Finally, after years of recipes smothered in mushroom soup, wild-game cooking is having its moment. In fact, marketers might even say it's "on trend." Horn-porn outdoor TV hosts, who last year were touting the size of their wives' (deer) racks, are now posing with backstraps and testifying reverently about their conversion to the stove.
The Web isn't immune to this phenomenon, either. New Instagram accounts are popping up daily with well-lit photos of roasted birds that are much too plump to be pheasants from people calling themselves "hunter-chefs" — though the closest they've ever been to a commercial kitchen is the dish pile. It's enough to give us old-school guys a wry smile at the idea we're now the cool kids in camp.
Don't get me wrong. Anything that refocuses the hunt away from the antlers and onto the meat goes into the plus column. In fact, I embrace this new class of cooks and the innovative ways they're using the meat from deer, elk, ducks, grouse, and other game. Every day I see some cool new dish on my feed and think, "Wow, wild game is where it's at!"
Why Classics Matter
However, before we get too far down the trail, let me tap the brakes a bit. In all this attention focused on bringing wild game into 21st century kitchens, a lot of folks are forgetting we've been here before. In fact, little more than 100 years ago, before industrial agriculture, game was the go-to meat for a majority of Americans. Many of the most well-known recipes for chicken or beef were made first with waterfowl, upland birds, deer, and elk. And they were created by chefs working in kitchens at the some of the world's finest restaurants.
You wouldn't know this from reading recent wild-game recipes in popular media. It's amazing how many chefs and cooks claim brilliance because they figured out you can substitute an elk steak for one cut from a cow and then build a reputation on what's really a well-worn preparation that evolved over the past 200 years.
A "popular" chef once asked if I'd be using "his" recipe for a particular dish that would fall into the category of comfort food, as if he were the first person to put meat and potatoes on the same plate.
"No," I replied. "My mom's is a lot better."
And even her recipes weren't originals. Typically, she cooked from a stained and faded notecard scribbled in her mother's handwriting or from a recipe torn from Women's Day, Home & Garden, or some other periodical. She also had a row of cookbooks atop her pantry, which she referred to often. Even the meals she cooked from memory were dishes she'd learned and honed over the years.
Maybe her cooking is the root of my love for comfort food and my aversion to anything modern that makes its way onto my plate. Give me meatloaf over anything that is plated so preciously as to be considered fine art. It's probably also why I stole her copy of a 1970's edition of Joy of Cooking that has since had its spine broken and has become so stained with sauces as to leave some of the recipes unreadable.
Those older copies of Joy support the argument for eating wild game as they included a variety of recipes for wild birds and game large and small, including not only squirrel, but also porcupine, raccoon, and armadillo. These uncommon animals aren't offered as oddities, but as historically accurate adaptations on the game that regularly made an appearance on dining room tables just a generation or two ago.
Best Cookbooks for Game Lovers
So, if Joy of Cooking is considered a classic, what other cookbooks should be in the library of everyone claiming to be a wild-game cook? I can find no better reference, new or old, than The L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook, with recipes from Leon L. Bean himself as well as those collected during hunting trips around the world. I also consult Zack Hanle's Cooking Wild Game from time to time. To form a solid base of classic cooking techniques, it's good to have copies of Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and La Technique by Jacques Pepin.
My humble plea to all those who are just now getting into wild-game cooking: Let's not throw the backstrap out with the bathwater. As fun as it is to experiment in the kitchen, realize it's all been done before — and usually better — by someone else. If you're serious about introducing nonbelievers to just how good wild-game can taste, you're better off doing it with a simple steak rather than mimicking modern cuisine. Don't believe me? Just consider two of the top five most popular recipes from the New York Times last year were for pot roasts and not pan-seared, pickled pintail lips.
DEER STEAK DIANE
This recipe combines two classics: Rombauer's steak au poivre and a version of steak Diane made tableside at Delmonico's, Brennan's, and other notable restaurants. Although this is a great preparation for whole deer tenderloins, I prefer to use the backstrap sliced crosswise into one-inch thick steaks, then pounded into medallions.
If you don't have forest mushrooms, crimini or other mushrooms sliced thinly will do just fine.
- Pour the peppercorns into a rimmed sheet pan and crush them with a rolling pin or wine bottle. Lightly pound the steaks until they are about Ã³ inch thick. Season the steaks with the kosher salt, then press them into the crushed pepper, coating both sides of the steak well. Let the steaks rest while you whisk together the cream, Dijon mustard, and Worcestershire.
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add a knob of butter and raise the heat slightly. Add the pepperencrusted venison steaks and cook until well seared, about two minutes. Flip and cook another 2 — 3 minutes. Transfer the steaks to a warm plate and tent with foil.
- If necessary, add a bit more butter to the pan, lower the heat and sauté the shallots until they just start to soften, about 2 — 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms to the pan, along with a pinch of kosher salt, and cook until they release their moisture.
- Remove the pan from the heat source and pour in the brandy. Touch a match to the edge of the pan to ignite the brandy. Once the flames subside, return the pan to the heat and stir in the cream-Dijon-Worcestershire mixture. Return the steaks to the pan, along with any accumulated juices, and flip to coat both sides. Cook until the sauce is slightly thickened and the steaks are warmed through. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.
4 venison steaks, cut 1-inch thick
1/2 cup whole peppercorns
1 tbs. kosher salt
1 tbs. butter
1 tbs. olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1/2 lb. forest mushrooms, sliced
2 tbs. brandy
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Chopped parsley, for garnish