The problem with most game and fish cookbooks, somewhat paradoxically, is that they are written by guys who hunt and fish.
That is to say, they are written by guys whose primary interest in hunting and fishing is the hunting and fishing part.
Their cookbooks, as a result, tend to be filled with a disheartening collection of half-considered recipes that take more or less successful stabs in one direction — at a kind of down-home, open-fire manliness — and more or less unsuccessful stabs in the other direction, at complicated fine-dining sophistication. All the while, their authors give the impression they would much rather be at the tiller of a 14-foot Lund, or sitting 20 feet up in a tree stand with a .30.06 across their laps.
Jon Wipfli is a former sous chef at the Bachelor Farmer, today a caterer and personal chef, and a teacher of whole-hog butchery classes. He’s cooked, formally and informally, with many of the best chefs in the Twin Cities.
Wipfli is also passionately, if secondarily, a deer hunter and North Woods outdoorsman, and has written a nose-to-tail venison cookbook, “Venison: The Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook” (Voyageur Press, 176 pages, $25), which arrives in bookstores in time for this month’s Minnesota and Wisconsin firearms deer openers.
It’s a beautiful book, for a start, with richly textured photos by Matt Lien.
It’s also a practical book, guiding the reader in a conversational style through the successive steps from field dressing to skinning to butchery.
But the heart of the book is its recipes, and the heart that beats on those pages is that of a chef — someone who is not simply grasping for recipes or merely passing them on, but who has sweated at the stovetop and the prep station, and, in Wipfli’s case, before the furnace of a 96-inch Fatboy smoker-grill, for hours, trying to get a stock, a sausage mix, a shoulder, a brisket or a rack of ribs just right.
The recipes, divided into “Shareables” and “Entrees,” run from approachable to moderately ambitious, but they all have something I would call integrity, something that only comes from experience and learned restraint.
The flavors belong together, in other words. They make up an appealing whole. They are varied but remain knowledgeably grounded in the Great Lakes bioregion.
We are not asked, as northern deer hunters, to experiment with mangoes, or curries, or halloumi, or newly fashionable and far-flung superfoods that are too often used to inject recipes with a kind of dazzle that really only succeeds in making them slightly sad and homeless orphans.
On the other hand, if you’re not at least a little dazzled by the thought of “Venison Neck Split Pea Soup,” or “Blackened Sirloin With Blistered Green Beans and Herb Vinaigrette,” or “Sausage Braise With Sauerkraut” or “Porcini-Encrusted Loin With Mashed Potatoes, Meat Sauce and Winter Pickles,” then you may simply want to pick a different bioregion to eat in.
I’ve tried several dishes from the book, including the sausage braise and, over one unforgettable evening, an entire confit deer leg, slow-simmered in animal fat, and served like something you’d find on the table of a medieval European monarch.
I also have my eye on a recipe I’ve always meant to try, called “Lomo Al Trapo,” which involves encrusting an entire loin in salt, wrapping it in a dishcloth, and placing the whole thing in the embers of a hardwood fire, where the cloth blackens and burns and the loin turns gently medium-rare. The book may be worth its price for that recipe alone.
In the end, venison ethically hunted is one of the most sustainable meats available to us in this part of the world. Knowing how to prepare it for the table, and building a repertoire of kitchen techniques, is as much a part of respecting the animal as target practice, careful shot selection, and responsible field care. No part of the process, from field to plate, should be allowed to ignore the fact that a life has been taken so that we may eat.
Deer opener is this Saturday. What are you going to do with that buck?
Steve Hoffman is a Twin Cities writer and tax preparer, and an occasional French villager. Find him on Instagram at @sjrhoffman.