Game for Anything: Wild game is occasion for adventurous cooking

Wild game has all but vanished as a mainstream food source. It is hard to find on restaurant menus, let alone in grocery meat cases. Unless you have a hunter in the family, you probably don’t keep a stash of wild game steaks, sausages, ribs or ground meat in the deep freeze.

Determined that I would do my part not to let wild game disappear from the American table, I set out to plan a wild fete. I’d track down victuals and unearth Grandma’s cookbook. My friends and I would feast on pheasant, dine on duck and regale over rabbit. Better yet, we’d gorge on a beast – elk, antelope, deer or wild boar. I, the woman who went vegan for Lent, would add wild game to her culinary repertoire!

Then reality set in. Apart from having some braised venison steaks that my country cousins handed over, I had no experience whatsoever cooking wild game. So I hunted down a guy who does. Joshua Galliano is the chef de cuisine at An American Place, a downtown restaurant that offers wild game dishes on its cutting-edge carte du jour.

Galliano’s wild boar prosciutto would be a winning appetizer. The meat is thinly sliced and served with a small amount of arugula drizzled with olive oil and apple saba (a sweet, dense balsamic syrup) and garnished with nasturtiums. I saw visions of myself carpaccio-ing wafer-thin slices of cured meat for my dinner guests – until I actually got the recipe from Galliano. It would take two months to cure the meat. (He cures his own at the restaurant.) I’ve tasted this dish and it is amazing. Adventurous cooks who have the foresight to plan ahead should go for it.

But my dinner party was a couple of weeks away, so I needed another solution. I substituted the prosciutto with some smoked elk salami that I bought online from Burgers’ Smokehouse, a third-generation meat-curing company located in California, Mo., about 25 miles west of Jefferson City. Burgers’ products are U.S. farm-raised as opposed to the really wild meat that An American Place orders from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas. I served thin salami strips over a bed of arugula with snippets of radicchio for extra color. I’d forgotten to find the apple saba that added such an exotic note to Galliano’s dish, so I used a quality balsamic.

Next, I ladled out a savory soup that paired pheasant with chestnuts. Galliano’s recipe called for pheasant confit whereby the dry-fleshed bird is salted and larded with duck fat to keep it moist as it cooks. Chicken stock, seasoned with herbs, vegetables and the pheasant carcass, was lightly thickened with the shredded pheasant and candied chestnuts – a delicate harmony of flavors. Galliano recommended serving this mild-tasting white meat with a white wine like an Alsatian Gewürztraminer or a German Riesling. “Something around the Spätlese quality,” he added.

For the main attraction, I wanted to serve venison but couldn’t decide the best way to prepare it. Its many cuts presented endless possibilities: legs or shoulder for a roast, loin or fillets for steaks, ribs for chops, and flank for stew. Wild animals don’t enjoy as lavish a diet as domestic animals, so their meat is leaner. Marinating, aging the meat, slow cooking, stewing and larding the meat with fat from another source – as in the pheasant confit – are ways to compensate for the low fat content. Galliano suggested braising the venison shoulder in red wine with cinnamon and coriander. His recipe called for layering the long-braised meat under a cushion of mashed potatoes, or parmentier. I have only avocational cooking training, so this French culinary style was a bit daunting.

That’s when I turned to Jeff McKee of St. Peters, a former big game guide in Florence, Mont. After 30-plus years of bagging wild game, this seasoned hunter shared some down-home cooking advice. “Every recipe that is good with beef is good with deer and elk, in my view,” said an enthusiastic McKee. “Fried, grilled, in gravy, roasted, broiled, boiled, in stew … you name it – it’s good.” Venison is, indeed, versatile and allows even us newbies to use traditional methods on a different-tasting meat. I did, however, learn not to substitute a beef or chicken recipe for a wild meat or poultry dish because of the difference in fat content.

Ultimately, I opted to serve a roast on one large platter and carve it at the table. (Really, I just wanted to show off my bone-handled carving knife.) Taking my cue from Galliano, I served the venison alongside a medley of roasted brussels sprouts and root vegetables (carrots and parsnips) tossed in olive oil and sprinkled with herbes de Provence and a touch of salt and pepper, then arranged around a mold of mashed potatoes. It was a colorful, savory accompaniment to the meat. Again, Galliano came through with some outstanding vins: an Australian Shiraz or a Syrah-based Côtes du Rhône would bring out the chocolate-scented, leathery notes of the venison without losing its gaminess.

It seemed apropos to end the meal with a dessert that included berries or nuts. After all, that’s what wild animals eat. A scoop of French vanilla ice cream or a rich chocolate cake, topped with a berry sauce, would have been a nice, simple finish, but I got inspired to end in American style. Jack Daniels is a good après-hunting drink, so I settled on serving bread pudding with dried berries and bourbon sauce to my Davy Crocketts and their missus.

Now that my feast has ended, are you game to make merry over meat? Braised, stewed, fried or sautéed, wild game is tasty eating. Its hearty flavor and versatile pairings offer creative cookery that your bravest friends will devour.