Sunday, December 14, 2014

Pheasant and Dumplings

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a cook is that less is sometimes more. The first time I cooked wild game myself I was 17 and brought a grill to a pre-football game party in High School. I brought along a few pack of venison steak and a large shaker of Lowry's Seasoned salt. I grilled the steaks with a  heavy dose of Lowry's and all who ate them raved about how good they were.  When I think about the amount of seasoned salt I put on those steaks I am certain that I could have been grilling roofing shingles and no one would have noticed. 

Unfortunately I think people feel they have to over season their wild game to cover up some unpleasant flavor they don't like. I have been guilty of this in the past, using heavy marinade's and exotic ingredients to make wild game more pleasant. What I have discovered in the last 10 years is that wild game doesn't need a lot of fancy extras to make it great. Taking care of your wild game is one of the biggest keys to success the other is, you have to cook it right. 

When I say that you have to take care of your game meats I mean from beginning to end. Practicing at the range to ensure a good clean kill and taking the time to properly field dress an animal are two of the biggest factors in caring for your meat. If you gut shot a deer or rupture a bladder while field dressing it you can taint the meat and end up with a bad product. After that comes proper butchering and storage and then of course how you cook it. There are literally dozens of factors that go into killing and butchering an animal that will dictate how the meat tastes before you even get to the kitchen. 

Understanding the ingredients you have and  knowing that over cooking your meat will most likely result in dry, stringy meat is important. I know a lot of people who don't like duck because they say it tastes gamey. I always tell those people that they have never had it cooked right. I recently wrote a post about Simple Perfection and cooking duck breasts with nothing more than salt and pepper. I would be willing to bet that anyone who doesn't like duck who would be willing to try duck cooked this way would have a hard time telling me they don't like duck.

Using wild game isn't hard but it does take a little more patience and a willingness to experiment. Pheasants in my opinion are probably the easiest wild game to start cooking because they are very similar to chickens and can be substituted for chicken in many dishes. This dish is just a chicken and dumplings recipe, there is nothing fancy about it and only calls for 7 ingredients. You could of course throw in more if you wanted to carrots, potatoes, and celery would be great but you don't have to. All by itself it is one of the most satisfying meals I have ever made. 

Pheasant and Dumplings
2 whole pheasants
2 ½ quarts of chicken stock
5 cloves of garlic
For the dumplings
2 cups all purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk
1.       Place the two pheasants and the garlic in a large pot and add the stock, bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer and cook until the meat easily falls off the bone, about 2 hours
2.       Pick all the meat off the bones and reserve the stock in the large pot
3.       Mix together the dumplings making sure they are not to thin and and keep some form 
4.       Bring the remaining stock back up to a boil and add spoonfuls of the dumpling mix until all the batter is used.
5.       Return the meat to the pot and cover, cooking for an additional 10 minutes on a low simmer.
Season with salt and pepper

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Duck Confit, Brie and Apple Butter Sandwich

One of the things I love about cooking is that every now and then you get introduced to a new ingredient and you wonder how it is that you didn't know about it sooner. This sandwich it a compilation of those ingredients. Years ago when I was first introduced to brie I couldn't believe I had never tried it before. After eating it for the first time I started having it more and more and eventually it became a regular at all of my parties and meals. 

Confit was the same thing, I think I had heard about it several times and then about 9 years ago I was given a cookbook by Michael Ruhlman called Charcuterie. In that book was a recipe for confit and since I had a lot of duck laying around from some successful ducks seasons I gave it a try and it changed everything. Duck confit was an eye opener for me and I had no idea that such deliciousness existed. Today I use the confit method to make several different things. I confit duck gizzards and make fried rillettes and I have confit'd squirrels and wild turkey and have loved the results. As a lover of wild game I think learning to confit is a very valuable skill to have. It is not only a wonderful preservation technique but also allows you to use up parts of the wild animals that might not get used otherwise, like the gizzards and the wings and legs which are all very tough and sinewy.  A lot of people don't like geese but if they would try to confit goose legs and thighs it would change their opinion.

The last component of this sandwich that really brings it all together is apple butter. I don't know what it was about apple butter that always made me turn my nose up and walk away but I never even tried it until I decided to make a batch this fall. My wife wanted to go to an apple orchard and pick some apples and get some pumpkins with the kids and we may have gone slightly overboard. we came home with almost 50 pounds of apples. After looking at all those apples for a few day I decided I needed to do something with them. I made apple sauce and some canned spiced apples but still had a ton of apples left. I started looking through one of my cookbooks called Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff. In it I found a recipe for apple butter and thought I would give it a try. After trying it i was floored, I couldn't believe that I had always turned away from apple butter. It is amazing and as I have found out since is one of the most versatile items in my pantry. Mixed with some white wine and Dijon mustard it makes a wonderful glaze for pork. It also pairs well with cheese on a cheese plate and is delicious on a ham and Swiss sandwich and makes oatmeal amazing when stirred in.  It also made this confit, brie and apple butter sandwich perfect. 

Duck Confit 

4 duck leg and thigh portions
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons maple sugar
1 tablespoon allspice berries roughly ground
1 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp black pepper
3 bay leaves
Enough duck fat to cover the legs

Mix together the salt and spices and rub the duck legs with this mixture

Refrigerate for 24 hours

Rinse all the salt mixture off the legs and dry completely

Place the legs in a heavy oven proof pot and cover with duck or goose fat

Place in the oven at 200 degrees for 5-6 hours, you will know when the legs are done when the meat and skin have pulled away from the knuckle on the leg bone.

If you are going to store your confit you can place then in a Ziploc freezer bag with some of the rendered fat and put in the freezer. Or you can pack them into a container and cover with remaining rendered fat.

When You are ready to use the legs preheat the oven to 425 and then roast the legs for 10 to 15 minutes until the skin get crispy

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pheasant Boudins Blancs

I have always enjoyed pheasant hunting, the only problem is, I never get to go. I don't have a dog and pheasant hunting without one isn't as much fun as hunting with one. I used to have a dog, he was  a half Brittany and half English springer named Cassidy and was full of energy. He was my only upland bird dog and was a ton of fun to hunt with, once I got him trained. On several occasions he would just run down a pheasant and bring it back to me with out me ever firing a shot. Sadly I had to give Cassidy away due to a few military deployments and ever since then I have been wanting another upland bird dog.

I have tried going out and walking fields without a dog and very rarely will I jump a pheasant. Over the last two years I have actually shot more pheasants while squirrel hunting then while pheasant hunting. Fortunately for me not having a dog hasn't kept me from getting pheasants. I have a lot of friends who go to South Dakota and hunt at game farms. This year I was given a bag of pheasant breasts and immediately new what I wanted to try.

I have been making boudins blancs for a number of years following a recipe out of Jane Grigson's book The Art of Charcuterie. I have always used a combination of chicken and pork like the recipe calls for but have always wanted to try it with rabbits or squirrels but never seem to shoot enough of either to give it a try. When I was given the bag of pheasant I new exactly what to do. These little sausages are very mild and have a pleasantly delicate texture, not exactly what you would expect from a sausage.

Pheasant Boudins Blancs

1 1/2 pounds pheasant meat
1 1/2 pounds pork fat back
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp Quatre-epices
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions
1 cup bread crumbs soaked in 1/2 cup heavy cream
4 eggs
Hog casings for stuffing

3 additional cups of whole milk for poaching the boudins
1. Working with very cold equipment and nearly frozen meat and fat, grind the pheasant and pork  fat along with the onion. Run it through a couple of times using the finest grinding die you have on its last pass through.
2. Mix in the remaining ingredients and then make a sample patty and fry it up quick to taste for seasoning.
3. The mixture will have a looser consistency than you are probably used to using so when you stuff it into the casing be careful not to over fill the casing. The boudins will expand when you poach them and can burst the casings if over filled.
4. After filling the casings tie off the links with butchers twine in whatever size link you prefer. I like to make 3-4 inch boudins.
5. Add 3 cups of whole milk to 5 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Poach the boudins in the milk for 5-10 minutes to ensure they are cooked through.
6. When you remove the boudins from the milk rinse them in the sink under cold water and then allow to cool. If you are going to cook them immediately brush them with butter and grill them, or my favorite way is to saute in butter with some thyme and garlic basting with butter until browned.
They can be frozen and used later also. This recipe make about 25 3-4 inch boudins so you will probably have extra to freeze.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Simple Perfection

I have talked in previous post about duck hunting with my buddy Eric Passe. Eric and I have been duck hunting together for 13 or 14 years now and in that time we have had some pretty phenomenal hunts. We have also sat in a swamp all day freezing and come home with one duck. Either way it never seems to matter, we always find a way to get back out there and chase some ducks. Eric lives in Wabasha, MN and has lived there all of his life. He knows the Mississippi river as well as anybody and considers himself a duck hunter. He hunts other things as well but thinks of himself mostly as a duck hunter. Earlier this week I got down to Wabasha to hunt with Eric and saw something I have never seen before. You would think that after hunting with Eric for as long as I have nothing would be new but I saw Eric in a different light than I usually do. Eric isn't a hunter or even a duck hunter, he is a craftsmen.

Monday morning we hit the swamp early and took our time finding the right spot to set up. On our way out to the swamp we passed several other hunters all set up and ready for their hunts. These hunters had decoy spreads with 60 or 70 decoys set out all sorts of spinning wing decoys and confidence decoys and goose decoys and as soon as it was light enough they were hitting their duck calls pretty hard and shooting at a lot of ducks. I say shooting at a lot of ducks because if they were hitting a lot of duck they would have been way over their limit.

Eric's approach is different, for Eric it isn't about how many ducks he can shoot but rather how many ducks he can get to set their wings and circle right down into his decoy spread. He has become a master at using his duck call and most importantly not using his duck call. He can tell by the way ducks are flying whether or not he will be able to turn them or if he should just let them fly by. He never sets out elaborate decoy spreads usually setting out about a dozen and sometimes none at all. When he can work a group of ducks to circle around his decoys and then cup their wings and land right into his decoys that is pretty much the pinnacle of his hunt. On Monday of this week Eric was able to bring every duck we shot right into the decoy spread, every shot we took was about 15 yards away and minus one hen that I shot we managed to pick out all drake mallards and shoot our daily limit of mallards. It was a perfect hunt orchestrated by a master craftsman.

Eric doesn't need elaborate decoy spreads or fancy duck calls or spinning wing decoys to get ducks. His approach is simple but perfect and he has spent his life perfecting what he does. His ability to eliminate all the extra gadgets and gimmicks and just focus on the essentials of duck hunting is what I believe makes him a craftsman. Mondays hunt inspired me to cook and following Eric's example I decided not to try and add anything more than necessary. A lot of the time we try to mask the flavor of wild game by adding sauces or fancy cooking techniques.
This is just a duck breast seasoned with salt and pepper and seared in a little butter. I left the skin on and cooked it over medium high heat for 4-5 minutes per side. The skin formed a perfect crust and in the end I would be willing to bet that most people wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between this duck and a nice rib eye. Simple but cooked to perfection.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Crock Pot Venison Stew

I have never really been a big fan of the crock pot, I feel like to many recipes try to adapt themselves to the crock pot and don't really turn out very nice. There are of course exceptions to that, an old friend of mine used to throw a brisket in the crock pot with taco seasonings and some onion and make some pretty fine shredded beef tacos. Pork butts are another good thing for the crock pot, if you are hosting a get together and need to feed 20-30 people cheap and easy a nice pork but seasoned properly and left on low over night will do the trick. That is part of the appeal of the crock pot for some people, you can add everything in and not have to worry about it until its time to eat.

One of my favorite things to make in the crock pot is a venison stew. It is a great way to use up some of those odd pieces that have a little to much sinew to grind but are to big to waste. The low heat for long periods of time breaks down that sinew that adds a nice texture to your stew and helps thicken it up. This is a very basic stew recipe and can be changed in what ever way you want. You can add pretty much anything to it to make it your own and it turns out delicious every time. I like a lot of root vegetables in my stews, so I add parsnips and potatoes and carrots along with a little onion and some garlic cloves.
One of the problems that can occurs when cooking venison in the crock pot is that the meat can get stringy and dry out. To prevent this from happening I like to dredge each pieces of venison in a flour mixture and then brown each piece in bacon fat before putting it in the stew. I have found that this helps prevent that dry stringy meat from happening. One other trick that I like to use with stew meat is to add a little cinnamon to the flour before dredging. Sometimes with the meat I use for stew you end up with some pieces that can be a little powerful in flavor. I have found that the cinnamon cuts that a bit and can make some of those gamey pieces a little more palatable.

Easy Crock Pot Venison Stew
2 pounds venison cut into one inch cubes
2-3 medium carrots Roughly chopped
3 parsnips Roughly chopped
3 potatoes peeled and Roughly chopped
1 onion Roughly chopped
5 cloves of garlic
2 pints of tomato sauce
4 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs rosemary 
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp seasoned salt
1/4 Bacon Fat
1. Combine the flour, cinnamon and seasoned salt together and dredge the venison chunks in the flour. Then fry in bacon fat for about a minute on each side.
2. Place all the ingredients in a crock pot with whatever left over bacon fat and cook on low for 8 hours. Stir the stew every couple of hours and season with salt and pepper.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Elk Heart Tartare

I love to eat heart, it is hands down my favorite part of the animal. When ever I shoot a deer the heart is the first thing I eat. I only get to shoot one or two deer every year so heart is usually a rare treat for me. Sometimes however, a friend of mine will call and let me know they have saved the heart out of an animal they shot. This year my friend Ben Pena shot his first Elk while hunting in Wyoming. He called when he got back to Minnesota and I volunteered to help him with some of the butchering. Not only did Ben save me the heart but I also got an elk tongue and a very nice roast out of the deal as well.  

Heart can be prepared many different ways, I like to roll it in flour and fry it then serve it with eggs over easy and toast for breakfast. But my favorite way to eat heart is raw and making a tartare. You can't do this with just any heart but when you get a fresh heart that is pristine and untouched, you can. It is always a good idea when you get a heart or any meat that you intend to eat raw to freeze it for at least a week or more. Whenever I get a heart that I want to make into tartare, I examine it to make sure there is nothing wrong with it and that it doesn't have any sort of parasite on it. Then I vacuum seal it and place it in the freezer for a week.

When I am ready to make my tartare I let the heart thaw just enough so that it is still kind of frozen in the middle. I trim off all the fat and the outer membrane and then trim off any fiber on the inside of the heart also. I know most tartare is diced up with a knife but because the heart is such a dense muscle I like to grind it through a medium plate on my meat grinder. I have also made a few changes to a traditional tartare. I like to use dry cured egg yolks instead of raw egg yolks. I think it still adds the same amount of creamy texture and the flavor it so much better. The only other really noticeable change is that I don't use anchovies I use Creamed smoked roe. It still adds a little salty fishy taste but it has a smokey sweetness to it that I really like.

Elk Heart Tartare

8 ounces ground heart
2 tablespoons grated dry cured yolk
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp creamed smoked roe
1 tablespoon bourbon
1 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced capers
1 tablespoon minced gherkins
2 tablespoons shopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

grind the heart into a bowl and add the remaining ingredients, mix thoroughly making sure to keep the mixture as cold as possible. Add salt sparingly the roe, yolks, capers and gherkins all have salt in them. serve with toast points and garnish with more grated dry cured yolk.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Grouse Hunting Part 2

The second half of my week long grouse hunting adventure was just as great as the first. It was filled with lots of good food and many firsts for me including my first sharp-tailed grouse and my first Sand hill crane. It started out last Wednesday morning at 0330 when I left my brothers and headed to Warren, MN where some old family friends live and farm. I arrived around 0900 and met Scott Oberg in one of his fields. Scott gave me a quick refresher on which fields I could hunt and where he had been seeing some birds. I set off and walked a few areas around a large swamp that sits in the middle of his property but saw no birds of any sort.
I had seen a group of sand hill cranes in one of the fields and thought I would make my way over to them to see if I could get a shot a one. I had never hunted sand hills before and know almost nothing about them except that they are delicious. I was given a crane breast by a friend of mine and really enjoyed it. I figured they were like other birds and if you  could be someplace they wanted to be I might get a passing shot at one. I wasn't sure if you could stalk up on them or not so I gave that a try first. The group of cranes I had seen were sitting in a picked corn fields about a 100 yards from the small dirt road that ran by it. The back portion of the field was still standing corn and a drainage ditch ran behind that. I figured I could walk down that drainage ditch sneak through the corn and possibly get a shot a bird.
I was wrong about that, after walking about a mile down this ditch I came to the end of the corn and tried to sneak a peak at where the cranes were. They had moved down to the far end of the field back near where I started. So I walked back down the ditch and tried to come at them from that side. When I got down there they had moved again about half way down the field. I walked into the corn about 6 rows in from the open field and slowly walked down to about 200 yards away from the cranes. I got comfortable and waited to see if they would move again slowly getting closer and closer. The wind was blowing pretty strong and was covering up any noise I was making but even 6 rows into the cord that was at least 7 feet tall I must have done something because all at once they jumped and flew away never flying close enough to get a shot.
After a brief break for lunch I headed back out for grouse and found an area that looked promising. A large Wildlife Management Area surrounded by sunflowers with equal amounts grass and small willows and red brush. It didn't take long and Kona had flushed 3 grouse all at once. I am embarrassed to admit that I emptied the gun and didn't hit a single thing. Something my brother likes to call "shoot and release". Grouse don't take off like pheasants do, a pheasant will take off and fly up for a second and then fly away. These grouse seemed to just take off and with the wind that was blowing pretty hard they were gone. All of that is just an excuse for my bad shooting of course. Kona flushed 11 grouse and I shot probably 18 times before I finally connected and figured out how to lead them. The next two after that were spot on and before I knew it I had downed three birds.  The sad part of that is that we only found two of them. Kona and I walked the area for about 45 minutes and couldn't find that lost bird. I am convinced that I didn't hit it very well and that it ran away because if it was dead Kona would have found it.
Kona with my first Sharp-tailed Grouse
The next day I was up early and out in the corn again hoping to get a passing shot at a crane. Like the day before I had the same result. While I was sitting there I did have a number of grouse fl within  range and I would have taken a shot but I was afraid the 3 1/2 inch 12 gauge shell with BBB shot would be to destructive. The morning passed and I was tired of sitting around so I headed out to try grouse hunting again and went back to the spot I had success at the day before. Initially Kona and I didn't see anything but we came out of some willows into a field of alfalfa and I saw a grouse about 80 yards ahead. I knew that if Kona saw it she would run right at it and I wouldn't get a shot so I called for her to come back and when I called the entire field erupted and there must have been 30 grouse that all took off and flew away from me. It was quite an amazing site to see all those birds at once.
Scott wanted to give grouse hunting a try and we had arranged to meet in one of his fields and walk a bit of brush that looked like it might hold some grouse. Scott and I have walked piece of land several times in our life but always in pursuit of deer. We have always flushed grouse out of it and figured it would work. As we started out I said "I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few right in the grass on the edge" and no sooner did I say than a grouse jumped up and I missed. We walked through the brush and ended up flushing another grouse and both Scott and I missed that one as well. As we walked the edge of the brush Scott pointed to the sky and I saw that 4 Sand hill cranes were flying low right over us. As a general rule I always hunt with steel shot for instances just like this. I took a shot and down came the crane. It hit the ground with such a thud that it sound like someone getting tackle in football. I was shocked that the bird actually came down and shocked again at how big they are.

In all my life I have never had the time to just go hunt for a whole week. This week was a great time and I hope that I get to do it again. I got to hunt with my Brother, my mom and an old friend. I drove over a thousand miles walked about 70 miles shot 3 ruffed grouse, 3 sharp-tailed grouse one crane and finished everyday with a nice glass of whiskey. A special thank you to Scott Oberg and his lovely family for all there generosity, without Scott the second half of my trip would not have been possible.