Wild Game Year

    Recipes and tips to help you transition to a wild-game diet: Canned venison and sticky elk meatballs.

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    Text and Photos 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 have been 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.

    With 11 months under our belt, we’re nearing the finish line of using wild game — venison, turkey, duck, goose and fish — as our only source of meat, and this one-year project might just transition into a lifetime of hunting and gathering.

    This is our journey to a wild-game year, and the recipes we’ve used along the way.

    Canned Venison

    For sportsmen of the Midwest, freezer space often comes at a premium. In states like the Dakotas, you can walk into the average outdoorsman’s garage and find an ice chest full of fall harvests, including deer, antelope, elk, duck, goose, swan, pheasant, paddlefish, walleye and more. It becomes a game of Jenga around November when you need to carefully remove a package of deer brats and a bag of goose jerky just to get to a stack of ground elk.

    Spending less time hunting and fishing isn’t an option, which is why everyone should consider canning their meat.

    I began canning meat last year and turned an entire antelope buck into a shelf of quart jars. Aside from saving some room in your freezer, there’s a number of other benefits to canning wild-game meat.

    For starters, canned meat is super easy to work with. Because the meat is cooked during the canning process, it’s ready to be eaten as soon as you crack the seal. You can opt to serve it on a cracker at room temp, or you can add some heat and watch it shred to perfection. Simply put it next to a pile of mashed potatoes, drop it into a vat of stew, or place it on a piece of bread. You can’t go wrong.

    Another benefit of canning meat is it allows you to turn undesirable cuts into something new. The neck meat and flank steaks from deer or other big game won’t be looked at the same after canning, giving you fresh perspective on what normally becomes jerky or burger.

    You’re also able to bypass any aging, not needing to worry about hanging your critter for weeks to get a tender product. This makes canning early season ungulates ideal, when garage temperatures don’t get low enough to keep a deer.

    The same goes for older critters; if you tend to think that rutting bucks don’t taste the same as a doe, then canning is the way to go.

    However, getting the end product isn’t as simple as dropping some jars in boiling water, and there are some hard rules you need to follow to ensure you don’t get sick. Although your grandparents might have done it differently, canning procedures have evolved to guarantee your canned venison won’t give you botulism.

    One of those rules is that you need to use a pressure canner. This is because meat has a low acidity and doesn’t have a low enough pH value to kill bacteria.

    Tomatoes and fruits, for example, have a high acidity that kills bacteria, which means they can be canned in a pot of boiling water. Pickles, which have low acidity, are an exception, but the addition of vinegar during the pickling process increases the acid levels enough to kill bacteria. To summarize, the pressure canner kills bacteria that the meat can’t do on its own.

    Another rule, which is more about taste than safety, is that a little bit goes a long way with canning. You’ll notice with the recipe below that there’s only a touch of spice involved, and that’s because the meat absorbs a ton of flavor in the canning and storing process. You’re free to add whatever herbs and spices you want, but remember that it doesn’t take much to liven things up.

    And finally, with the storing process, it’s recommended that you keep the jars in dark places that won’t freeze or get too hot. If there’s no room in your pantry, then basements, cellars or climate-controlled garages will do the job. The USDA does endorse the idea of eating canned meats within a year, but this is for quality rather than safety. I’m not a believer, though, as I’m still chewing on my canned antelope from 2016, and he tastes just as good as he did 14 months ago.

    When it comes to preparing canned meat for the table, one of my favorite creations is a French dip. They’re very easy to make and totally beat the alternative of using sliced deli meat or shredded roasts that take hours to achieve the tenderness of canned venison. They’re an oddly American food, too, with no traceable link to French origin.

    Instead, two Los Angeles-based restaurants each claim to be the founder of French dips. Both of their stories date back to the early 1900s, with one insisting the sandwich was created for a customer who had complained of stale bread, while the other asserts the dip was invented for a favorite patron who had sore gums.

    However it came to be, I salute the chef that first made this wonderful dish and thank the deer that provides it.

    Canned Venison Ingredients:

    • Pressure canner

    • Quart jars, rings and lids

    • Venison

    • Garlic, non-iodized salt and black pepper

    Directions:

    1. Trim the meat so that the majority of fat and tendons are removed.

    2. Cube the meat into pieces that are about the size of a golf ball.

    3. “Cold pack” the raw meat into the quart jar, leaving about 1 inch of headspace. Use a spoon to tightly pack in the meat.

    4. Put 1 teaspoon of non-iodized salt, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, and two cloves of garlic on top of the meat.

    5. Place the lid, and screw on the ring. Put your jars in the canner.

    6. Follow the directions that are specific to your pressure canner, which will suggest something like adding 3 quarts of water and canning for 90 minutes at 15 pounds of pressure. It’s important that you know your canner, though, as the exact time and pressure varies between models.

    French Venison Dips:

    • 1 quart of canned venison

    • 2 cups of low-sodium beef broth

    • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

    • 2 onions

    • 3 cloves of minced garlic

    • Sub or hoagie rolls

    • Sliced cheese

    Directions:

    1. In a Dutch oven, pour in the entire jar of canned venison, including the liquid.

    2. Cut the onions into large chunks so they can easily be removed from the Dutch oven later. I only cut my onions two times each.

    3. Add onions, beef broth, Worcestershire sauce and minced garlic to the Dutch oven.

    4. On a low setting, heat the meat for as long as you please and shred before serving. I’ve done it from 30 minutes to three hours. Because the meat is already cooked, you can leave it in the Dutch oven for any amount of time.

    5. When ready to serve, remove the onions.

    6. Strain the meat from the liquid, but keep the liquid for your au jus dipping sauce.

    7. Spoon some liquid back into the pot to give the meat some moisture.

    8. On a sub roll, add meat and cheese before placing the sandwich in the oven at 350 degrees for 4 minutes.

    Sticky Elk Meatballs

    With my pursuit of a wild-game year, it’s been tough to create appetizers. Most of our favorite apps in the Heartland use meats such as shrimp, ham or bacon, but the lack of seafood and feral hogs in South Dakota make those hard to come by outside of the store.

    Instead, I opt for making meatballs, which have become a staple of my weekends spent watching football on the couch.

    This is a versatile recipe that’s a twist on the meatballs that sit in a crockpot all day that we Midwesterners have become accustomed to. With this dish, that’s still an option, but you’ll need to add a little more bread crumbs to firm up the meatballs for a barbeque sauce bath.

    What’s slightly different about this recipe is also its focus on meat. Some meatballs include ingredients such as rice, grains or onions, but these appetizers are all about the elk.

    Serve them on their own with nothing more than a toothpick, or put them in dinner rolls for a mini meatball sub unlike any other.

    However you consume them, they’ll definitely beat any meat and cheese platter available.

    Ingredients:

    • 2 pounds of ground elk

    • 3 eggs

    • 1/4 cup bread crumbs

    • 3 tbs honey mustard

    • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

    • 1/2 cup ketchup

    • 1 cup barbeque sauce

    • 1/4 cup ketchup

    • 1 cup brown sugar

    Directions:

    1. Combine the ground elk, eggs, bread crumbs, honey mustard, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup in a large bowl and mix.

    2. Form the mixture into meatballs, creating about 15 total to place on a sprayed cookie sheet.

    3. Place the meatballs in an oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

    4. Combine barbeque sauce, ketchup and brown sugar to create the sauce. Double this if you want the meatballs to have a more saucy flavor.

    5. After 15 minutes, pull the meatballs out and drizzle the sauce on top. Place them back in the oven for another five minutes before serving. (See a picture of the meatballs at the top of Pg. 24.)

    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.