On the hunt
As the pursuit of wild fish and game grows, so does the desire to prepare them
Into the wild: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported that the number of American hunters increased between 2006-2011. Doubtless this is due in part to those inspired by the locavore movement. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune)
For decades, that was a well-kept secret among a small band of outdoors enthusiasts, who knew there were other ways than deep frying to prepare fish and shuddered at the thought of dumping a can of cream-of-mushroom soup over a hard-earned pheasant breast.
But inspired by books such as Michael Pollan's 2006 "The Omnivore's Dilemma," a new generation is embracing the idea of hunting or catching dinner and is determined to find sophisticated ways to prepare it. A burgeoning industry has sprung up around it, with classes aimed at teaching adult beginners how to hunt for the table; author Steven Rinella hosting the hunting-for-food show "MeatEater" on an outdoors-themed cable network; and writer and cook Hank Shaw, of California, developing terrific recipes both for his books and his popular blog, Hunter Angler Gardner Cook (honest-food.net).
Game recipes also are hitting the mainstream: The fabled New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace published a game cookbook in 2008 ("Commander's Wild Side"), and James Beard Award winner John Besh included several game dishes in his 2009 cookbook, "My New Orleans," including one for a gumbo made with "poule d'eau," the Cajun term for coot.
Now comes Jesse Griffiths, an Austin, Texas-based butcher and culinary teacher, whose new book, "Afield: A Chef's Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish" (Welcome Books, $40), is one of the better game cookbooks in recent years, equally accessible to avid hunters and fishermen and those who are just starting out, as well as those who are debating whether to begin.
The recipes themselves range from the prosaic (beer-battered fried fish) to the adventurous (squirrel cooked over a campfire) to challenging (small ducks cooked in a glass jar). Several will make their way into my repertoire this fall.
Handsomely illustrated with some of the best how-to photos on game preparation I've seen, the book also includes well-written essays on fishing and hunting as introductions to each set of recipes. For a reader who knows the magic of a duck blind at sunrise, the writing is evocative; for the novice, it offers additional insight into why hunting and fishing are favored pastimes for millions in this country.
As a matter of fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported that the number of American hunters increased between 2006-2011, a surprising reversal following decades of decline. Doubtless this is due in part to those inspired by the locavore movement. "Afield," an enticing appetizer to great adventures and great eating, could help swell those numbers even more.
Tips for cooking game
Hank Shaw has this advice for cooks who want to try game dishes but aren't ready to hunt themselves: "Find a good butcher."
An avid hunter, fisherman and forager, Shaw turned his passion into the 2011 book "Hunt Gather Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast" (Rodale, $25.99) and is working on an upcoming cookbook tentatively titled "Duck: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Ducks and Geese."
Source: Some gourmet supermarkets stock duck, rabbit and pheasant that can sub for wild game. Less-common items such as venison, bison, wild boar and squab can be ordered by many butchers, and mail-order purveyors such as D'Artagnan (dartagnan.com) and MacFarlane Pheasants (pheasant.com) can ship game.
Differences: There are differences between the hunters' quarry and the domestic equivalents. Domestic rabbit, Shaw notes, is larger and softer than a wild cottontail, and wild ducks are denser and leaner than their domestic cousins. A pen-raised pheasant tends to be blander than a wild bird, though it has extra fat that can be a bonus in some preparations.
Subs: Heritage pork is an admirable substitute for wild boar, and a heritage turkey is "virtually indistinguishable" from its wild counterpart, Shaw says. Almost any dove recipe can be replicated with squab.
Hunt: Yet there is no substitute for some game, such as the delicate ruffed grouse or the delicious specklebelly goose. For those, "you've got to pick up a gun, learn to hunt and get out," Shaw says. "These are some of the greatest foods on the planet, and you can only get them through hunting."
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 6 to 8 hours