A hunter offers his thoughts on the best meals from the outdoors.
It was certainly the best meal I’ve ever eaten while sitting in snow. Maybe one of the best meals I’ve eaten anywhere.
A friend and I had spent a January morning ice fishing, then an afternoon with shotguns slung across our backs, snowshoeing the cedar-lined shore of one of those Boundary Waters lakes that look like claw scratches along the Canadian border.
The day’s result: Zero fish. One snowshoe hare.
Back in camp we balanced a soup kettle on a teetering propane stove, melted some snow and slowly defrosted a frozen block of venison stew. By headlamp, in the late afternoon darkness, we scooped olive oil, turned gelatinous from the cold, into a camp skillet, browned the skinned and butchered hare, then added the thighs, shoulders and saddle to the bubbling, wine-rich stew.
An hour later, squatting outside a glowing tent, we improvised a table from an upside-down enamel pot in the snow, set the kettle of stew on top of it, and ladled out two steaming bowlfuls. Clouds of our own breath drifted through the cones of our headlamps, as we forked up gravy-glazed carrot and onion, and big, dripping cubes of venison shoulder, our forks clanking against the metal bowls with our shivering. We peeled fat shreds of glistening hare from the bones with our brittle fingers, and agreed that there was really nowhere else we’d rather be.
The dish failed every test of Food Styling 101. This was not fine dining.
But it was many other kinds of fine, seated as we were at a stockpot table, under a frozen dome of stars, as guests of that gruffly hospitable country, tasting meat that had been flavored by the willows and cedars rocking in the wind around us, before it had been flavored by garlic, red wine and a mirepoix.
It was a reminder, sometimes obscured by talk of gear, techniques and trophies, that hunting is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And that end is the table — whether a turned-over cooking pot in a snowbank or candlelit white linen.
A reminder, as well, of what wild game can be when cleaned immediately, cooled quickly, butchered with care, and cooked with gratitude — not just lean and healthy, not just full of Omega-3s, not just ecologically sensible, but to many of us, quite simply, the best tasting meat in the world, and the most complete expression of our connection to wild places.
A local world-class gift
During a recent extended stay in rural France, I was able to observe the hunter-cook connection at its most intimate. One day our neighbor, Jean-Luc, came home with a double brace of snipe from an undisclosed local wetland. He spent 15 minutes in the middle of the street, describing every detail of how he would roast them en brochette, as their long necks swung loosely from his hand.
Another day, I found myself leaning against a truck after a morning’s mushroom forage with two hunter-farmers who would, in their way, fit seamlessly into a Stearns County bar. They were parsing the precise preparation of each type of mushroom in their baskets, arguing heatedly over whether lactaire mushrooms grilled over a vine-wood fire were best served with, or without, a persillade of finely chopped parsley and garlic.
That kind of thing doesn’t happen in the Midwest as often as our game deserves.
Well cared for, the game of Minnesota is a world-class gift. Even a brief tour among its species might lead a culinary traveler past such wonders as seared wood duck breast with foie gras, pheasant cacciatore, cottontail hasenpfeffer, squirrel pad Thai, roast wild turkey stuffed with Honeycrisp apples, sautéed woodcock with chanterelles, a daube of whitetail venison or minted grouse breasts with wild mushroom risotto.
I merely mention these things. Of course, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are fine, too.
From field to kitchen
But let’s be clear. “Well cared for” means you can’t heave a gutted four-point buck in the back of your pickup and drive for four hours through the slush of Interstate 35. You can’t walk trails all day with that morning’s grouse in your vest pocket. And you can’t leave a bag full of soggy mallards on the garage floor for very long and somehow expect to work a little Thomas Keller magic when you get to the kitchen.
Here, along those lines, are some very personal and noncomprehensive rules.