and then we ate Beaver

photo (50)Despite spending a good bit of time hunting deer, turkeys, waterfowl and small game in the beaver rich habitat of West Tennessee, I seldom get the opportunity to kill a beaver. Granted, I have never gone specifically hunting for beaver, but you would think the opportunity would present itself frequently given the sheer amount of beaver sign in these swamps. Unfortunately, beavers tend to be very nocturnal and I do not have any experience with trapping nor the motivation to run and check traps. So, when my friend Andrew texted me that he was staring down a beaver on a fruitless, late season deer hunt, I responded immediately that he should shoot, skin and hand over the prized meat. If there is enough beaver to go around, edicate dictates that you share, right?

2014-04-06 13.32.08There is very little info available about cooking beaver. Sure, you have some trapper forums where there is a little chatter about Dale’s seasoning + bacon, but that’s not my style of cooking. I want unapologetic wild game with whole ingredients.  After reading Steve Rinella’s excellent book Meateater, I knew without a doubt that we had to attempt roasting the beaver tail to get to the fat inside. This was a delicacy among early American trappers. For the legs, we decided that we couldn’t go wrong with a stew seasoned with simple ingredients. Via group text message, plans came together  for the Beaver dinner with no opportunity missed to make beaver jokes. (Feel free to make yours in the comment section. Attempting any serious conversation about eating beaver without making jokes is an impossibility in any social circle).

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Using the basic steps of braising venison, the legs were first browned in a skillet then added to a Dutch Oven along with 1 quart of Venison stock, onion, carrots, garlic, rosemary, oregano, thyme, salt, pepper, brown sugar, a dash of red pepper flakes and a Irish Stout beer.  I put the pot in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 4 hours. Sweet potatoes were added during the final 75 minutes of braising and seasoning was adjusted slightly.

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While the stew was finishing up, we began roasting the tail. I had only a basic idea of what we were attempting to do here, though I wasn’t quite sure if the flesh would completely burn away or if it would just separate from the fat. We spent about an hour hovered over a dual burner camp stove (rather than risk a hot mess on a indoor burner), constantly moving the tail around to get the flame equally distributed.

2014-04-07 19.47.25-2Eventually, the flesh began to bubble up and separate from the fat inside. With a little precision knife work, I was able to cleanly remove the the burnt crust, revealing a beautiful layer of fat that I cut into thin slices. The fat is best described as translucent with a slight, white fish smell similar to cod. It is very different from most anything I have ever eaten and quite enjoyable. Even though we were eating pure, rendered fat, the texture and experience was more akin to eating fish.

2014-04-07 20.01.18-2The stew came out excellent as well and was a big hit with our room full of uninitiated beaver diners. Rich, savory and naturally spicy; an ultra complex roast beef. After thinking about it for a day or so, I have concluded that Beaver may very well be the best tasting game meat running around in the woods of the Southeast and I now have many ideas: Beaver Machaca, Beaver Carnitas, Beaver Confit…. 

Compared to game meat, conventional beef tends to be bland and one dimensional. Beaver, however, has the fattiness of beef with the exceptional richness, earth tones and complex flavors found in game meats. When you compare game meats to domestic meats, Beaver is the best of both worlds with the benefits of both, the shortcomings of neither. I may very well spend more time hunting these bark eaters in the immediate future. 

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Venison Boudin

Originally posted on From Belly to Bacon:

Every now and again I get venison from my father. He is generous with the venison he hunts with his cousins and while the hunting aspects have never taken with me, I have become comfortable cooking venison. As I have grown more comfortable preparing venison in different ways, I have tried to repay his generosity with giving some of the venison back, in the form of sausage, ham, etc. After cleaning out his freezer, he found nearly eight pounds of venison scrap and asked if I could do something new with it that he might like.

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Blood Sausage

2014-03-16 15.42.50Blood sausage has been on our bucket list for some time, however, we were under the impression that it was very difficult to locate a commercial source of blood. The option of using deer blood has been tossed around the table a few times and always sounded like a reasonable undertaking while talking hunting at the neighborhood pub, but the beer bravado inspired idea is more problematic to execute in the field. Furthermore, I am not a fan of head shots on deer. Alas, the idea of making blood sausage has always seemed so close yet so far away from being realized until recently, when we discovered that there was a source of fresh pig’s blood that had been right under our noses this whole time. One of our local Asian markets in Memphis, from which we frequently shop, sells pig’s blood in a tucked away corner of the meat department. A convenient discovery with just enough time before St Patrick’s Day!

We followed Dave Bowers’ recipe for Black Pudding, which is actually a recipe to make “Blood Cake”, though we concludes that it would stuff into a sausage casing easily enough. The ingredient list is very simple and Old World:

  • 4 cups fresh pig’s blood
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 cups steel-cut (pinhead) oatmeal
  • 2 cups finely diced pork fat (or beef suet), finely chopped
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice

2014-03-16 16.21.48We also added a bit of Nutmeg and Cinnamon. The process itself was remarkably simple, though quite messy. The finished product was excellent and a big hit during our St. Patrick’s Day dinner that featured corned venison and hash. Oddly enough, the taste is something akin and very familiar to traditional, American Thanksgiving food: A warm, “turkey and gravy” flavor, if you will.

 

2014-03-16 18.13.19One a side note, I found the leftovers to make excellent Pre-Workout breakfast fare (currently in a rigorous training schedule for a backpack style, Elk hunting trip to Colorado this Fall). Blood sausage/blood cake/black pudding has everything you need to get going in the morning. Though, steel cut oats are not considered “Paleo”, many people who adhere to the Paleo diet, especially athletes, use steel cut oats (and sweet potatoes) as a source of energy.

So, if you can get your hands on some fresh pig’s blood (we highly suggest scouring the Asian markets), don’t be intimidated to give this one a try. Even if you lack sausage stuffing experience or even charcuterie/sausage making experience in general, the blood cake is a very simple undertaking so long as you are willing to deal with the cleanup :)

 

St Patrick’s Day Preparations

Per tradition, we are prepping our Venison for St Patty’s Day. Last year’s celebration was a bit larger scale (we corned nearly 20 pounds of meat). With the Holiday falling on a Monday this year, we went a bit smaller, only brining two large cuts of venison: A shank and a bottom round and sirloin top  attached to the bone.

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The brine recipe is pretty simple:

1 Gallon of water
2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 ounce pink salt
3 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons pickling spice (Peppercorns, Coriander Seeds, Mustard Seeds, Allspice berries, juniper berries, mace, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves)

 

In order to have sufficient brine to cover the meat, we did this recipe x4. We seldom measure the pickling spice for brines such as this one. We usually portion the brine and then start adding the pickling ingredients until it looks right.

The meat is brined for 6 to 10 days. You may need to use a weight of some sort (a plate will work) to keep the meat from floating.

Venison Machaca

2014-01-19 20.03.01We were first exposed Machaca as a breakfast dish served with eggs in Sayulita, Mexico. Upon the first taste, we instantly agreed that venison shanks needed a date with the Machaca cooking method. The end result? Deep, rich flavor and excellent whether served on a plate by itself, on tortillas or with eggs

For Machaca:

2 deer shanks, cut in pieces to fit pot if necessary (other stew meat such as neck or shoulder can be substituted).
4 pieces of bacon
1 can El Pato tomato sauce
8 small tomatoes, or 4 large halved or quartered
7 garlic cloves minced
1 cup water
½ white onion
4 cups chicken stock
2 dried ghost chilis, or other dried chilis
¼ cup ancho chili powder
¼ cup dried oregano
¼ cup worchestershire
¼ cup soy sauce
limes

For Tacos:

red and green salsas
warm corn tortillas
chopped white onion
chopped cilantro
limes

2014-01-19 16.05.36Dice bacon and saute on medium heat in a large heavy pot with a lid for five minutes.  Leaving the fat in the pan, remove the bacon and add seasoned deer shanks one at a time to the pot until all sides are browned, setting aside when each is browned. After the meat is browned add chopped onion and garlic to the pan and sautee for 5 minutes. Add the reserved bacon and all other ingredients to the pot. Finally, add the deer shanks to the pot making sure that most of the meat is covered by liquid. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover with the lid and reduce heat to low.

 
After 3-4 hours later, the meat can easily be removed from the bone to another dish to be squeezed with limes and shredded for tacos. Use the hot liquid from the pot to warm the meat as needed.

Prepared machaca can be served any number of ways from tightly rolled flautas, to tacos, to burritos, or on a plate with eggs, onions and with peppers (chiles verdes or chiles poblanos). Machaca is almost always served with flour tortillas. A very popular breakfast or brunch dish is machaca with eggs.

Venison Dry Aging Experiments

2013-11-24 18.42.55Using my secondary refrigerator that I cure meats in, I experimented with dry aging venison quite a bit this Winter. I’m running this refrigerator at 40 degrees with 60-70% humidity, a bowl of salt water and a clip on fan (facing the wall for indirect air flow).

My setup is not totally optimal, in fact, far from it, but I did get excellent results, nonetheless. Because this refrigerator is not a full conversion chamber, I do not have it set up for hanging more than one or 2 primal cuts of deer, certainly not an entire deer. To get around this, I use several wire cooling racks to separate the cuts of meat and rotate and flip them as needed to ensure airflow reaches all of the meat exteriors. Basically, my experiments with dry aging were to see how effective it could be using no speciality equipment beyond a dedicated refrigerator, a $12 fan and some wire racks.

20131203_210546After 3-4 days, the silverskin will have separated a bit from the meat due to shrinkage. This makes silverskin removal, if needed, (the more experience I gain working with venison, the less I find myself needing to remove sliverskin). For example, on a backstrap, after 3-4 days, you can peel the silverskin off with your hands like unwrapping a plastic wrapper. At this point, the meat is very easy to work with as far as butchering. You have had just enough moisture loss that butchering is a very clean operation as there is little excess blood and moisture. Primal cuts dry aged for this duration are an absolute pleasure to butcher.

2014-01-04 15.09.51However, the meat has not reached its potential as far as the aging process developing flavor complexities. For this, its going to take at least 7-10 days, at which point you will begin to notice the earth tones of the meat mellowing out and getting slight pungent overtones (like aged cheese) that will increase as the aging process continues.

The picture above is a Venison leg after 10 days. Notice the darker color and grain separation. The silverskin surface layer peeled off in one easy pull with 0 loss of meat.

Once you pass 10-14 days, you are beginning to enter the “long aging” (at least by amateur standards) process. This should probably not be attempted if you do not know what you are doing and do not have a proper setup.

2014-01-09 15.58.40Venison shoulder at 12 days. At this stage, just another 2 days will make a noticeable difference. The exterior of the meat begins to form a slight crust. Earth tones have mellowed almost entirely, meat has a neutral smell with a slight, but building punginous.

2014-01-12 13.47.35Long aging. Somewhere between day 15 and 20, especially on smaller cuts such as backstrap, you will have a definite outer crust that is surprisingly hard. (the pictured meat is uncooked). You can thump it and it makes a sound. The crust is very dark in color and the entire piece is stiff. A very sharp knife is required for efficient cutting (or the meat will crush). Cooked to medium rare, this piece was excellent -very mellow and subtle with a crunchy surface and tender interior.

With this particular backstrap, I had been cutting and cooking small sections every couple of days. After day 20 or so, the crust was hard enough that it had to be removed before cooking. The problem with having to remove crust on venison is that you are losing precious amounts of meat.

*If I had to put a monetary value on this particular dry aged piece of venison, I’d probably place in in the $40+ range per pound.*

For the sake of comparison, below is a picture of a venison shoulder that has been in ice (and shank sawed prematurely above the joint):
4369573020_f1622be919_zpsf4f3b98b In the above picture, if you need to remove silverskin, you will certainly have a loss of meat. If frozen with the film of surface moisture, the meat will be more prone to frost and freezer burn.

Conclusions: Dry aging is by far the superior way to go. You can simulate the environment enough for 4 day aging using a very large ice chest with a rack installed to keep the meat off the ice and a tiny battery powered fan for air circulation. I would not, however, attempt aging beyond 4-7 days in those circumstances unless you are monitoring the conditions inside the cooler with a thermometer. In the past, I have been suspicious as to whether actual, productive aging can be achieved at home using layman’s tools. After experimenting and getting surprising good results, I have to conclude that it can be done, even done well.

Meat that will be ground should go to the grinder sooner rather than later. Since the grinder will tenderize the meat anyway, the meat will not benefit from the aging process. Also, you will be mixing any surface bacteria in with ground meat so it is safer to not give the bacteria much time to develop.

Primal cuts that will be slow cooked or braised will not really benefit much from the aging process beyond 4-7 days. These meats will go into pots and cook for hours, so tenderization is not really a problem. Intrinsic complex flavors will tend to get lost in the process. Nonetheless, I experimented with slightly longer aging times just to see if there is any difference in comparison to the same cuts aged 4-7 days.

Conventional wisdom is that only cuts of meat that will be cooked for a short time under high heat will benefit from any sort of long aging. For the most part, this will be your backstraps (loins) and tenderloins, but you could cook eye of round this way as well. -a little tougher, but I have done it before. Based on that, only these cuts will truly benefit from long aging. 

* Note: The aging temperature used in these examples was 40 degrees. Many people tend to hold their storage coolers just above freezing at 35F or so. That 5 degrees difference will slow the aging process down considerably. Though the USDA requires temps that low, I find it entirely unnecessary and overkill. My comparative results of the long aged backstrap were visually on par with another backstrap aged nearly 2 weeks longer at 35 degrees (5 degrees colder).

What if the difference between dry aging and wet aging? Read “Dry vs. Wet: A Butcher’s Guide to Meat Aging.

Aging is the process during which microbes and enzymes act upon the meat to help break down the connective tissue, for the sake of making the aforementioned meat object more tender. Whether it happens in a bag or out in the air as a big swinging side of beef, that element of the process is the same (okay, almost the same).

During wet aging, the plastic doesn’t allow the meat to breathe, so it ages in contact with its own blood, which lends it “a more intense sour note and a more bloody/serumy flavor,” according to the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. This sounds a bit negative when you’re talking about the flavor of a steak, but the fact that upwards of 90 percent of the beef taken home by American grocery store shoppers in plastic-wrapped foam trays is wet-aged seems to suggest that it can’t be all bad.

Dry aging, on the other hand, allows the meat to breathe, lose water (which increases its “beefiness” since there is now less water and but the same amount of muscle fiber), and get acted upon by other microbes beside those of the muscle itself. Those other microbes are the long, threadlike mycelia of various airborne fungi that begin to digest the meat, giving an aged loin its distinctive flavor, aroma, and fuzzy exterior. So dry aging wins, right? It’s complicated: while most meat snobs (myself included) prefer dry-aged beef, the American public actually prefers bagged beef according to a number of very expensive meat studies. Certainly you could chalk those results up to Americans preferring what they have become used to and choosing bagged meat over the funkier flavor of dry-aged beef. -Tom Mylan

My personal experience with dry aged vs. wet aged Venison (very different than beef) is that, no question, dry aged is far superior in every way. In fact, I would not even bother wet aging venison primarily because I do not enjoy working with the texture.

2013 Deer Hunting Season Review

Here is a gallery of one hunter’s 2013 (mine…) deer season. I live and hunt in West Tennessee. I also hunted a couple of times in Northwest Mississippi. I hunted less total times and about half the hours of recent years  (work, life, commitments, fuel costs…. the usual), but still managed a productive season with good deer sightings. I missed opening weekend of bow season as I was on a trip and I also missed the final weekend of the season due to the flu. I had two muzzleloader fails (one due to a bad primer, a second due to user error). I also failed to recover a mature buck during archery season. Ups and downs are the way it goes. I hunted 29 days total, spending 141 hours in the field. I observed 101 deer this season, hunting deer on properties in 6 different Tennessee counties and 1 Mississippi county.

I tried my best to document the season with views from different treestands and setups. It might be worth noting that I never hunted from the same tree or ground setup more than one time this season. There are also some trail cam pics of some of the deer on a couple of the properties I hunted. Enjoy. -GoCarnivoreChristian

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