Hunt, Gather, and Cook
Game meats are tasty, versatile, and about as wholesome as it gets.
By Sandra L. Oliver
Lean, free-range, organic, no antibiotics or growth hormones: that’s wild meat for you. Sometimes it’s free, if you aren’t the one paying for the hunting license, tagging, camo, gear, stays at a lodge, and guides to help find prey.
Moose, deer, and wildfowl are the most common sorts of game meats in Maine, though there are other perfectly edible animals hunted in the state, including bear and rabbits. Grouse, woodcocks, turkeys, ducks, quail, pheasant, and geese all have their seasons and culinary uses.
Some of us are blessed with friends and neighbors who like to hunt even more than they like to eat the game, leaving them with more than they can handle. There is, after all, an awful lot of meat in a moose.
Some hunters prefer to cut their own meat, using vacuum sealers for packaging meat for freezing, which, I understand, considerably reduces the nuisance of wrapping meat for the freezer. Vacuum packing prevents freezer burn. If you cut your own meat, obviously, you can customize the cuts to suit your family’s taste more precisely. If you are new to the process, there are lots of books and videos available with instructions and recipes. You can also watch YouTube videos for butchering instructions.
Other hunters prefer to take the animal to a butchering company, or avail themselves of mobile butchering units that set up shop during hunting season, especially during the moose hunt. Those outfits have the gear for handling large animals, and can turn fresh kill into useful meat in short order.
Here are some toothsome ideas for using game meat.
Ground meat: Probably the most useful and common form of deer or moose meat is ground. Not everyone will enjoy the sturdy flavor of a 100 percent moose or deer burger. Consider blending some ground pork or beef into the wild meat and making a burger out of that. Recently, I made moose meatloaf by adding about four ounces of ground pork to twelve of moose, plus breadcrumbs, eggs, and cooked onions, along with a selection of herbs. The loaf was tender and savory.
Ground wild meat is perfect for spaghetti sauce, chili, tacos, and shepherd’s pie. Simply substitute wild meat for ground beef in your favorite recipes.
Instead of grinding much of the meat, consider pounding some into cube steaks for grilling, or making them into Swiss steaks.
Braising: Stock up on mushrooms, especially dried wild ones, onions, garlic, red wine, and herbs. Dig out a cast iron Dutch oven, or a slow cooker, and turn almost any roast of venison or moose into richly flavored, fork-tender fare. Beef stew, pot roast, bourguignon, or stroganoff recipes translate readily to venison. Slow, moist heat tenderizes the meat while deepening flavor wonderfully.
Grilling: For tender cuts of venison, like the loin or steaks, marinate the meat for a couple of hours in a favorite marinade (I use a garlic salad dressing), or use a dry rub. Heat the grill, and when it is really hot, put the meat on to cook, preferably to rare, slice it thinly, and lay it on a deep bed of mixed greens. As you slice it, catch the juices and quickly pour them into a saucepan with some of the marinade, add a splash of red wine, and cook until slightly reduced. Pour over the sliced venison and greens. Add salt and pepper and serve. Delectable.
Mincemeat: Back along, neck meat was one traditional ingredient for homemade mincemeat, with good old beef suet grated and added to it, along with apples, raisins, cider, brandy, and an array of spices. A winter supply of mincemeat stashed in a crock down cellar kept a family full for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and beyond. Some cooks canned it. If you miss old-fashioned mincemeat (the commercial stuff in a jar is a pale imitation of the real thing), consider turning some of your game into this treat. You can find recipes in older Maine Rebekahs’ cookbooks, or almost any cookbook printed before 1970. Check your mother or grandmother’s recipe book shelf.
Sausage: Venison, both deer and moose, makes fine sausage, blended with pork for added fat and flavor, and seasoned in any way you prefer. Traditional salt, black pepper, onion, thyme, and sage is favored for breakfast sausage, or fennel, garlic, and red pepper for spicy Italian.
Game Pie: This dish is an ideal use for wild fowl and small game like rabbits, but venison is perfectly acceptable in game pie, too. You will need mushrooms, onions, red wine or sherry, tender bits of game birds diced, some tender venison, and a rich crust, preferably one made with lard or, at least, butter. Traditionalists will want a two-crust pie, and might even own a special mold made for the purpose. Recipes, especially English ones, abound on the Web.
Venison Pot Roast
I am spoiled by having a wood-burning cookstove to do all my slow cooking on. In winter, I heat the house while I make soups, spaghetti sauce, chili, beans for baking, and pot roasts. Blessed with avid hunter friends, I end up with generously sized pieces of venison perfect for the long, slow cooking that turns wild, lean meat into something that you can cut with your fork. I give it a minimum of 2 hours on top of the stove, and 3 at a slow simmer is better. The cooking time will vary depending on the cut of meat.
I have also used a pressure cooker for this, which works beautifully. The onions and garlic that I put in along with about a cup of water and the meat absolutely melt away during the cooking to become a rich, dark sauce with nuggets of mushrooms that I also add. My pressure cooker manual says 30 minutes for beef pot roast, but for venison an hour is better.
- 2 pounds venison
- 2 large onions, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic (optional)
- 1 medium can mushrooms or 12 ounces fresh mushrooms, coarsely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- splash of red wine (optional)
- salt and pepper, to taste
Put the venison, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and bay leaf into a heavy pot with a tightly fitting lid. Add at least an inch of water to the pot. Bring the pot to a boil and immediately turn down the temperature to a steady simmer. Check to make sure the water does not evaporate away. Cook for at least 2 hours, adding a splash of red wine for the last half hour. Test for tenderness and cook a little longer if necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Pressure cooker method: Put the venison, onions, garlic, mushrooms, bay leaf, and 1 cup of water into the pressure cooker. Add red wine, if desired. Bring the cooker up to a sufficient temperature that the pressure regulator knob rocks gently. Maintain that temperature for an hour. Let the pressure come down, and open to check the meat. If needed, replace the lid and cook longer, checking every 10 minutes until you have the desired tenderness.
Cabbage Moose Soup
Frugal, delicious, healthful: this Cabbage Moose Soup sent by Lucille White, of Bangor, given to her by her neighbor, Wilma Lynch, wins on all points. Lucille says that soups and stews are a big part of her cool weather cooking, and wrote, “This soup not only tastes great but is economical to make. I don’t know of anyone I’ve passed this recipe on to who doesn’t love it.” I called her up and we talked about whether it should have onion in it or not, and did she think moose meat or venison burger would work, and what about more celery. Yes on onion, if you like it, and yes on deer burger.
Lucille says that Wilma usually uses more celery, and has tried boxed beef stock instead of bouillon cubes. And it can have more or fewer beans or more cabbage, too. In short, this is pretty flexible stuff.
- 1 pound ground moose or venison
- 1 large onion chopped (optional)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 to 4 ribs celery, chopped
- 1 large can, or 1 quart home-canned tomatoes, chopped with juice
- 1 medium can, or 2 cups soakedand cooked kidney beans
- ½ medium cabbage head
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 to 4 beef bouillon cubes
- salt and pepper, to taste
In a large, heavy-bottomed soup kettle or Dutch oven, brown the ground meat, adding a little oil if the meat is very lean. When the meat begins to brown, add the onion, garlic, and celery and cook until the meat is done. Crumble the cooked meat, then add the rest of the ingredients plus 3 ½ cups water. Bring just to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for at least an hour. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
It is ready to serve, but is better the next day.
Serves 8 to 10.
Sandra L. Oliver, of Islesboro, is a food historian and the author of Maine Home Cooking and Food in Colonial and Federal America.
Photo: Alexander Mychko | Dreamstime.com