Outside, a cold north wind blows pellets of sleet against your house. Inside, embers glow in the woodstove, spreading warmth to guests sitting around your oak table, swirling red wine in their glasses. Conversation flows. All is girded in primal comfort as diners cut chunks of fork-tender venison and spoon bright cranberry sauce onto big white plates. While this might sound like a scene from a nineteenth-century novel, it’s one that happens in homes all over the Badger state each fall—and can easily be brought into your own home. All you need is some game, a few simple recipes and a table filled with good friends.
Chances are, you know someone who hunts. Or you know someone who knows someone who does. Any hunter worth his or her salt will share when the larder’s full. Keep asking until you find one.
And if you really don’t know any hunters, take heart. A number of south-central Wisconsin vendors carry game meats. Topping the list is MacFarlane Pheasants in Janesville, offering just about anything you’d find in a Wisconsin hunter’s game bag—including pheasants, quail, rabbit and venison—at the click of a mouse or for a short drive. The freezer cases at Woodman’s, Jenifer Street Market and Whole Foods all offer pheasant and quail. A number of vendors at the Dane County Farmers’ Market offer venison, elk and rabbit.
It’s worth mentioning that selling wild game is illegal in Wisconsin and in all other states. Farm-raised meats from the above venues are a good substitute.
The goal in preparing a game dinner is preserving the special taste of wild meat—which resembles grass-fed beef or lamb in venison and free-range chicken in game birds. This makes sense since deer do their share of grazing and game birds, like other free-range birds, eat a variety of plants and insects. Also present in game are flavor notes from what the animal eats—such as nuts, fruit, grains and mushrooms.
First, thaw all frozen game in the refrigerator. Quick-thawing produces off flavors. Second, always build time into your cooking schedule for last-minute prepping of the meat. For game that is hunted, cut away shot-damaged or bloody portions. For venison, trim away fat and tendons. Soaking game birds and rabbits in cold salt water prior to cooking helps tenderize the meat.
When cooking, keep in mind that game is lean and loses flavor if it dries out. To that end, brown game birds (skin on) in butter or bacon drippings and then slow-roast them. Parsley, celery, onions and turnips along with a cup of stock are great add-ins. Venison or elk steaks, as well as duck or goose breast, take well to high-acid marinades. Red wine makes a great base—just throw in some thyme, crushed garlic and olive oil—as do Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and a high-quality Italian or Greek salad dressing. Baste while you cook and shoot for rare or medium-rare.
Since the main dish here will be heavy on flavor, keep side dishes simple. They should complement, not compete. The piquancy of cooked fruit makes a natural pairing with game. Homemade applesauce, whole-berry cranberry sauce or whiskey-braised pears are ideal sides. A mild-tasting starch is a good counterpoint to the fruit and meat. It is also a vehicle for absorbing delicious sauces. Mashed potatoes, potato pancakes, egg noodles, spaetzle and basmati rice are ideal. And warm, crusty bread—sourdough or rye—should be in good supply for every game dinner.
Just as glowing embers in the stove or fireplace help set the mood, so does tasteful sporting memorabilia used as décor. Wooden decoys, mounted fish or game, old fishing lures, bamboo fly rods, antique shotguns and outdoor-themed prints all hit the right rustic tone.
Drink choices should be red wines or brews with some body to them. On the lighter end of the continuum, pheasant, quail and wild turkey do well with a Pinot Noir, Beaujolais or golden ale. Rabbit pairs well with something mid-range like a Merlot. The big flavors of venison and wild duck call for a powerhouse Cabernet or Bordeaux. There’s something festive, medieval even, about having a growler of ale on the table—say a Great Dane Stone of Scone Scotch Ale—to complete the mood.
If room permits for an after-dinner drink, try an aged bourbon, Calvados or brandy. Pass dark chocolate and fresh clementines and linger over stories of the hunt.
2 ringneck pheasants cut into serving pieces
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper for dredging
4 tbsp butter
12 ounces chicken stock
8 ounces mixed dried fruit (such as apricots, prunes and raisins)
4 tbsp honey
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 cinnamon sticks
Dredge pheasant pieces in seasoned flour. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat butter in skillet large enough to hold all pheasant pieces (or brown in batches); brown pheasant pieces in hot butter until crisp on both sides. Remove pheasant to roasting pan; deglaze skillet with chicken stock and pour over pheasant pieces into roasting pan. Add fruit, salt, pepper and cinnamon sticks. Bake covered or foiled for two hours or until pheasant is tender. Uncover for the last 15 minutes and add honey. Serve over basmati rice.
2 lbs venison steaks or medallions cut roughly into 4-ounce sections
1 cup dry red wine
2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 tsp dried thyme
2 cloves crushed garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Trim venison of any skin, tendon or fat. Salt and pepper as you would a beef steak. Whisk together the wine, oil, thyme, garlic and a pinch of salt. Pour over meat and marinate in stoneware or other nonreactive container for at least several hours. Grill or broil to medium-rare. This recipe will also work for elk or antelope steaks.
1 12-ounce package of cranberries
1 cup of water
1 cup of sugar
Orange zest (optional)
Combine cranberries, water, sugar and orange zest in saucepan. Bring to light boil and cook for 15 minutes or until sauce begins to thicken. Chill and serve with any game dish.
John Motoviloff is an avid hunter and game cook. He is the author of the cookbook Wisconsin Wildfoods.