Growing up in the South, I always felt out of place because we never went hunting. Most of my friends went. All of my extended family went. But, in my family, my father was more of a fisherman than a hunter.
I was in the fifth grade when one of my dad's co-workers showed up at our house with a venison roast. I pounced at the opportunity to freak my sister out by eating Bambi. As I recall, my mother made a delicious pot roast in the slow cooker and served it with rice and gravy. I had seconds, maybe thirds, while my sister cried and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Hunting and eating game has ebbs and flows of controversy. There are those who find certain animals are "too cute to eat." Others say hunting is "cruel" or "inhumane." Some just don't want people in the woods with guns.
My wife, who had a pet rabbit for many years, recoiled in horror when I laid out a full rabbit carcass for the family to inspect. She vowed to try the final dish as long as it didn't look anything like its original bunny form. A fair compromise. When she tasted the dish, she admitted that it was delicious.
Early humans, of course, hunted to eat. Meat didn't come from the supermarket. And as hunting has been more regulated and has waned in popularity, certain animals have become so numerous they've spilled out of the wild into suburban and urban parking lots.
When winter approaches, there is not enough food for this growing population to eat. So deer slowly starve or wander into residential areas looking for food. Hunting can help control the wild deer population — man is their natural predator. Hunters have lived off the land with a great deal of environmental consciousness since before it became fashionable.
In an age of food scares, there is no more natural food than wild game. It eats what it finds in the wild and is far more active than a caged animal, so the meat is typically lean and lower in fat. Game also is delicious. Some people decry the "gamey" taste. It does not taste like the farm-raised beef, chicken and pork with which eaters are most familiar. I find it a taste worth cultivating.
I still don't hunt, so I buy farm-raised game for a taste of the wild. While a little milder, it is a delicious introduction to eating and cooking game. Alligator, venison, boar, rabbit, bison, elk and other game meats are increasingly available at markets or online. Or, make friends with a hunter.
If you are new to wild game cookery, this would be a good place to start. Wild boar is wild pig. They are aggressive animals with dangerous tusks. Boars are much more muscular than their farm-raised relatives, so their meat can be extremely tough. If you don't have a friend or relative who hunts boar, you can find it at a good butcher or online. A rich ragout or stew will ensure tender pieces of meat, while leaving plenty of room for error. It is hard to overcook this dish.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds cubed wild boar leg or shoulder
Salt and pepper
1 large onion
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and rib removed, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cinnamon stick
1 dried bay leaf
2 cups red wine
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Wide-noodle pasta, such as pappardelle
Grated hard cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Season boar meat with salt and pepper, and brown. Remove meat from pan and add onion, carrot, celery and jalapeno. Cook until lightly browned, then add garlic, bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Cook 2 minutes, then add crushed tomatoes.
Once tomatoes have been incorporated, add red wine and stock. Return browned meat to the pot. Cook uncovered over low heat about 2 hours or until meat is extremely tender. The longer it cooks, the more tender the meat will become. You don't want it to be falling apart. Think of it like a pot roast. If the mixture becomes too dry, add some water to ensure it keeps the consistency of a hearty sauce. When ready to serve, remove bay leaf and cinnamon stick.
Serve on top of a wide pasta such as pappardelle with grated hard cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Rabbit is extremely lean, so a long braise will ensure the meat isn't too tough. I've amended my classic chicken and dumplings recipe for rabbit and filled the stew with several vegetables that the animal would have eaten in the wild. I recommend doing the braise a day ahead. Spacing out the cook time will make the labor-intensive task of picking the meat easier. Have no fear. This dish is worth the effort. There is nothing better than pulling this hot dish out of the oven on a cold evening.
Makes 8 servings
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
All-purpose flour, for dredging
Salt and black pepper
2 rabbits, cut into 7 pieces
1 cup onion, coarsely chopped, plus 2 cups onion, large diced
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped, plus 1 cup celery, large diced
1 small carrot, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped, plus 2 cloves finely minced
6 cups chicken stock
3/4 stick of butter
1 cup sweet potato, 1/2-inch diced
1 cup turnip, 1/2-inch diced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
2 tablespoons fresh sage, finely chopped
2 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Few dashes of hot sauce, if desired
1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and fresh black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon melted butter
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
For The Stew
In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Mix flour, salt and pepper in a bowl, and dredge rabbit pieces. Sear them in hot oil. Work in batches so you do not overcrowd the skillet. Brown meat on both sides. When all the pieces are golden brown, remove from the pan and set aside.
Lower the heat to medium. Add the 1 cup of onion and 2 stalks of celery coarsely chopped, the carrot and the 4 cloves of coarsely chopped garlic. Saute until lightly browned. Return rabbit to pot, along with chicken stock. Let this simmer until the rabbit is tender, which should take about 90 minutes. Remove the rabbit and let it cool. Meanwhile, strain and reserve the braising liquid. At this point, you can refrigerate the rabbit overnight. If you want to do it all at once, wait for rabbit pieces to cool, then pick the meat from the bones and reserve.
Heat 1/4 stick butter in a large pot or Dutch oven (I use a large cast iron skillet). Add remaining onion, sweet potatoes, remaining celery and turnips and cook over medium heat until lightly browned.
Add herbs, minced garlic and wine and cook over medium-high heat until reduced by half. Add 1/2 stick butter and stir in 1/2 cup flour. Stir continuously for 3 minutes to make a roux. Add in reserved broth from the braising process. Cook about 30 minutes, or until vegetables are fork tender. Add rabbit meat and adjust the stew for seasoning. If using, add hot sauce.
For The Dumplings
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a medium-size bowl, combine flour, salt, black pepper, baking powder and cayenne. In another medium-size bowl, mix melted butter, eggs and buttermilk. Gently combine with flour mixture.
Using a small spoon, drop dumplings onto rabbit mixture. Don't worry — they won't sink. Place the entire uncovered dish in the oven and cook for 30 minutes. The rabbit stew will be bubbling hot, and dumplings will have developed a delicious brown top.
While there are many rustic recipes for preparing wild game, this recipe highlights the elegance of game meats. The combination of unfussy seasoning with a twist on a classic sauce allows the pure gaminess of the meat to come through.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 bay leaf
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme
1'2 cup cabernet sauvignon or another dry red wine
2 cups veal or beef stock
1 cup fresh blackberries
2 pounds venison loin roast
Salt and pepper
1/4 stick butter
Start with the sauce. In medium-sized saucepan, melt butter. Add shallots and saute until translucent. Add black pepper, bay leaf and thyme. Continue cooking 2 minutes. Add wine. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium-low. Let simmer until mixture is reduced to 1/2 cup. Strain sauce and keep warm over low heat.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Season roast generously with salt and pepper. In medium-sized frying pan (I prefer cast iron), heat vegetable oil over high heat. When hot, sear venison on all sides. Add butter and baste roast to prevent it from drying out. When all the sides have developed a crusty exterior, put the whole pan in the oven and let roast until internal temp reaches 155 for medium rare (about 20 minutes.)
While the roast rests for 10 minutes, add blackberries to the warm bordelaise sauce. Stir to mix. The point isn't to cook the blackberries, but to incorporate them into the sauce. Slice roast against the grain. Add any accumulated juices to the sauce and spoon over meat.
If you haven't had alligator, you've probably heard that it "tastes like chicken." If you have, you've probably had it in fried nuggets. While a good piece of fried alligator is tasty, this is a versatile meat and can be used in many different preparations. Look for tail meat for this recipe. It's widely available online or, if you're lucky, from a local butcher. This is adapted from a recipe from Louisiana chef John Folse's book After the Hunt - Louisiana's Authoritative Collection of Wild Game & Game Fish Cookery (Chef John Folse and Co. 2007). If you can't make your own fish stock, you can substitute water.
Makes 6 servings
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 pounds alligator meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups diced onion
2 cups diced celery
1 cup diced green bell pepper
1/4 cup minced garlic
1/4 cup jalapeno pepper, seed removed
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
2 quarts fish or shellfish stock
2 cups button mushrooms
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup sliced green onions
Steamed white rice
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Whisk in flour, stirring constantly until a dark brown roux is achieved.
Add alligator and saute 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic and saute 3 to 5 minutes, or until vegetables are wilted. Stir in jalapenos and cook an additional 2 minutes.
Add tomatoes with juice, stock, mushrooms, bay leaves, thyme and basil. Blend well, then season lightly with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Bring mixture to a rolling boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook 1 hour, or until meat is tender, stirring occasionally. Additional water or stock may be added during cooking to retain stewlike consistency.
Add parsley and green onion and adjust seasonings to taste. Serve hot over steamed white rice.