The Hunt for Hearty Entrées
From foraged food to hunted wild game, chefs continue to explore cooking by terroir.
Far different from foraging, working with game meat requires a different set of rules. In fact, USDA regulations prohibit serving meat from a personal hunting expedition in restaurants.
But sourcing wild game is getting easier. While truly hunted food can only come from outside the U.S., more ranchers and farmers are creating wilderness-like conditions for their game. Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas was among the first to do it. Since 1983, it has supplied game meats to fine restaurants, and now partners with more than 100 ranches to field harvest game from roughly 1 million acres. Sharpshooters kill to order, and use a mobile USDA truck for inspection and on-site processing.
“They are the gold standard of venison in the U.S.,” says Hank Shaw, award-winning author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.
Texas has different laws than other states, allowing farmers to let their animals run free, capture them live, and take them to a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. This helps keep the animal without stress until harvest, and the fact that they’ve roamed free impacts the taste in a special way.
“We use traps and dogs to catch feral hog,” says Jeffrey Yarbrough, a restaurateur and owner of Y5 Farm in Waxahachie, Texas. He brings the meat to his newest restaurant, The Cedars Social in Dallas, where Chef John Tesar cooks the loin like ham for a breakfast-style dish with over-easy eggs and Cheddar grits.
Chefs can also source wild game from meat purveyors who are buying product from overseas. Newark, New Jersey–based D’Artagnan Foods buys everything from red deer that roam wild in New Zealand to squabs, wild wood pigeons hunted during open season in Scotland. “Unlike in America, the UK inspects meat post-mortem so we are able to buy truly wild game,” says Ariane Daguin, CEO.
Jason Nauert, a butcher and director/instructor at the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat, suggests keeping the meat clean and cool upon receiving it. “Whether you are handling wild game in the field or venison in a processing facility, the principles are the same,” he says. “Proper storage is the key factor. Game meats should be cooled and held at 48 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
“I love the flavor of game meats,” Nauert adds. “People use the term gamey, but I think the flavor of game meat reflects where the animal grazed. It can be sagey or it can be mild. The flavor varies dramatically based on the terroir.”
In culinary terms, venison can be meat from deer, elk, moose, caribou, antelope, and pronghorn, but the species must be identified on the package label, according to the USDA.
D’Artagnan sources red deer meat from New Zealand, known for its expansive ranches. “American venison can have a funkier taste because in the middle of winter there is a lot of snow and the deer tend to eat bark on trees,” Daguin says.
Tanya Baker, executive chef at The Boarding House in Chicago, sources this red deer meat for a venison loin grilled just to medium rare to maintain tenderness. It is served with a rutabaga purée, bacon, and dried currants that are re-hydrated in gin that pulls from the juniper flavors in the venison marinade. D’Artagnan even sent New Zealand ranchers to the restaurant to teach Chef Baker’s staff how to properly cook the leaner, rich-tasting meat.
At Bernards Inn in Bernardsville, New Jersey, Executive Chef Corey Heyer sources venison saddle, the muscle that runs down the spine on top of the rib cage. He uses the top half for a rack and the bottom for a loin cut to maximize the buy.
“We once made a venison chop using the rack served with braised Swiss chard and beet tops, roasted baby beets and carrots, a housemade boysenberry jam for a little sweetness to balance the game taste, and a coffee stout sauce for extra earthiness,” Heyer says. “We pan-roast the chop in olive oil and baste it with butter along with fresh garlic, rosemary, thyme, and sage. I grew up hunting and fishing so I think it’s important to cook with the seasons, and autumn is hunting season.”
Chef Bruce Lefebvre of The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick, New Jersey, also uses the saddle, tenderizing the loin in a 50 percent red wine marinade with olive oil, rosemary, bay leaf, and garlic for 48 hours to “almost cure it.” He pan-sears or roasts the meat on a less-hot section of the grill, then serves it sliced against the grain with sweet-and-sour red cabbage, roasted sunchokes, and a chestnut purée.
Wild boars, along with feral hogs, are found in 23 states and are estimated to number over 2 million, according to the USDA. Like domestic swine, these animals are not native to North America, but were brought from other continents, domesticated, and released into the wild.
“There is a Farm Bureau of Texas that encourages farmers to hunt wild boar because they have become a nuisance.” Daguin says. “The USDA has even provided cages to hunters so the animals can live in the woods and be caught wild.”
At South Philly Tap Room in Philadelphia, Chef Scott Schroeder sources Texas wild boar—which can weigh as much as 80 to 120 pounds—for tacos with tomatillo and avocado salsa, queso cotija, red onion, cilantro, and a drizzle of toasted arbol chile oil.
“We buy a 5-pound to 7-pound shoulder and rub it with salt, sugar, cumin, cinnamon, chipotle powder, and ancho chili powder, and let it marinate for 24 hours,” he says. “We char it on the grill and then braise the meat with bay leaf, onion, tomato, and a light lager like Negro Modelo until tender.”
The meat is pulled and heated up with a little lard and some of the braising juice before service. He can charge more for the meat, which is almost double the price of traditional pork, but offers more excitement for his diners.
Rabbits sold for consumption in the U.S. are not the North America cottontails, but usually crosses between New Zealand and Belgian varieties, Chinese rabbits, or Scottish hares, according to the USDA.
“Hare is one of the strongest-tasting game meats,” says Chef Julian Marucci of Cinghiale in Baltimore, who buys the meat from a D’Artagnan source from Scotland. “It’s basically a red meat rabbit. We braise it down with some mirepoix, aromatics, and its own blood, then shred the meat to make a ragout, and serve it with butternut squash risotto for a little sweetness to balance out the earthy, gamey taste. The meat looks identical to rabbit but dark in color like venison.”
In terms of fowl, grouse, guineafowl, partridge, squab, quail, pheasant, wild ducks, and wild geese are typically raised on farms in the U.S. In the highlands of Scotland, hunters are allowed to hunt and sell the meat for commercial processing.
Chef Marucci buys Scottish squab, which he says has more minerality and gaminess in taste because it has feasted on bugs and worms in the wild. “The meat and blood are very dark, and there are sometimes little shots in it so you have to follow the track marks and really inspect the product once you start breaking it down,” says Marucci, who pairs the roasted squab with earthy wild trumpet mushrooms. He even notifies his customers of the risk of landing on a pellet. “People love eating the wild game birds—they think it’s more exciting.”