Jake Smith: Game to try something new with game? | GO
It happens every year. You live here. You know. Like an enchanted sailor cradled by a bewitching mermaid, we put on shorts and a t-shirt on this November day at over 65 degrees, the rarest of the few. Maybe, we say, this will be the year it stays that way until May. And all the while, we ignorantly sail toward the craggy rocks of Destiny – another northern Michigan winter.
Okay, I beat that analogy to death, but we fall for it every year. A sunny November day, wow that’s awesome, then an upside down slap of reality in the form of half a foot of snow.
“Hey,” Winter said, “remember me?”
Wild game is filling freezers right now, especially with gun deer season in full swing, and cooking in the winter is all about comfort food. To me, that means one thing: a slow cooker. In fact, I enjoy side snow as long as I’m tucked away in a kitchen filled with the savory wild game goodness emanating from the slow cooker.
And the best part is that it doesn’t have to be complicated. There’s something about ‘wild game’ that we’ve come to understand as ‘gourmet’, which makes it scary to cook for fear of spoiling it. That’s why, when I saw a press release for an upcoming cookbook, I reached out to its author – hunter, fisherman, social media personality and cook Jenn Danella – to choose her mastermind, because the title of his book jumped out at me. : “The wild game cookbook of the week.”
“I love creating family recipes and helping people elevate their wild game dinners,” she told me. Although she had no chef training, she started out like most of us, mixing her passion for hunting and fishing with her love of food and cooking.
“As my mother would tell you, I was obsessed with food as a child. I came home from school and immediately asked, ‘What are we eating?’ Eventually, we started cooking and trying new recipes together, which reignited my love for experimentation in the kitchen.
Browsing through the recipes on Danella’s website – and anticipating more in the book, published just before Christmas – I had a feeling they might be magic bullets for many wild game intimidated sportsmen. Danella has prepared classic meals with easy-to-find ingredients while using our favorite game, all of which can be simply prepared for a weeknight. And for this time of year, I asked him to use the slow cooker.
“I love using slow cookers for wild game because not only does it help tenderize the meat, it also brings out the flavor in the dish.”
Undertaking the butchery process yourself involves more preparation of the meat before assembling the slow cooker pot recipe, especially with the venison, and some advance planning.
“I make sure to let the meat thaw completely in the fridge,” recommends Danella, “and then remove all fat and silver skin from the wild game, with a few exceptions like duck fat.”
I usually sear a cut of meat before placing it in the slow cooker if I want to slice it afterwards, such as pork loin or venison tenderloin; I won’t grab the smaller cuts or the ones I want to knock off.
“Searing the meat before putting it in the slow cooker isn’t a game-changer for me,” Danella said. “Although searing first creates a nice caramelized surface that results in richer flavors, sometimes I’m pressed for time and still get delicious, tender dinners.”
If searing, season generously with your favorite spices, perhaps sauté some onions and mushrooms first to flavor the oil a bit, heat it up, press the meat into the oil on all sides and drop it in the slow cooker – but you’re not done. Lots of flavor stays in the pan.
Add beef or chicken broth to deglaze, scrape the entire bottom of the pan, add a combination of liquids you think will taste good together, and boil to half the starting volume. Swirl a few rounds of butter around, make sure to scrape the pan one last time, then pour everything into the slow cooker. I tend to group lighter liquids with lighter meat (white wine, chicken broth, lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, etc. with pheasants), and darker liquids with darker meat (beef broth, soy sauce, red wine, Worcestershire, bourbon, etc..with venison).
Slow cookers aren’t those magical devices where you can just throw it all away and forget about it.
“I think people don’t always use enough liquid, which dries out the meal. A good rule of thumb is to completely cover everything in the slow cooker.
And in making the ubiquitous game stew that fills the house with those rich aromas, Danella has a simple trick to amp up the veggies.
“I like to add my vegetables later so they don’t get mushy. If you are going to add the vegetables at the same time, be sure to cut them into large slices.
But slow cookers can do so much more than stews. Venison fillets, shredded goose breasts, pheasants and dumplings… it’s time to diversify this winter. One of Danella’s favourites?
“French Slow Cooker Dip!” Sometimes soups and stews get boring in the winter, and this is a great quick meal to change things up. It’s as easy as it gets without missing out on flavor.
What I have enjoyed about Danella’s recipes is her use of simple, readily available ingredients, including the assortment of ‘cream of’ soups, especially for weekday evening meals. While I would rather waste time in the kitchen making things from scratch and messing up every pot and pan in the house, I also agree that music practice, dance practice, quiz, driver training , voice lessons, college meetings and deadlines mean we live in a take-out house.
“In a perfect world, I’d make everything from scratch,” Danella said, but she enjoys using soup mixes and canned custards in recipes. “They can save time and pack in flavor.”
But when do you have time?
“It’s actually quite simple to make your own cream of soup. You start by creating a roux by whisking together the melted butter and flour. Then you slowly whisk the chicken broth [or beef broth] and milk. Then simply season with garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper! It only takes five or six minutes and you can be as creative as you want with the seasonings.
For those of us in northern Michigan, we can add “a freezing, windy, terribly endless winter” between death and taxes to the list of things that are certain. So break out the slow cooker, find a new twist on a favorite gaming recipe, and fill the kitchen with the bounty you’ve worked so hard for this season. It will chase away the cold.