You shot it. Now what? How to cook quail, venison and other Maryland game
By Kit Waskom Pollard
For The Baltimore Sun|
Dec 19, 2017 at 11:20 AM
Ben Lefenfeld, owner and chef at La Cuchara, talks about preparing a quail dish on a wood grill. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun video)
When Carol Cherington wants to make dinner, she doesn’t have to run to the store to buy meat. She just heads to her freezer.
The Federal Hill resident is an avid hunter and an enthusiastic home chef who writes about her experiences on the blog “Hunt Cook Repeat.”
“A lot of people don’t associate wild game with local food, but it really is,” Cherington said. “Here in Maryland, we have all kinds of hunting. You can hunt deer, and you have the Chesapeake Flyway, which is plentiful with geese and ducks and migrating birds.”
Like many food lovers, Cherington is a proponent of cooking with hyper-local ingredients, including meats from animals native to the Baltimore area. Whitetail and sika deer, turkey, goose, quail, pheasant, duck and rabbit are among the game that can be legally hunted nearby, typically in the fall and winter, offering more choices to home cooks and inspiring preparations at local restaurants.
Cherington, who hunts birds as well as larger game, brings home everything she harvests to prepare in her kitchen, making dishes like corned goose breast and quail in a spicy Hungarian butter sauce.
“We made a promise to ourselves that we won’t hunt things we don’t eat. Everything we hunt goes on our table,” she said.
Non-hunters, meanwhile, can sample game dishes in a handful of local restaurants or track down game meats to cook at home, though it’s not as simple as going to the grocery store. It is not legal to sell wild game in Maryland, and deer farming is not allowed.
Brian Eyler, deer project leader for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, explained the rationale behind wild game sales restrictions: “When you put a dollar amount on something, it’s very easy with wildlife to overexploit,” he said. “If you look in the past, deer were almost extinct in Maryland from overexploitation and habitat destroying.”
The ban on farming is rooted in concerns about disease risk, Eyler said. “When you commercialize deer and deer farming, people are buying and selling and moving them around, and it’s a good way to introduce disease into new areas.”
Deer farming is legal in other parts of the country, though, including in Pennsylvania. Other types of game, such as duck and quail, are also farmed.
Andrew Weinzirl, head chef at The Brewer’s Art in Midtown-Belvedere, sources his meats from New Jersey-based D’Artagnan Foods and Texas-based Broken Arrow Ranch, both of which sell directly to consumers online. The chef experiments with game on a regular basis, including elk, venison and rabbit.
Some farm-raised game meats, like quail and duck, are sold in area stores such as Harris Teeter and Wegmans. And non-hunters can also buy some game meats from a handful of local farms, including JB Farms in Taneytown.
JB sells live animals, including ducks, rabbits and turkeys, and operates as a processor, so you can purchase an animal and have it processed by the farm at no additional cost.
“You know where your animals are coming from, and there are no additives. We’re not using any hormones,” said owner Joe Blankenship.
In addition to being hormone- and additive-free, game meats can be leaner and offer other health benefits, compared to livestock and poultry. A 2002 study at the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture found that game meats are slightly lower in fat and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef.
“If you’re hunting true wild game that hasn’t been feeding on a farm, they’ve never had an unnatural food source,” Cherington said. “They’re the original free-range organic meats.”
But cooking these meats properly requires some special care and knowledge, starting with an understanding of the animal. Different meats are at their prime at different ages: while birds can be aged, venison is best a couple weeks after processing.
“Find out how long it’s been since it was processed and when it was killed,” Wit & Wisdom Executive Chef Zack Mills recommended. “The sweet spot is around 14 days for venison, to let the enzymes start to break down, so the proteins are not quite so tough.”
Basic knowledge of anatomy is also useful, says Bryan Voltaggio, the former “Top Chef” competitor and owner of restaurants including downtown’s Aggio.
“Rabbit and venison, they run and jump, so their leg muscles are tougher cuts. Use them for stews or ground,” said Voltaggio, who is also a hunter. “The loin cuts are tender, so you can grill them as steaks or roast. With duck, it’s the same thing: they swim with their legs, so they’re not as tender, so I use in them braises and stews and use the breasts to roast.”
Voltaggio said he works hard to use the whole animal, including cuts that are not often discussed, like the neck of the venison, which he braises, spicing it with za’atar or curry and serving it with pita bread and lettuce for wraps.
“You can make so many different meals out of the animal,” he said.
No matter the cut or the animal, game meat will be lean, which is an important consideration for cooks.
“The trick with any waterfowl or wild game is don’t overcook it,” warned Nick Michael, a hunting guide with Black Duck Outfitters who leads waterfowl hunts in northern Baltimore County, Harford County and on the Eastern Shore. “It will taste horrible and gamey.”
Mills agreed. “Venison, if you cook it past rare to medium rare, it’s going to be tough and stringy. Same with quail and a lot of game birds,” he said. “The biggest misconception is that you have to cook it through.”
Mills learned a trick that he put into action in the Wit & Wisdom kitchen last year.
“We had a venison dish that went over well. We pretty much treated it like steak, with one difference,” he said. Mills rubbed the venison with duck fat and let it age for a week or two before cooking. “The duck fat adds moisture and fat, and dials down the gaminess a little bit. With a lot of meats, we like to brine or marinate – this is in lieu of that. You can mix the duck fat with any spices you like. This time of year, I like fall baking spices – juniper, cinnamon, clove.”
Warm fall spices are favored bird and venison seasonings for many chefs, who say they complement the meat’s flavors without obliterating its natural gaminess.
“I like to mix gamey meats with big flavors: with venison, I really like cinnamon, cumin, brown sugar and coriander. A lot of people like juniper,” said Chad Wells, the corporate chef for Victoria Restaurant Group, which owns and operates Victoria Gastro Pub, Manor Hill Tavern and soon-to-open Food Plenty in Howard County. He frequently incorporates rabbit, venison and duck into menus.
“Your goal is to keep a little gaminess in there and not kill that flavor – otherwise, you might as well be eating beef,” he said.
Ben Lefenfeld, chef and co-owner of La Cuchara in Woodberry, said cooking with game is “really about concentration of flavor. One thing to be careful about is that it can get extremely concentrated. We work with Scottish wood grouse in the restaurant sometimes, which can be extremely gamey. In some cases, you need to figure out ways to tone that down a bit.”
Lefenfeld tempers the gaminess of the wood grouse by mixing it with local pork to create a pate. “It will tone down the gaminess so people can enjoy it and appreciate the nuances of it,” he said.
Regardless of animal, cut or preparation, home cooks shouldn’t be scared to cook with game, chefs said.
“Don’t overthink it,” Mills said. “The meat of wild game is so tasty and is its own thing and so natural.”
In her Federal Hill kitchen, Carol Cherington has a refrigerator outfitted with a special brining drawer that she uses to soak game meats in a salty, savory liquid for eight to 12 days before cooking.
This recipe works for approximately 8 pounds of meat and can be used for any type of red-meat game.
1 gallon water
2 ½ cups kosher salt
2 cups brown sugar
¼ cup pickling spices
2 small onions, quartered and spiked with 2 whole cloves in each quarter
1 small head garlic, smashed
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
6 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1 whole goose (approximately 8 pounds), cleaned
Mix all ingredients, except for the goose, in a large, non-corrosive saucepan. Set over high heat and, while stirring, bring to a boil to dissolve the sugars and salt and to release the aromatics.
After bringing the mixture to a boil, remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Once it has reached room temperature, place the brine in the refrigerator and cool to 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pour the brine into a large, non-corrosive crock pot, pan or drawer, and submerge the goose, placing a non-corrosive bowl, pan or block on top to keep it deep in the brine. Refrigerate for 8-12 days, stirring occasionally.
When you are ready to cook, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the goose from the brine and place it in a cast-iron Dutch oven and cover with water. Cover the pot and place it in the oven, then cook for about four hours, until the meat is tender.
Alternatively, the bird could be cooked on the stovetop, simmering for 2½ to 3 hours, or in a pressure cooker for about 80 minutes.
Slice the roast across the grain and serve it hot or cold.
When cooking with rabbit, Chef Andrew Weinzirl of The Brewer’s Art likes to let the natural flavors of the meat shine through. “I know a lot of people like to add bacon, paprika, soy sauce or Worcestershire to their stroganoff. Although those things would work well, we try not to add anything else that would detract from the rabbit’s awesome glory. It’s very subtle and can be easily overpowered,” he said.
Weinzirl said cooks could potentially use any part of the rabbit (“If you have a whole rabbit, why not, right?”). At the restaurant, however, he typically uses just the hind legs because they don’t dry out as easily as the loins and front legs.
Yields 4-6 servings
For the braised and pulled rabbit legs:
4-6 rabbit legs
Canola oil for browning
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 celery ribs, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
2 thyme sprigs
2 star anise
1 bay leaf
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup apple cider, dry hard cider or good mead
Salt and pepper
About 20 minutes before you start cooking, lightly salt and pepper your rabbit legs.
Cover the bottom of a Dutch oven with a thin layer of canola oil and set over medium heat. When the oil is heated, lightly brown the rabbit legs on all sides.
Remove the legs and add the onion, celery and carrot to the pot and cook until they darken, about 10-15 minutes.
Add the herbs and spices, cider, chicken stock and brown rabbit legs back to the pot.
Bring the contents of the pot to a gentle simmer, then turn the heat down to low and cover. Leave the legs to gently braise for one to two hours (the length of time will depend on the size and type of bunny). When the meat has just started pulling away from the bone, but before it is completely soft and falling apart, remove from the heat. Since you will be reheating the meat, err on the side of firm.
When the meat is tender, strain the legs using a colander, reserving the cooking liquid. That liquid, the rabbit stock, should taste a little sweet, but also savory and a little fatty.
While the meat is still warm, pull it from the bones and set it aside. Discard the cooked veggies, herbs and spices.
For the stroganoff:
1 pound of the best mushrooms you can find (Weinzirl uses wild mushrooms like small chanterelles or black trumpets, but maitake or oyster mushrooms would be a good substitute)
2 tablespoons butter, divided
12 pearl onions (or 1 cup thinly sliced shallots)
1 teaspoon garlic, sliced very thin
Reserved rabbit meat
2 cups reserved rabbit stock
1 pound egg noodles
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
In a large pan over high heat, melt one tablespoon of butter, then sear the mushrooms until they are dark brown and all their liquid has released.
As mushrooms cook, place a large pot of water over high heat to bring to a boil and cook egg noodles according to package directions.
Add the second tablespoon of butter and pearl onions (or shallots) and cook for about 5 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute, until the garlic is fragrant.
Add the reserved rabbit meat and stock to the pan and cook down until the liquid is reduced by about half. Taste the mixture and, if necessary, add salt and pepper. Turn the heat to low.
While the pasta is cooking, combine the sour cream, heavy cream, lemon zest and juice in a bowl, mixing until thoroughly combined.
When cooked, add the pasta, plus about 3 tablespoons of pasta water to the rabbit ragu. Cook everything together until the ragu is velvety and coats the noodles.
Mix in the sour cream mixture to finish the dish and serve, topping each plate with a small amount of chopped parsley.
Wood-grilled Wild Quail Cooked with Sherry, Cream and Chanterelle Mushrooms
When cooking quail, Chef Ben Lefenfeld says the ideal situation is to “move the fire, not the bird.” At La Cuchara, he can adjust the grates on his grill to do this. At home, he suggests cooking the quail on a stick, creating a makeshift, handheld spit to roast without risking the hard char that would come from flare ups.
Yields 1 serving
1 whole quail, plucked
1 clove garlic, sliced in half, plus one clove, chopped
Enough olive oil or melted duck fat to coat the quail
2 shallots, finely diced
1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon butter
1 splash sherry
1 tablespoon cream
8 ounces chanterelle mushrooms
Salt and pepper
Remove the interior of the bird, reserving the liver and heart, chopping them finely for later use. Wash the interior and exterior of the quail well with cold water. Pat dry. Season the bird with salt and pepper, then rub the interior cut side of the sliced garlic clove all over the quail. The coarse salt will aid in releasing oils from the garlic.
Start a fire with oak. Build the fire up, let it burn for an hour, then knock it down to an even pile and spread the ash field.
Lightly brush the quail with olive oil or melted duck fat. Ensure that your grill grate is hot. Lay the bird on the grill. Leave the quail in that spot until the grill grate has regained its heat. The quail should only be moved if the fire begins to flare up. The skin on wild quail is very thin, so take care not to rip it when moving. Rather, gently render the fat. Take care to expose all sides of the bird to even heat, while not moving it too much.
When the quail is done, the skin will be taught and bronzed. It should be served medium rare to medium.
Remove the quail from the heat and let it rest in a small wire rack over a saute pan, letting the drippings collect in the pan.
Once the quail has rested, heat one teaspoon butter in a pan over medium heat and add shallots. Cook until soft, then add the chopped quail liver and heart. Add a splash of sherry, cook for one minute, then add the drippings from the quail and the cream.
In a separate pan over high heat, heat the rest of the butter until foamy. Add the chanterelles and saute until they have released and quickly reabsorbed their liquid and begun to sear. Season with salt, pepper and chopped garlic.
Serve the quail with the mushrooms and sherry cream. It pairs well with a nice bottle of white Burgundy.
Venison, Creamsicle Potatoes, Cranberry Granola and Coffee
Chef Bryan Voltaggio often includes venison on the menu at his Frederick restaurant, Volt. This recipe, which was originally printed in “VOLT ink,”a cookbook he penned with his brother Michael Voltaggio, was inspired by his own hunting experiences.
“It’s a fun thing because coffee and granola are what I grab when I’m hunting because they’re the quickest things I can get on the way out. Because as a chef, I’m always running late for my hunt,” he says.
Reprinted with permission from “VOLT ink.” by Bryan and Michael Voltaggio.
Yields 6 servings
For the main dish:
3 pounds venison strip loin
2 ¼ teaspoons fine sea salt, divided
1 ½ teaspoons black peppercorns
4 juniper berries
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 garlic cloves, smashed
4 fresh thyme sprigs and leaves from 2 additional sprigs
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
Cranberry granola (see below)
¼ cup grape seed oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Venison sauce (see below)
Coffee oil (see below)
Creamsicle potato puree (see below)
Coffee “soil” (see below
Thermal immersion circulator
Vacuum sealer and vacuum bags
Deep fryer (optional)
6-quart pressure cooker
Preheat the circulating water bath to 137 degrees Fahrenheit.
Trim the silver skin and any sinew or gristle from the loin. In a mortar, combine 1½ teaspoons of the salt, the peppercorns, juniper berries and orange zest and grind with a pestle into an aromatic rub. Season the venison evenly with the mixture, rubbing it onto the meat.
Put the seasoned venison, garlic, 1 sprig of the time and the olive oil in a vacuum bag and vacuum seal. Cook the venison in the circulating water bath for 55 minutes. Remove the bag from the water, then remove the venison from the bag and pat it dry with paper towels. Discard the contents of the bag.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Put a 2-inch ring mold on a sheet pan, press the cranberry granola into it and lift away the ring. Repeat to make a total of 6 granola rounds. Place in the oven to warm through, about 20 minutes.
Reseason the venison with the remaining ¾ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon of the ground pepper. In a saute pan, heat the grape seed oil over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer but does not smoke. Add the venison and cook, turning once, until well seared on both sides, 3-4 minutes on each side. Add the butter and the remaining 3 thyme sprigs and, using a wide, flat, large metal spoon, baste the venison with the fat and herbs to flavor the meat and encourage browning, 2-3 minutes. Transfer the venison to a rack set over a sheet pan and let rest for 5 minutes. Put the venison sauce in a small saucepan set over medium heat and bring it to a simmer. Brush the venison with the sauce, and then roll in the coffee soil until covered. Slice the venison crosswise into 6 equal medallions.
Place a granola ring on the top third of each serving plate. If desired, turn the ring on its side on the serving plate. Place a medallion of venison just below the granola and spoon the venison sauce over the left side of the meat. Using a demitasse spoon, put a few drops of the coffee oil on the sauce where it runs onto the plate. Place 2 spoonfuls of creamsicle potato puree below the meat, slightly offset from each other. Sprinkle the coffee “soil” and fresh thyme leaves along the right side of the plate. Serve right away.
For the cranberry granola:
¾ sweet potato, about 3 ½ ounces, peeled and thinly shaved on a mandoline
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to season
½ celery root, about 3 ½ ounces, peeled and thinly shaved on a mandoline
½ cup long-grain white rice
½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons liquid glucose (available at chefswarehouse.com)
2 ½ tablespoons honey
½ cup fresh cranberries
Pour the canola oil into a deep fryer to the fill line, or into a tall-sided saucepan to the depth of 2 ½ inches and heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Working in batches, add the sweet potato shavings to the hot oil and fry until crisp and golden brown, about 30 seconds. Using a skimmer, transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and season lightly with salt. Fry, drain and season the celery root shavings the same way. Raise the oil temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, add the rice to the oil and fry until it puffs up, 20-30 seconds. Using the skimmer, transfer the puffed rice to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and season lightly with salt.
Lightly grease a sheet pan with canola oil. In a large bowl, combine the fried sweet potato, celery root and rice; the oats; and the pine nuts. In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the glucose, honey, cranberries, and the 1 teaspoon salt. Cook on high power for 1 minute. Immediately pour the hot honey mixture over the dry ingredients in the bowl and mix until well blended. Spread the granola out on the prepared sheet pan and let cool to room temperature before using. The cooled granola maybe stored in a lock-top bag at room temperature for up to 1 week before using.
For the venison sauce:
3 pounds venison bones
4 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
4 teaspoons soy sauce
11 juniper berries
1 cup dried cranberries
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
¾ ounce coffee beans (Chef Voltaggio uses Volt blend)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Put the venison bones on the prepared pan and roast until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let them cool to room temperature on the sheet pan.
In the pressure cooker, combine the stock, roasted bones, bay leaf, soy sauce, juniper berries and dried cranberries. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, lock the lid in place, bring up to high pressure, and cook for 1 hour. Let the pressure dissipate naturally.
Uncover the pressure cooker and add the orange zest and coffee beans. Replace the lid and let stand for 15 minutes to infuse the flavors. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve placed over a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook until reduced by half, 30-45 minutes. Use immediately, or transfer to a metal bowl set over an ice bath and let cool completely, stirring occasionally and replenishing the ice as needed, for about 20 minutes. The cooled sauce may be stored in a lidded container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
For the coffee oil:
7 tablespoons ground coffee
¾ cup grape seed oil
In a small saucepan, combine the ground coffee and grape seed oil over low heat. Whisking constantly, warm the mixture until it reaches 158 degrees Fahrenheit, then remove the pan from heat, cover and let the mixture steep for 1 hour to develop the flavors. Strain the oil through a coffee filter into a bowl and set aside at room temperature until serving. The coffee oil may be stored in a lidded container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
For the coffee “soil”:
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 2/3 cups almond flour
7 tablespoons ground coffee
Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
3 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a sheet pan with a silicone mat.
In a bowl, combine the butter, almond flour, coffee, vanilla seeds, brown sugar, and salt. Using your hands, mix well until a smooth mixture forms that is reminiscent of streusel. Spread the mixture on the prepared pan. Bake for 8 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees and continue to bake until the crumbs are dry and fragrant, about 8 minutes more. Let cool to room temperature on the sheet pan before using. The “soil” may be stored in a lock-top bag at room temperature for up to 3 days.
For the Creamsicle potato puree:
2 pounds White Creamsicle potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
4 cups heavy cream
Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
In a saucepan, combine the potatoes, cream, vanilla seeds and sat, place over medium-low heat, and bring to a simmer. Cook until completely tender when pierced with a skewer, about 1 hour.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes and a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid to a food processor and process until smooth. Take care not to overprocess. Using a ladle, push the puree through a fine mesh sieve placed over a heatproof container. Keep warm until ready to serve.