You Got Game? 

Backwoods advice on preparing delicious dishes with wild game

You see something rise over the ridge. Peering through your binoculars you’re careful to identify your target. It’s not a llama or a Forest Service mule or your hunting buddy. A full set of antlers, a white tail. Everything is in good order. You level your sights. Steady. You take a deep breath, exhale halfway and in between heartbeats, you squeeze the trigger. BLAM! The majestic beast staggers, looks in your direction and takes a few awkward steps before disappearing into the trees. You charge down the ridge to catch up with your prey and find it laying peacefully in its eternal slumber.

“Ah, hell,” you say to yourself as stare down at your trophy, “what am I going to do with this thing? The wife is going to kill me.”

Well, perhaps you’re not the great white hunter, but living in Western Montana you’ve certainly been the recipient of “courtesy meat.” You know, those frozen parcels wrapped in butcher paper and stamped with labels like “elk burger” or “deer chops.” In fact, if you ever took the time to clean out that chest freezer in the basement you’d probably find half a dozen packages labeled “Uncle Frank’s Moose, 1972.”

Regardless of whether you kill the stuff yourself or come into it by way of neighborly kindness, it is, in fact, edible.

Born to Be Wild

Now I’m going to assume that all you responsible hunters are already eating what you kill (it is, after all, illegal to waste any edible part of a game animal) so what follows is for those who fall into the “courtesy meat recipient” category or those hunters who feel their culinary experiences leave a little to be desired.

First of all, there is an issue regarding the butchering of the animal. Most experienced game-gourmets will tell you that it is important to trim as much of the fat off the meat as possible because the fat imparts a great deal of the gamy flavor to the meat (obviously, if you’ve received the meat as a gift, you’ve already missed this step and you’ll just have to live with it.) However, herein lies a bit of a paradox. Game animals tend to be a lot leaner than their bovine counterparts which means that if you’ve removed what little fat there was to begin with, you’re going to end up with some dry cuts of meat. When game is processed for burger or sausage, the butcher typically adds some beef or suet to even things out. In any case, with a little preparation and careful cooking, you won’t know the difference.

What is all this talk of gaminess, anyway? Quite simply, it’s what turns most people off of eating wild game—the pungent smell and excessively strong flavor. Just how gamy any particular cut or animal is going to be is anyone’s guess. You don’t know ‘til you try. In my experience, venison is generally more gamy than elk, but there are no hard and fast rules.

There are all variety of old wives’ tales about what makes an animal taste the way it does. Some old hunters say not to shoot an animal while it’s running, or while it’s sitting down. Some people say it depends on the weather. If anything, the animal’s diet probably has something to do with it. Hoodoo aside, some are just going to taste better than others. I’ve had venison so strong it had to be taken with a gulp of barbecue sauce, and elk better than any cut of beef you’ve ever had on your plate.

The Art of the Game

Most of the art of wild game cookery is simply overcoming the often objectionable strength of the meat. The key to this is simple: marinate, marinate, marinate. Game can be substituted into basically any recipe calling for beef. A pleasant result, however, may require marination that was otherwise not part of the recipe.

Now what we want to avoid is what I call “sissy marination.” That is, two squirts of Worcestershire sauce five minutes before you throw your steak on the grill. If you’re going to marinate something, for chrissake, marinate it! I usually try let the meat soak for at least 24 hours. As for what you soak it in is primarily a matter of taste. I never use a recipe, I simply mix up some concoction that tastes good. Soy and Worcestershire sauce are a good starting point. Add some red wine and something acidic like lemon juice or vinegar, which helps the meat absorb flavor. From there try olive oil, garlic, onions, red pepper, honey, and any herbs and spices that suit your taste. Mix up enough to cover the meat completely and throw it in the fridge ‘til tomorrow.

While the variety of dishes one could prepare is seemingly endless, there is one in particular that I really enjoy. Shashlik, a Georgian (of the Crimean variety) version of the ever popular kebab. The shashlik can be made with whatever variety of meat you please and is generally grilled over a wood or charcoal fire. The beauty of shashlik is that unlike most shish kebabs of yuppie design, the shashlik is all meat! No vegetables allowed! This is a great one to take to BYOM barbecues. Throw half a dozen skewers loaded with chunks of elk, dripping with sauce, on the barbecue and you’re sure to garner some attention. “That’s all meat! Aren’t you going to eat some vegetables?” Oh, yes. Slowly grill that tender meat and sit back and eat yourself sick as you watch your friends’ gardenburgers disintegrate and burn up in the coals.

Of course, no discussion of preparing wild game would be complete without a mention of jerky. I’m sure all of you good old Montana meat lovers can identify here. I can hardly set foot in a convenience store without stopping by the jerky rack. Teriyaki sticks, kippered beefsteaks, shredded jerky “chew.” Like an altar to the god of dried meat, it’s an irresistible beacon for connoisseurs of desiccated delicacies.

Unfortunately, for such a proletarian treat, jerky is quite expensive. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could make it yourself? Oh, but you can! And with this new surplus of meat on your hands what better time to start.

As many a jerky lover will attest, nothing beats good homemade jerky and good homemade jerky starts with a good homemade marinade. Jerky marinades are typically similar to other red meat marinades except that they usually contain a lot of salt, which acts as the principle preservative. While you can mix your marinade to taste, you may want to consult some recipes to make sure you’ve got the right proportion of salt to the amount of meat, etc.

Before marinating for jerky, it’s important to trim off all of the fat because it can go rancid even after being dried. Once you put it all together, you’ll want to let the meat marinate at least overnight so that it can absorb the salt. The marinated strips of meat can then be dried on low heat in the oven or in a food dehydrator for anywhere from 12 to 72 hours depending on the thickness. It usually takes a little experimentation to get it right, but once you get it down, you’ll be ready for Y2K in no time.

So there you have it. You no longer have to lie to your neighbor about how good those moose steaks were. You might even shoot one yourself next year.

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