite spinner blades.  With Randi's birthday approaching, my mind leaped to fashioning earrings for her out of actual spinner blades, knowing she'd appreciate the outdoorsy bent.  In a feat resembling a protracted archaeological dig, I managed to lay hands on my own crawler harnesses from the old catfishing days on Cherokee Marsh and Como Lake, when we used to troll the mud flats for channel cats just like you would for walleyes except with heavier gear (and to only moderate and sporadic success in our case).

There were plenty of blades in my old collection in many sizes and colors, but only a few matching pairs, and mostly beaten and nicked like cheap old diner spoons.  One hatchet blade in bubble gum pink and black would've been perfect were it not for the lack of a matching partner and some unidentifiable crust of fish goo or worm innards.  Not exactly the makings of jewelry for most, although I do know a couple catfishermen who, finding a woman willing to don earrings of such earthy patina, would begin the search for an engagement ring in earnest.  Their wedding colors would be Realtree and Copenhagen, and I'd be there to tap the first half barrel in a plastic tub of ice.

I was about to order some shiny new blades from an online retailer of such things when a novel thought occurred to me... I should go to a bait shop.  I live mere miles from the the biggest inland walleye lake in Wisconsin.  I didn't need the latest in hyper-graphic paint jobs and blade design to fool fish, simply some clean and shiny jewelry fixin's.  Surely a bait shop in walleye country would have a surplus of old blades in bulk.  I was suddenly stunned I hadn't thought of that in the first place.

For the uninitiated: while both fly shops and bait shops exist to provide the tools necessary to chase fish using different methods, there exists an undeniable gulf of differences between the two.  They are, in general, two massively different sides of the same coin.

Many modern fly shops may be described as stylish.  They're appointed and polished.  Sleek.  If a bait shop is the hardware store, many fly shops are the equivalent of a wood grain Apple Store.

If there is a shop dog it will be a German Shorthaired Pointer or a setter, some pointing breed resting comfortably on a canvas and cedar chip bed from which he can preside comfortably over his fiefdom.  There will be beautifully mounted trout on the walls, and always one huge walleye for some reason (or a whitefish out west).  The shop rats will fall into a number of categories, including, but not limited to... the trimly bearded and tatted post-punk modern bug-flinger; replete with piercings, blocky hipster spectacles, and a snarky t-shirt (Fly fishing advice: free. Bait fishing advice: Don't)  He drinks only craft beer and drives a Subaru or Xterra.  The older gentleman in pressed khakis and spendy Filson flannel drinks scotch (or if he's progressive, bourbon, neat), and drives a Volvo.  He prefers to fish dries upstream, but will occasionally deign to fishing nymphs when there's no hatch on, "to pass the time."  If the shop also runs a guide service, there will be a twitchy muttering guide hidden somewhere in the corner so he doesn't bite the patrons, his shoulders copper and broad from a season of toil at the oars of a drift boat.  He drinks whatever the hell anybody sets gingerly near him.

There will be mountains of flies, organized by style, size and color in those display cases with all the little cubicles -- high rise apartments for flies.  Some will be "bought in" as they say, and some will be tied by the shop, the latter having been conceived during fever dreams in the cold off season.  The latest trends in vests and boat bags and waders will adorn the walls, a full kit of which will approach the cost of a year of college tuition.  The latest iteration of the revered Simms wading jacket alone goes, laughably, for over half a thousand dollars... for a raincoat.  Maybe that logo on the chest makes one a better caster.

The best fly shops maintain all of this with an air of comfortable welcome and free coffee near the door.  They're like walking into a nice guest cabin with a warming fire.  The less desirable among them fall deeply into the trappings of effete xenophobia.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the bait shops most of us grew up with.

Where the modern fly shop may be polished, the bait shop most often appears more lived in.  More real, bluntly.  Most are as clean as they need be while remaining a bit scruffy, much like the resident shop dog which, incidentally, will be a good workaday Lab or some other amiable mutt of indeterminate lineage and bountiful good cheer.

There will be minnow tanks in back, gurgling and churning with life and that pervasive, if subtle and pleasant aroma of wriggling life, aerated fresh water, and ammonia.  Some places let you scoop your own minnows while others leave you there peeking under the lid to watch the little guys dart and scatter willy-nilly every time you move, until you can be helped.

There will be dusty mounts of huge walleyes on the walls and always one trout for some reason.  And often, a buck of a size not often seen in that county for the last century with the arrow that felled it resting lightly in its rack.

There will be plastic bins of jigs and hooks in every single size and color ever conceived in the universe, some of them not in popular use since Chubby Checker set the world to twisting.  At the shop I used to frequent there was an eight foot wall of divided Plano boxes set as drawers and filled with ice jigs.  Brimming with thousands of them, tangled in their little prisons so you had to shake one loose to buy it.  Psychedelic pinks and oranges to muted natural tones, from minuscule one dot tear drops to monstrosities obviously constructed in pursuit of a kraken.  From factory paint slopped on junk hardware to quality one-offs from somebody's basement decades ago -- and plenty of the converse.  Well more jigs than I've seen assembled in one place before or since.

Some bait shops are stand-alone affairs, but most are tucked away in the basement of a hardware store or back of a gas station, almost as an afterthought.  In the instance of the latter your customer service representative will vary from a freaked out high school girl pulled from behind the register and afraid to scoop the "icky little fishies"... to a bedraggled guy fresh from cutting some chain and on his way to hauling some sheetrock.

The stand alone bait shops almost always have the proprietor or the proprietor's spouse behind the counter.  These are the best shops.  They know where everything is and most of them care about keeping you as a customer.  They will pass along the fishing report which can later be sussed into equal parts quality information, rumors, and mystical bullshit -- my undying favorite example of such bait shop wisdom being the time a guy behind the counter told us if we were quiet at night in our shacks, we could hear the crappies scraping the underside of the ice for bugs and follow them that way.

Bait shopkeepers are a consistently colorful bunch, and I've had the pleasure of knowing many.  There was Gene with his perpetually filthy canvas work shirt and only the merest acquaintance with the waking world.  When you could rouse him from his torpor his information was solid.  And Red, the excitable fast talker, who, upon only our second meeting, began our conversation by regaling me with a story about the time he woke up in jail after a particularly sanguine bender.

Lastly, with much trepidation, we come to the Scary Lady.

I have no inkling of her given name as she is referred to in hushed tones, fittingly, only as the Scary Lady.  Her ramshackle bait shop, attached to her rural home by a breezeway shuffled together out of warped plywood and prayers, holds a funhouse menagerie of anachronisms and dust bunnies.  It's a big place, deep and long, a warren of aisles and cubby holes festooned with dusty bubble packs and thrice-painted peg boards sporting equal parts full and empty pegs.

One is not allowed to scoop minnows at the Scary Lady's.  No, the dauntless fisherman must wait patiently near the tanks while the Scary Lady separates herself from the hapless stool that supports her impressive girth, and shuffles forward.  The organic aroma of the tanks is soon overpowered by a more feral odor.  The dreaded moment arrives when the fisherman must decide which eye to peer into, the northerly tracking one or the other, seemingly more interested in Illinois.  It should be noted that all attempts at friendly conversation will be flatly ignored.  Transactions take place only through a series of grunts and gesticulations from behind a stringy mat of frightening witch hair, followed by your purchase price appearing mercifully on the register.  Cash only.

Her bait is fresh and lively or nobody would ever go back there again.  Local lore says that during one oppressively hot and humid summer years ago, she appeared in a bathing suit and slipped into one of the bait tanks for a refreshing dip with the shiners.  I hope, for the good of humanity, that is merely an exaggerated folk tale.  On another occasion I know to be true, after I'd paid for my crappie minnows and she'd apparently forgotten in the following instant, she snarled a gravelly, "What is that... what is that," her voice growing louder as she pointed a crooked finger at the minnow bucket in my hand.   Being the staid, fully grown man of the outdoors that I am, I followed her inquiry with the most practical course of action I could come up with -- I scrambled out the door with my bait.  Some would even say I ran, but I prefer to think of it as relieving a poor old woman of her confusion.

You may think the Scary Lady and her exploits a figment of my imagination made up for the enjoyment of my readers, perhaps even an homage to Rancid Crabtree of McManus fame.  I assure you, she is quite real and more frightening than I've managed to describe.  Ask Brian.  If we deem you worthy and brave, we may even take you to visit her sometime.

So it was thus armed that I ventured into a local stand-alone bait shop recently, in search of those spinner blades needed to make earrings.  I found myself in an open and clean bait shop, one that I'd never seen before but knew through memory.

Plenty of earring blades in those dusty old bait shop boxes
The register was attended by the proprietor and her daughter while two ancient, sun-beaten men in seed caps talked about old guy stuff down the counter -- how much the recent rain would bring the river up, and the running concerns of a certain Janice and her useless bum of a husband.

When I related my search for blades as a fly tyer making jewelry,  the owner and her daughter fairly jumped into action.  The daughter is a fellow tyer who produces a locally famous walleye jig, and the mother quickly produced dusty box upon box of bulk spinner blades from the back.  Both were helpful and cheerful in our conversations.

As I finished up my purchase, one of the old guys called over to the daughter, "Hey Brenda, you got a pair of scissors?"

"Yeah... why?"

"I'm gonna cut that goddamn muskrat off his face," pointing at my substantial beard.  Laughs all around.

He continued, ambling over to me, "You ever meet the Fishin' Magician?"

"I haven't," I replied, growing slightly wary.

"Well, now you have, son," shaking my hand.  That earned another laugh from me and eye-rolls from the captive audience who'd obviously been privy to his shtick a few times before.

You can get all the lustrous "latest and greatest" in any modern fly shop, but I'll venture to bet you'll never be treated to a good-natured threat of debeardment on your first arrival there.  And I'm certain you can't get spinner blades... or sun-drenched earring selfies from a happy birthday girl.

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