By Spencer Neuharth
There are plenty of reasons to pick wild game over traditional options. For starters, wild game has fewer calories, fewer chemicals and leaves less of a carbon footprint. Ultimately, relying more heavily on wild game for food means you get to hunt and fish more to ensure the freezer stays full.
However, it also means you have to prepare your food differently, completely changing the simplest of tasks like grilling a hamburger or making a cold-meat sandwich.
Throughout 2017, my wife and I are working on a unique new year’s resolution: we no longer want to get our meat from a grocery store. And no, we’re not going vegetarian.
This is our journey to a wild game year and the recipes we’ll use along the way.
Early fall is the perfect time for a wild-game enthusiast, with fish moving shallow and waterfowl seasons starting up. Take advantage of it before cold air blasts through the Midwest, though, when your attention likely turns to venison.
Come September, my spinning rod takes an annual sabbatical. Rather than grabbing my tackle box, I grab my ammo box. Instead of focusing on fishing string, I focus on my bow string. It’s a transition where my walleye intake plummets.
Because of this, if I want fresh fish during fall, I need a sure-fire way to make sure it doesn’t get freezer burnt. Arguably the best method to prevent freezer burn is vacuum sealing, but it always seems like such a hassle to go through all that countertop work for a couple fillets.
To take on freezer-burn prevention, you first need to understand what causes it. Freezer burn is a two-fold process: it happens when water leaves your meat, and then when oxygen comes in contact with it. The water molecules leave because they’re attracted to the coldest area, which are the freezer walls. If a bag isn’t sealed well, then the air between the food and the bag causes the moisture to crystalize on the surface of the meat. This is essentially dehydrating your meat, robbing it of flavor.
In summary, air is the enemy. This is why vacuum sealing is so efficient and why butchers paper gets lined with saran wrap multiple times for steaks. Another alternative, though, is freezing fish fillets in water.
By freezing fish in a block of ice, you’re taking away any chance of air reaching the meat. This protects the fish and does a better job of preventing freezer burn than most commercial vacuum sealers.
There are some tricks to note, though, like how adding a little salt to the bag can help the fish unthaw quicker when you’re ready to eat, or how you should freeze the bag on a cookie sheet so that it doesn’t take the shape of whatever frozen pizza or bag of vegetables you lay it on.
While doing this does an amazing job of helping fish fillets keep their flavor and texture, it’s nothing like eating it fresh. For that reason, one of the perfect ways to use fish from the ice chest is in tacos. This will use plenty of other flavors to mask the taste and present it in a way where the meat’s texture doesn’t matter.
I like fish tacos that are more coastal, with grilled fish and light toppings that go well with a warm fall day. Some southern inspiration can feel more natural when the temp drops, though, making it a good time to get out the deep fat fryer and line a tortilla with coleslaw.
For the fish …
• 10 crappie fillets
• 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
• 1 teaspoon of cumin powder
• 12 corn tortillas
For the chipotle crema …
• 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt
• 1/2 teaspoon of chipotle seasoning
• 1/4 teaspoon of paprika
• Lime juice from half a lime
1. Line a hot grill with tinfoil and drizzle some olive oil on top.
2. Combine the garlic and cumin and sprinkle it on the fillets.
3. Cook the fillets on the grill for a couple minutes on each side.
4. Combine all the chipotle crema ingredients in a bowl and stir well.
5. Serve the fish tacos hot, and top with lettuce, radishes and chipotle crema.
Teal Sous Vide
Leathery, livery and dry. That’s how I always felt duck breasts came out, whether I’d drop them in a skillet, throw them in a crock pot or place them on the grill. Jerky seemed like the only answer, and even that wasn’t a great option. Overall, duck harvests became less than satisfying when considering the limited dinner options.
Then, I thought to myself, “Am I overcooking it?”
Duck is poultry, and like chicken it should be cooked until it’s one solid shade of color, right? To Google I went, where I quickly realized this is a common question.
If you consult the FDA, they’ll tell you duck needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, which would be considered well-done. This ensures any foodborne illness, such as salmonella or campylobacter, is thoroughly taken care of during the cooking process.
If you consult a professional chef, though, they’ll tell you it’s a travesty to serve duck if it’s cooked beyond medium-rare and that 135 degrees is the perfect internal temperature for the meat to have a nice, pink gradient. This gives duck juiciness and flavor that would otherwise be lost if cooked any longer.
Most in the culinary world agree with the chefs, but, at the same time, they are divided on why a duck breast served at medium-rare is acceptable while a chicken breast isn’t.
The first argument is that ducks served in a restaurant are typically raised in small-scale farming operations. The assumption is this guarantees that they don’t endure overcrowding or encounter any pathogens for which chicken farms are notorious. Because of this, ducks simply don’t carry disease like other poultry, right? Wrong.
Another argument is that ducks from a farm are processed differently. Rather than getting processed through a carwash-like factory where chickens are haphazardly packaged in their own filth, ducks are delicately killed and cleaned to keep bacteria out. Wrong.
A final argument is that farm ducks are sometimes plucked with a boiling hot wax that literally strips the pathogens out of the meat. The wax goes from scorching hot to ice cold after getting a quick bath, and the wax hardens to remove the feathers and sterilize the duck. Wrong.
While there is some truth to these three assumptions, none of them are the reason why cooking a duck to medium-rare is safe. The real answer is that it isn’t.
Ducks, just like other poultry, can carry foodborne illnesses that can make you really sick. This is why it’s such a conundrum for chefs to send undercooked duck out of their kitchen. Cook it to medium-rare, and it’s savory but has the potential to be unsafe. Cook it to well-done, and it’s safe but has no potential to be edible.
Another reality, though, is that the risk of eating undercooked meat is well overstated. In Asia, undercooked chicken is extremely common. In Europe, undercooked duck is the norm. In North America, undercooked beef is widely accepted.
More often than not, things such as E. coli spread through cross contamination. This can happen when you use the same cutting board or don’t wash your hands after handling raw meat. There’s also an increased chance for high-risk demographics, such as pregnant women or the elderly, of getting a foodborne illness. Anytime you order a slab of meat at a steakhouse rare, you’re taking a trust fall on the farmer, processor, chef and server.
By simply being mindful of how your duck gets to the dinner plate, you can significantly decrease the odds of getting sick. It’s why chefs feel so confident about serving a medium-rare mallard that they plucked and cooked, and why hunters can, too.
As for achieving that pink inside, though, it can be tricky. Ducks go from very fatty to very lean with the removal of skin, and because breasting birds is most common among waterfowlers, ducks can also go from very moist to very dry.
To combat this, I’ve enlisted the technique of sous vide. Sous vide is where you vacuum seal your product and place it in hot water. This creates a highly controlled environment that helps meat cook evenly and retain its moisture — the ideal scenario for wild game.
Sous vide was first described in 1799 by a British physicist, and the technique was popularized in France and the United States in the 1960s. It became more mainstream in the 2000s when companies started coming out with thermal circulators that would monitor water temps and stir the pot for you. A $200 gadget isn’t necessary, though, if you have a pot, stove and thermometer.
• 8 teal breasts
• 2 cloves of sliced garlic
• 4 stalks of sliced green onion
• Salt and pepper
1. Heat a large pot of water to 130 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer handy, keep in mind most shower water is at about 105 degrees, so your pot should be uncomfortable to touch, but not boiling.
2. In two Ziploc bags, evenly distribute the duck breasts, garlic and green onions. Make sure no meat is lying two-wide in the bag. Do not seal the bags … yet.
3. Slowly submerge the bags in the water, and close them when they’re almost under to get an airtight seal.
4. Attach the top of the bag to the side of the pot with a clothespin so the seal won’t get wet.
5. Keep the water between 130-140 degrees for 20-30 minutes.
6. Remove the bags from the water, but allow the meat to sit in the bags and rest for a couple minutes.
7. The teal breasts are ready to serve, or you can give them an optional sear in a shallow pan with butter.
About the Author: Spencer Neuharth is a freelance writer from Menno, S.D. To see more of his writing and photography, go to boofcommunications.com.