Every once in a while I get a note about how ‘complicated’ people make wild game recipes. “I just throw it in the pan, a little salt and pepper,” they say. Okay. We do that a lot, too.
But not every meal.
It’s like Labradors: they’re all the same, and they’re all different. And with wild game meat I’m putting on the table, the part that’s different, that matters most isn’t how you can teach one retriever to open the fridge and ‘retrieve’ you a cold beer, while the other thinks indoor retrieval skills are not in his job description. It’s about flavor. And while antelope and whitetails pretty much taste alike—when cared for properly and Mother Nature doesn’t bring her wrath down on you–not all elk taste alike. And mule deer? Oh, please.
It’s why I included The Rogue’s Gallery in Slice of the Wild. And those are still our favorite pages to re-read in that book. Photos of specific animals, what the weather was like, how we hunted them, how we cared for them and how they tasted.
Let’s talk about the mule deer buck I killed the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2011. He was on a river bottom in a small clearing among the willows and cottonwoods, with a herd of six does. Obviously he was still rutting and, in Montana, the day I shot him was the tail end of the rut. Weeks of not eating right, not sleeping, etc. etc., things that effect meat flavor.
We’ve had rutty mule deer. It’s not pleasant. (Doubly true of rutty caribou.) You would think the reason we’ve have rutty mule deer in our freezer is that John was crazy into trophy hunting them for many years and he has some amazing trophies to show for it, you are wrong.
He wasn’t the one who brought home the one we nicknamed Randy. (If you don’t know about our naming animals destined for the freezer, I’d suggest you catch up: it’s handy in families where more than one person hunts. Even more handy when one of them drags home a Randy boy.)
Most of John’s trophy mule deer bucks were actually pretty tasty, perhaps a bit on the tough side, but marinating fixes that. Brining if it’s even tougher. Ruthlessly trimming all the fat and all the sinew also helps. We even cooked a slightly gamy but well-trimmed venison roast by spiking it heavily with garlic cloves. Traditionally it’s called ‘larding.’ The similar word, barding, refers to wrapping or draping meat with something like bacon, or a sheet of pork fat if you want to avoid the nitrates. With larding, you poke holes in the meat and insert whole garlic cloves, bacon, seasoned butter, about anything you want, but garlic is very effective—to a point.
We did that early on with Randy. The problem was that the longer he slept in the freezer, the worse the ruttiness got. It was the meat, but the sinew was worse. Any sinew we’d missed when butchering had grown more obnoxious in flavor, but worse, had turned slimy. At that point we took all packages labelled Randy (I told you there was a very real reason for naming animals) out of the freezer, trimmed it again, and put him through the grinder. From there, he became a very spicy Chorizo with Attitude, fresh Andouille laden with a good dose of cayenne and a bacon-laced Kitchen Kounter Kielbasa sausage. (No surprise, I invented the Kitchen Kounter Kielbasa just for Randy and his ilk, and he inspired my wild sausage cookbook, Sausage Season. FYI, those recipes are also wonderful for mild tasting wild game meat.)
So we saved Randy. None of him was wasted. But what about that Saturday-after-Thanksgiving muley buck we started talking about 700 words ago?
Despite Randy, I have to admit with the season closing the next day, and no Eileen-deer in the freezer, I didn’t hesitate. I was standing behind a cottonwood when I spotted him and his girlfriends, so I leaned hard against the trunk and dropped him. (About 100 yards, NULA .257 Roberts, the Ugly Stick, FYI.)
Our rut tends to peak about the 18th of November, and the buck had been with receptive does. Had been encircled by the does. I had no doubt in my mind that I’d be making more Kielbasa, and that didn’t hurt my feelings at all.
But he was sweet. Tender, the best tasting of mule deer. The does couldn’t have tasted better. Why? Who knows. The only thing I can think of is that the ranch we were hunting was well run, with lots of feed both for the wild and the domestic animals. It had been a year of normal rain, normal run off, normal cold, normal heat. Nothing extreme. Even that morning in late November, it was cold. But not Arctic.
While a marinade would not have been nearly enough for Randy, the only reason to marinate this new, great tasting buck, would be for our own need for variety. I’d guess that’s why most people marinate—for variety. Because most of us, when given a chance, will kill the bigger antlers, but for the most part we’re hunting for the pleasure of being out in the woods, out with friends, or to fill the freezer. And the meat we prefer in the freezer is the stuff you can throw in the pan with a little salt and pepper….
We have 3 freezers, and eat game meat constantly. Not a brag, just an argument for variety. Marinades like the one that follows provide that.
For 2 pounds venison steaks
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger root
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Mix the marinade ingredients together in a resealable plastic bag, add the meat and let it marinate in the fridge for 24-48 hours. When done, grill as steaks, or on kabobs with chunks of onion and sweet peppers. Medium hot grill, about 5 minutes a side.
Need something different? There are 100 marinades, brines and rubs in Tenderize the Wild. Something for everyone!