Cooking Gone Wild

Over the years, thanks to growing populations, consumer demand, and even some regulations, we’ve become more and more removed from the foods we prepare and eat. Where my own grandmother would have dined on a chicken she or her mother butchered themselves in their own back yard, I can cruise to the nearest grocery store or even hike over to a wholesale warehouse and acquire enough chicken thighs to last me through a winter’s worth of craving for cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, or even a quick chicken teriyaki.

Yet as a little girl, I can recall the thrill I’d feel as I read books like Little House on the Prairie, where the author recounted how she would help prepare a meal, the challenges of greasy meat like bear, the importance of not letting a single scrap go to waste. Your livelihood depended on it. This is not as common a case as it used to be, but there are certainly cultural circles that continue to encourage the practice of killing and preparing your own meat. Hunters are no exception.

So, how does one cook wild game? There’s a wealth of resources available on the Web these days, but when I first approached the prospect of preparing a couple of wild ducks, this was not what you would call a well-developed source. “The Joy of Cooking,” however, was. Poring over their pages, I learned a few key things about cooking with ducks:

  1. Avoid mergansers. There were some words about how you only want to use them in cases of extreme urgency. These ducks have a fish-based diet, and boy-oh-boy can you tell when you bite into the meat.
  2. Unlike the farm-raised ducks who can spend a little more time lounging around and fattening up, those “lean, mean, roaming out in the green” ducks need a little more help retaining moisture. Something remedied by a nice brine prior to roasting or just a little bacon jacket before popping in the oven.
  3. Because of the meat’s strong flavor, it will stand up to any number of aromatics. The first time I cooked one I stuffed the cavity with chopped apples, onions, some sage, and wrapped the little birdie in some thick-cut smoked bacon. And what did the meat taste like? Duck. Just duck.

Regardless of the wild cut you’re working with, one concern that’s universal is the implied threat of “gamey taste.” How does one describe “gamey?” The choice of words I’d opt for would be “intense,” “rich,” “full-bodied.” Not a wine, but a very decent cut of meat. In the years I’ve had the chance to work with wild game, though, I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that “gamey” is a code word for “on the verge of spoiling.” And, after consulting my Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” I had my confirmation: it turns out that the term derives from the time of Brilliat-Savarin, when game was typically allowed to hang for days or weeks until it began to rot. Not a nice mental picture at all.

Because wild game is so very lean (a varied diet and exercise will do that for any species), the one caution is that game will conduct heat and cook faster, meaning it will tend to dry out faster than other meats. So if you’re preparing a wild game dinner, that’s a consideration to keep in mind. Again, the fine folks at the Joy of Cooking would advocate wrapping the whole darn cut in a bunch of bacon. And if you were to consult Christopher Kimball’s “Fannie’s Last Supper” you’d find a fascinating chapter about preparing a saddle of venison, and the interesting kitchen tool that was commonly used to basically lace threads of lard throughout a lean cut of meat to help break down and tenderize the lean meat.

How does one acquire wild game these days? Legally, you need to hunt it down yourself (or be married to someone who does). The U.S. government does not permit the sale of uninspected meats like duck or moose or bear. That rabbit you were eyeing up in the freezer section of the grocery store? Grew up on a farm, leading a much more sedentary lifestyle and not living the kind of fast-paced existence you may see as you let your dog out in the yard. Ditto on pheasant, partridge, even duck. Even though it’s only quasi-wild, it’s still a low-risk way to experiment a little in the kitchen to discover whether or not your taste buds have a wild side.

My own adventures since that first bacon-wrapped duck have included venison and goose. We’ve also prepared farmed rabbit and ostrich. What I’ve enjoyed about it is probably the challenge to take something that most people would approach very gingerly and take tiny bites from and turn it into something you can’t get enough of. And to continually seek out new recipes to try because, what the heck? I’ve got this meat sitting in the basement freezer, and I’m not doing anyone any favors to let it pile up down there.

Next time you face a fork in the culinary road, I’d suggest: take a walk on the wild side. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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