Game meats have a tendency to be off-putting to the average eater; perhaps it is a “savage” connotation derived from the image of wild hunters with bows and arrows. In the U.S., most cooks prefer to procure food that is in a secure (and very sterile) package of Styrofoam and plastic wrap. Yet it is difficult to ignore that wild meats and fowl have been a staple of human consumption from (quite literally) the beginning of time; after all, the first Thanksgiving turkey was not a Butterball.
Given my Scottish heritage, game cooking was treated as a point of pride in my grandmother’s house, where it was not unusual to find rabbit, lamb, or venison cooking on the stove. This did not thrill me. And given the headcount of six males in my immediate family, my youth was filled with early-morning memories of Dad and The Brothers heading off before sunrise for a hunting adventure. Often they would return empty-handed, but once in a while they would come home triumphant, sporting a deer carcass or various game birds. This did not thrill me, either; the flavor of the meat was so…“gamey” that consumption was not an option for me. My palate has become more adventurous through the years, however, so game has become a happy addition to my palate’s repertoire.
Thankfully, you no longer need to be an avid hunter — or an incredibly adventurous eater — to enjoy the taste of game at your home table; there is now a variety of reputable purveyors from which to choose. With the proliferation of artisan animal husbandry in the United States, game meats and fowl are becoming ever more popular from restaurant menus to the home kitchen, and their flavor is far more mild than the kind my father and brothers brought home. It is also likely that game’s low saturated fat content has led to the growth in its popularity.
In the hands of talented purveyors (and the modern, web-based mail-order system), a wide variety of game is now available in every part of the country. The most well-known purveyors are Hudson Valley Foie Gras (foie gras and duck), D’Artagnan (numerous game specialties, foie gras, truffles), Sonoma Foie Gras (foie gras) and ExoticMeats.com (everything under the sun, including alligator and rattlesnake). These companies are specialists in the realm of game sourcing, storage, and aging, so you are virtually guaranteed the highest possible quality of foodstuffs for your meal preparation.
The more popular varieties of game and fowl available include rabbit, venison, and quail, but others such as ostrich and buffalo have also gained a foothold with the dining public. Following are the more commonly found varieties of game birds and meats:
– Wood Pigeon
– Wild Turkey
– Wild Boar
– Venison (deer meat)
Of course, for the home cook, the intimidation factor of this list can be overwhelming — such animals seem so — exotic. The sourcing is no longer an issue, but what does one do with them once the package arrives?
Fear not; the process is not as daunting as you might think. Again, in its previous incarnation (from the wild), game meats had to be marinated for days to remove that notorious “gamey” flavor. Modern meats are much more delicate and palatable from the start, so the preparation is more akin to the treatment of everyday meats and poultry.
An important caveat, however, is that game tends to be quite lean, so it cooks and dries out more quickly. Most of the time, there is no need to cook it past medium-rare, as any further stage will result in a dry, tough piece of meat.
Before the growth of domestically-raised game, marinades and barding were the saviors of the kitchen. Here is a classic marinade from my grandmother’s cooking notes which includes burgundy and port wines:
Recipe: Roast Venison
Today, however, marinades are used much as they are in regular cooking — as an infusion of flavor. Barding is the process of covering the top (or entire) bird with bacon or pork fat, enabling a constant basting to take place during roasting. This is still done for flavor, but domestically-raised birds often have enough fat content to stay juicy on their own.
When preparing game (or regular) birds, herbed butters are a wonderful way to add flavor and juiciness to the meat and its skin. No recipe is needed — you can simply use what is on-hand in your pantry, or see our Harvest Spiced Butter from last month. For fowl, sage is a wonderful accompaniment, and in the Test Kitchen we simply add some herbs to unsalted, room-temperature butter, add salt and pepper to taste, and rub the flavored butter all over the outside of the bird, as well as under its skin. (Incidentally, this elevates Thanksgiving turkey to a wonderfully delicious level of flavor.)
Two of our favorite game birds are quail and squab; both are petite enough for individual servings at dinner parties, and their flavor is tender and succulent. Quail is the smallest game bird available, and adapts quite well to a variety of cooking methods, including marination, broiling, or saucing. Our good friend and chef Jean-Louis Gerin from Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, CT has generously shared one of his favorite recipes with us:
Squab, traditionally known as pigeonneau, is actually a young pigeon that has not yet learned to fly. Its name has been changed in the U.S. given the unpopular image of pigeons, but it is a frequent menu item in most fine-dining establishments. Its meat is dark, rich, and tender, but it must not be cooked past medium-rare or it develops a rather liver-esque flavor. Chef Mark Tafoya has created a delicious recipe to tempt our palates:
Of course, one cannot discuss game birds without mentioning the ever-flavorful, satisfying taste of duck. Our friends at Hudson Valley Foie Gras have sent us a mouthwatering recipe for Magret de Canard (duck breast) that sings with the promise of rich, fruity flavors balanced with a peppery zing.
Recipe: Magret de Canard au Poivre
We will continue to look at a variety of game meats and fowl throughout the month (along with our über-favorite indulgence, truffles), but we hope these will keep you busy in the kitchen until next week’s installment. A la cuisine!
Photo: Kelly Cline
Originally Published November 2005