Venison Stock: Essence of Deer

So there was a blizzard on today. The roads were impassable, the wind is still howling and while I will have to plow out the laneway and the school bus turnaround, I’m not doing that until the snow stops.  Getting to my place of employment is not an option.

Alberta at its finest.

Alberta at its finest.

So what do you do on a day fit for nothing more than staying inside and sipping warm drinks by the fire?  I make venison stock (technique pictured below).

Go to any fine dining establishment elevate food and you can best that they are using in-house produced stocks to make their soups and sauces – it is these stocks that make fine dining establishments stand out from the chains and diners of the world which primarily use prepackaged stocks and bouillons.  Many wild game recipes call for the addition of beef stock somewhere in the process.  Beef stock is fine if you have no other options however, it seems only natural that you should be using stock derived from the animal you are cooking, otherwise the dish can be confusing in the flavours it presents.  Whereas store-bought beef  stocks and broths are weak and watery and tend to depend heavily on salts to provide the flavor, homemade stocks are rich, thick and bursting with flavour – requiring little additional salt and allowing the cook to season the dish at the end as opposed to continually accounting for the salinity of prepackaged ingredients.

Once you’ve made a stock you can do a number things with it. Simply cutting up some vegetables and meat and adding it to the stock with pasta/rice/barley quickly produces a hearty soup.  Using it in recipes to replace the water and/or store-bought beef stock called for completely changes the flavors in the dish – and always for the better. You could, like me, slowly reduce the stock down until it is almost syrupy in nature and then freeze the stock in little cubes that I keep in the freezer and toss around like little flavour bombs whenever I feel a soup or sauce needs a meaty punch to liven it up.

When I fry up a deer steak and want a quick pan sauce, a cube of the reduced stock, a splash of red wine, a spoonful of apple jelly and some chopped shallots  makes an amazing pan sauce when taken off the heat and finished by swirling in a couple of cubes of ice cold butter.  Should I decide to make a quick soup, ten  or so cubes reconstituted in a large pot of water makes a flavorful broth that only needs vegetables and some added meat or pasta to round it out.  Even if I’m making a recipe that has not called for the addition of broth or stock I will often fire a cube or two of my own stock in to help deepen the flavors.  Heavily reduced stocks are also the basis for many of the classic sauces used in French cooking. Espagnole sauce and demi-glace are both made from a basic reduced stock and are the basis for a whole series of other sauces.

Making stock is not hard but it does take time – especially if you are making large amounts of it from the bones of large animals.  In our house, making stock is essentially a two, sometimes three, day affair.  On the first day we roast the bones and  vegetables, add the water and bring it to a simmer on the stove-top.  The whole pot is then popped into a low oven for 10 to 12 hours to steep like an extremely meaty tea.

You could use veal or beef bones to make a great stock, however, I tend to use whatever is at hand from the pieces of animals I might have.  Duck  and pork stocks end up being the basis for a lot of the Asian dishes I cook, while pheasants and grouse stocks work really well when cooking wild rice or risotto to go with these birds.  The most common and versatile stocks that I produce however, tend to be venison and/or moose/elk stocks simply because one animal can provide many liters of flavorful liquid.

I save the long bones of nearly every big game animal I get. These bones consist of the shank bones along with the femur and humorous bones. So on Saturday as I was butchering the deer pictured below I carefully saved the leg bones.  The young buck had been hanging in the slightly above freezing garage for just over two weeks – about average for hanging time around here when dealing with large game.

Young whitetail buck headed for the meat pole.

Young whitetail buck headed for the meat pole.

The bones were then cracked to expose the marrow inside and then roasted in a hot oven for approximately 45 minutes and turned several times that they were brown all over. Vegetables (carrots, onions and celery are usually the main ones but feel free to do a crisper cleaning and add anything else that may be getting near its best before date — the veg are for flavouring only and are discarded) were added on top and those roasted again for another 20 minutes. The pot was filled with water and brought to a simmer (never boil) and the impurities skimmed off the top as they floated upward.  Once the impurities stopped rising the whole pot was slipped into a 250° oven and left to steep all night.  This morning when I woke to the news that I wouldn’t be going to work due to weather I popped the pot out of the oven,  strained out all the solids and set the remaining liquor onto the deck so that the fat on top could cool and solidify.  Once the fat was removed,  the stock was again strained through cheese cloth to remove any little bits that might be left behind and I was left with a rich and velvety soup base. It now sits on the stove top on low — slowly reducing down through today with me occasionally skimming off any little impurities that rise to the top.

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Long bones cracked to fit the pot and expose the marrow.

After 45 minutes at 425 degrees.  Turn them half-way through to ensure browning.

After 45 minutes at 425 degrees. Turn them half-way through to ensure browning.

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The veg added. I also added crimini mushrooms, ancho chilis, bay leaves and a halved head of garlic. Basically a stock is a great opportunity to clean out the vegetable crisper.

The stock coming to a simmer.  The foam on top is what you want to skim off. Never let it come to a boil. Once the foam stops forming, cover the pot and put it into a 250 degree oven and go to bed. 10-12 hours later you strain it through a fine mesh strainer and then again through a strainer lined with cheese cloth.

The stock coming to a simmer. The foam on top is what you want to skim off. Never let it come to a boil. Once the foam stops forming, cover the pot and put it into a 250 degree oven and go to bed. 10-12 hours later you strain it through a fine mesh strainer and then again through a strainer lined with cheese cloth.

Cool the stock completely and allow the fat layer on top to harden and then remove it.  You should have a relatively clear stock like pictured.  This has all now been moved from the 16 L pot to an 8 L pot.  It will be reduced to 2 L before the process is over.

Cool the stock completely and allow the fat layer on top to harden and then remove it. You should have a relatively clear stock like pictured. This has all now been moved from the 16 L pot to an 8 L pot. It will be reduced to 2 L before the process is over.

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After 3 hours of simmering on low.

After the stock has reduced to about 1/4 its original volume (less than 2L in this case) pour it out into a rectangular pan and allow to cool in the fridge until it gels. Slice into approximately 1 inch squares and then turn out onto a sheet pan and freeze solid. Then bag the cubes and use as required.  Substitute 2 squares for any recipe that requires a bouillon cube.  3 cubes in a liter of water will substitute for store bought broth.
After the stock has reduced to about 1/4 its original volume (less than 2L in this case) pour it out into a rectangular pan and allow to cool in the fridge until it gels. Slice into approximately 1 inch squares and then turn out onto a sheet pan and freeze solid. Then bag the cubes and use as required. Substitute 2 squares for any recipe that requires a bouillon cube. 3 cubes in a liter of water will substitute for store bought broth.

There are many other methods of making a great stock including using a pressure cooker for small batches (another post).  Take the time. Make it from scratch. It is worth it.

 

 

 

Pheasants: The Beginners Game

PheasantcropDespite the title, until I moved to Alberta just over 16 years ago I had never been much of a pheasant hunter.  In fact, until coming to Alberta I had shot exactly one pheasant in my life – a hen released on a game bird preserve that had to be kicked into the air by my buddy because it refused to flush otherwise.  I don’t even recall how I cooked it, though I am quite sure I ate it and liked it enough to want to shoot more.  Sadly, Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) did not have a pheasant season (and still doesn’t) so the only venue available for pheasant hunting was the local pheasant preserve and it cost more than a university student could regularly afford.  Thus most of my hunting efforts on the Island were directed to ruffed grouse, hares and waterfowl (no big game on P.E.I. either).

Despite 35 years of hunting experience, my first wild rooster was shot in Alberta just seven years ago. That hunt was facilitated by some friends from neighboring British Columbia who make an annual pilgrimage to the south-eastern corner of my province to spend a month or so chasing their German Wirehairs as the dogs chase the roosters.  It has become somewhat of an annual event for me and for the past two years I have traveled with my 14 year old son, Aidan, to Taber, Alberta for the Novice Pheasant Hunt where novice and first-time hunters are educated on firearms safety, clay target shooting and pheasant biology.  The young hunters are then given the opportunity to hunt with a mentor and shoot released birds on the training site.  After the novice hunt, we normally pair up with the B.C. crew for another couple of days chasing wild roosters.

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Two young hunters showing off their Novice Hunt success.

The pheasant along with the Hungarian partridge and chukar partridge is one of our few “benign” imported bird species.  While other imported species of birds such as domestic pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows could best be called “invasive” in that they have displaced or negatively competed with native bird species, the pheasant has exploited a niche that was previously unoccupied in North America.  In Alberta, we are at the northern limit of the pheasant’s range and it is only in the that thin strip of Alberta that adjoins the Montana border that reasonably good numbers of wild pheasants can be found.  Thus, many of the pheasants shot in the rest of Alberta are released birds — birds hatched in captivity and raised in large flight pens that allow them to fly but keep them confined until it is time to release them.

The ease of raising pheasants in captivity while still allowing them to retain many of their wild characteristics is one of the prime reasons that pheasants are a great introductory species for new hunters.  Released birds hold tighter and run less than their wild brethren allowing for close shots (sometimes too close) and multiple opportunities for inexperienced hunters.  Wild birds run like rabbits and will often flush wildly out of range.

The most memorable hunt this season took place on a quarter section (160 acres) of land possessed of a long meandering, brush choked irrigation canal bordered on both sides by waist high sagebrush.  We had two groups of three hunters.  My son Aidan was in my group and another 14 year old novice, Haley, with her father, Jim, were in the other group. Each party worked with a German wirehair (to locate and point birds) and a Labrador retriever (to flush and retrieve them) as the canine components of the team.

The author and Labrador on an earlier hunt before "Poacher" was retired from service.

The author and his Labrador on an earlier hunt before “Poacher” was retired from service.

Pheasants would rather run than fly and the thick sagebrush offered plenty of concealment.  Our strategy was to have the wirehair and one hunter work the canal edges while the other two hunters and the Lab would work the sage brush ahead of, and to the side of the wirehair.  This funneled pheasants towards the canal where they would then be forced to flush or run along the edge of the canal.  Periodically and as the terrain dictated, the hunter/Labrador team would cut across a bend in the canal to act as blockers for the wirehair team still hugging close to the bank.  The pheasants, now pushed from two sides and with only one avenue for escape would flush in an explosion of flapping.  Notice I did not say cackling.  Wild roosters rarely cackle when flushing, unlike their pen raised counterparts.

We flushed and shot three roosters and flushed another two hens, yelling “rooster” or “hen” to let everyone in the party know whether it was a legal rooster or verboten hen that was clattering into the sky.  At one point we flushed a pheasant that looked like a hen on the wing.  This “hen” however, betrayed itself — bursting forth with a cacophony of cackles as it flew away — and I brought up my shotgun and dumped the young rooster (hens don’t cackle) neatly into the canal.  Warden, my two-year-old, male, Yellow Lab promptly splashed down for the retrieve (a good thing since we discovered that the young Wirehair refused to swim) and brought back the bedraggled and pinfeathery immature rooster.  Not pretty to look at but tasty and as tender as a wild bird can ever be.

We were now had three birds out of a three man limit of six and continued to work the canal toward the other hunting party.  As we approached an oxbow in the canal both dogs began gyrating with excitement, noses to the ground, tails (or remnants thereof on the part of the wirehair) thrashing.  A large hen got up and I yelled “Hen!” to restrain my son Aidan who was bringing his gun to bear. He stopped to look at me and an instant later the world around us exploded in pheasants as nearly three dozen birds began rocketing off in all directions.  It was every man for himself as we each tried to pick out the roosters from the hens.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Aidan drop his second bird of the day.

It was then that I experienced a first for me.  I missed a pheasant.  Now while I consider myself to be a good wingshot, I do miss other birds regularly enough to keep me humble but to this point in my hunting career I had never missed a pheasant (only having shot at less than forty of them mind you).  Despite all the flapping, sometimes squawking, and visual clutter of wings and tails reaching for the sky that accompanies a pheasant flush, they are not particularly fast flyers on their own (though with a 60 km/hr tailwind they can really move). The reason most people miss a flushing pheasant is that they shoot too soon while the bird is too close and the pattern of the shotgun is too tight.  Good thing too.  If you do happen to hit a bird ten yards from the muzzle of your gun you are apt to create some very unappetizing pheasant confetti.  This however, is part of what makes them a great bird for first time hunters because their relatively large size and slow flight often gives novices the opportunity to bring a gun to bear and fire before the birds are out of range.

In this case, distracted by the chaos, I shot too soon and over the rooster bearing straight away from me.  A moment later I was offered redemption as another burst from the cover near my feet. This time, determined to allow the bird some room, I silently counted “one, two, three” and fired on three.  My second bird of the day folded neatly and disappeared into the thick willows lining the canal.

This is an area in which a dog is essential.  Though colored like clowns, male pheasants can blend into their surroundings amazingly well and dead ones seem to find every little contour and depression in the ground to roll into.  A wounded pheasant that can run is nearly always a lost bird to the dogless hunter.  Even with the dogs, it took a good 10 minutes to find the three roosters we downed at the oxbow – despite all three being dead in the air.

We met up with the other party of three in the quarter’s center to find we had a total of eleven birds – one shy of a 6 man limit. The other party picked up their final bird on  the return trip to the vehicles and we were done hunting an hour after our day started.

Young hunters with the evidence of the day's success.

Young hunters with the evidence of the day’s success.

Flavor-wise pheasant is the most “chickeny” of  gamebirds.  It is a great bird for introducing novices to the joys of eating wild game because it tastes so familiar to what the chicken-eaters of the world are used to yet has a tangy undercurrent that lets you know it is not exactly chicken.  A free-range organic chicken would be most similar in its flavor profile.

Immediately after the bird is in the hand should be the time that the hunter/cook decides how and when the bird will be dressed and prepared.  Young pheasants will exhibit both shorter tails and spurs than older birds  and be more tender but they may also have more pinfeathers making them more difficult to pluck than a mature specimen.  My rule of thumb generally is to examine the bird for shot and dog damage.  Birds that exhibit excessive amounts of either are skinned, gutted and disjointed that day for use in stews, stir-fries and braises. The rest are hung and plucked.

I often hang pheasants and other gamebirds that are lightly hit and in good condition (wings and legs mostly intact and unbroken – no shot holes around the intestinal cavity) in a cool breezy place (0⁰- 4⁰ C) for up to a week.  Hung fully feathered and ungutted, the process is much like dry aging beef in that it allows the flavors to concentrate and the tissues to relax, improving tenderness, especially in older birds.

Hanging pheasants in the late fall sometimes only requires some convenient nails under the eaves.

Hanging pheasants in the late fall sometimes only requires some convenient nails under the eaves.

Once dry plucked and gutted the birds are washed thoroughly and are ready for cooking and/or packaging.

Pheasant ready for cooking.

Pheasant ready for cooking.

I usually cut down either side of the backbone when cleaning birds. It makes them easier to gut and subsequently stuff and leaves me with some tough yet meaty backbones to make pheasant stock from (the most recent batch produced a serendipitous mistake that I will highlight in another post).

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Pheasant necks with backs attached ready for the stock pot.

Any recipe suitable for chicken will work with pheasant though be warned that pheasant does dry out more quickly than chicken and as such cooking times normally can be reduced by as much as a third. Pheasants can be purchased frozen in many grocery stores and are quite costly when compared to chicken yet are unique enough to justify the occasional splurge for that special meal.  At about two pounds dressed, one pheasant will feed two people when served with accompaniments and side dishes.

In the coming weeks and months I will be highlighting some of the recipes and meals made from pheasants and other game.  Some will be extremely simplistic — almost caveman-like in their ruggedness — while others involve the use of long preparation times and multiple techniques. Where appropriate, domestic meat alternatives will be given.  Some game has no domestic equivalent so I won’t even bother trying but will instead encourage readers to source their own — either through friends who hunt or through their own hunting.