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.


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