A venison feast from the far east
Remy went downwind of where the crippled rooster had flopped into the tall stems of prairie grass and immediately turned and pointed.
"Fetch," I commanded, releasing the German wirehair from his statue-like stillness.
Like a proverbial ostrich on sand, the dog's head disappeared into the thick tangle of grass and snow, and after a short while, returned with the bird.
It was stone dead.
Remy sauntered over to my left side, did an about-face, and proudly displayed our prize just as he'd been trained to do.
"Give," I said, and the 19-month-old dog plopped the bird in my outreached hand. "Good boy."
With that, our three-bird daily limit of North Dakota ring-necked pheasants was filled, and my tuckered buddy and I began the mile-long trek back to the pickup truck and, eventually, home to Fargo.
Although I did make it out once more that weekend, the following day's 30-plus mile-an-hour winds created unbearable conditions. Our three-person and two-dog hunting party barely lasted until noon, and without a single bird to show for it.
So I'll use a Mulligan, and instead consider the previous day's excursion as my final day of the 2011 hunting season.
In retrospect, it was a darn good hunting year overall. Despite the reported and experienced low deer and pheasant numbers, I still wound up with a freezer full of meat.
Delicious wild game: "pure protein," as the infallible Ted Nugent says. "The beast is dead; long live the beast."
Other than only shooting one Canada goose all season (quite an anomalous occurrence as I usually shoot more honkers than anything else), my coffers are brimming with dozens of ducks, pheasants, ruffed grouse and venison from two deer.
It's a thankfully stark contrast to what last year's almost barren freezer looked like. My wife, Erin, and I were forced to compensate for my lack of hunting success by buying meat from the grocery store. Whatever wild-game delicacies we did possess, we hoarded to cook only on special occasions.
After only shooting one deer, too, I was barely able to give any away to my venison-addicted father-in-law.
Such a shame.
But this year was much different, and much, much better. So much so, in fact, that I've managed to gift some meat to several relatives, and still possess enough to hold us over well through the summer and, hopefully, into the fall.
An abundance of meat also affords us the luxury of recipe experimentation.
Sometimes, going out on a limb with wild game can be like trying to pick the Super Bowl champ during preseason warm-ups: your best bet is closing your eyes and enee-menee-minee-moe-ing it.
Pure gut instinct has roused up a few good meals from our quaint kitchen, but we've had far better luck by making educated guesses.
For example, it's no secret that wild game has a tendency to dry out quickly. This means that, when using wild game in a dish for beef or chicken, cook times and methods may need to be tweaked.
On the other hand, I've discovered that once you know how to cook it, wild game can be substituted in just about any recipe as long as the chef notes what type of meat the recipe is asking for.
Simply, dark meats such as venison, elk, moose or pronghorn can be easily substituted in recipes calling for beef or lamb. In some cases, duck and goose make suitable pinch-hitters, but they often have a unique taste that may throw off flavors.
In dishes calling for chicken and their white-fleshed ilk, upland birds like pheasants, grouse, partridge and quail will fit the bill nicely. Quantities likely need to be upped, however, as wild birds typically run much smaller than their farmed counterparts.
Once you've figured out the differences and similarities of wild game to other meat, experimentation can begin.
One such experiment my wife and I recently conducted with great success was of an Asian flair. Erin stumbled across a Mongolian stir fry recipe that called for beef.
"Think it would work with venison?" she asked.
After looking it over, I surmised: "Why not?"
So we gave it a whirl, substituting the called-for 1 pound of flank steak with a 1-pound venison roast, which I sliced into thick pieces and beat thinly to mimic a flank. The result was better than expected, and we've turned this tummy filler into a regular part of our meal rotation.
The recipe doesn't call for much in the way of vegetables, but we've thrown in all the stir fry standbys - broccoli, mushrooms, water chestnuts, onions, carrots, etc. - with great success. Just fry them lightly and steam quick before you begin the rest of the recipe, then remove and set aside to add at the very end.
Serve it all over a bed of rice or noodles.
The Mongolian venison is even better the day after - if there's any left from the first night.
Makes two servings
1 pound venison, cut 1/2-inch to 1 inch wide across the grain, then beat thinly with meat mallet. Cut these pieces into 1/2-inch strips.
Cornstarch (approximately 1/4 cup).
3 teaspoons canola oil.
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger.
1 tablespoon chopped garlic.
1/2 cup water.
1/2 cup soy sauce.
1/2 cup brown sugar.
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes.
3 green onions, sliced crosswise into thirds.
Pat venison dry and dredge in cornstarch, mixing and moving around so all pieces are evenly coated. Place meat in colander and shake off excess starch.
In a deep-welled saucepan or large wok, heat half the oil over medium heat and add garlic and ginger. If the pan is hot, the pieces will begin popping and splattering all over right away. Immediately add soy sauce, water, brown sugar and pepper flakes.
Cook sauce for roughly two minutes, then transfer to a bowl. Sauce will be relatively thin at this point, but should thicken up later when reintroduced with meat.
Add remaining oil to wok and brown venison quickly (1-2 minutes). Cornstarch likely will create a crust on the bottom of the pan, but will come up after a good soak in the sink later. Pour sauce back into wok, as well as any vegetables steamed earlier on. Cook down sauce until it has reached the desired consistency.
Add green onions at the very end.