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Rich Landers: For world-class eater, there’s no match for wild fish, game

Wed., Jan. 29, 2014, midnight

Whether you marinate elk kababs with sweetness or the zing of lime or vinegar-based sauces, the key is keeping control of the cooking and delivery. (Rich Landers)
Whether you marinate elk kababs with sweetness or the zing of lime or vinegar-based sauces, the key is keeping control of the cooking and delivery. (Rich Landers)

I may be the first Food section contributor who doesn’t claim to know much about cooking. However, I’m a hunter and a world-class eater who remains married after 33 years even though wild fish and game is our main source of protein.

Moreover, our two daughters, now in their 20s, have never flinched at weekly servings of the original free-range organic red meat I’ve harvested from the region’s mountains.

I’ll hang my chef’s hat on that.

Before waltzing you through a family-favorite wild elk meal, please understand that elk meat is special, even if it’s procured from the relatively rare game ranches. Many hunters consider it the best of the venisons.

In our family’s case, the meat is harvested in a fair-chase hunting season. Only about 10 percent of Washington’s 50,000 or so elk hunters are successful each year.

My October season elk required scouting plus seven days of hunting and more than two miles of muscle-powered packing to get the boned-out meat to camp, followed by more cutting, trimming and eventually wrapping.

After all of that, the meat isn’t just special. It’s sacred.

A good meal of hunter-harvested meat starts in the field. The better the hunter, the better the meat.

After a precise shot on an animal that has not been spooked or run, the meat must be tended promptly and kept cool and clean.

I bow in thanks to every elk or deer I harvest, and I honor the animal by not making it endure the second death of overcooking. Wild game is extremely lean and must be prepared with that in mind.

Slow-cookers are excellent for roasts or stews. Cutting steaks into strips for stir-fries and stroganoff is a winning combination.

But nothing beats kababs for versatility, getting the meat cooked properly, reducing toughness and generating compliments. You can marinate the kababs with sweetness or the zing of lime or vinegar-based sauces to complement the rest of the meal. The key is that you can easily control the cooking and delivery.

Before getting to the recipe, here are a few tips for preparing venison for kababs:

Remove all fat.

Cut the meat across the grain into squares 1 1/2 inches by 3/4 inch thick before marinating. Relatively thin, uniform-size chunks make it easier to cook them quickly and precisely and reduce toughness.

Complement the meal of elk with other food from the wild, such as homebrew or local wine, grandma’s chutney, veggies from your garden, fruits from your trees or some of your family-harvested huckleberries for a dessert to remind everybody this meal is special.

For especially worthy guests, I prepare wild rice hand-harvested from a canoe by a Minnesota friend.

A bit of ceremony and tales of gathering the side-dishes elevate the moment as well as the flavor everyone will experience.

Here’s one marinade and side dish combo – the main course of a meal to feed four – that’s been a hit with our family and guests.

Wild Cajun Elk Kababs

1 1/2 pounds elk backstrap or sirloin steak

1/2 cup spicy tomato garden cocktail juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning blend

1/4 teaspoon ground thyme

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

For skewers:

Sections of red onion and sweet red pepper, as desired

Begin thawing the meat in the refrigerator the day before the meal.

On meal day, cut meat into 1 1/2–inch squares, ¾-inch thick, just before fully thawed. Combine the marinade ingredients, and marinate about 6 hours in plastic freezer bag with air pressed out. Turn meat occasionally in refrigerator.

About 90 minutes before dinner time, begin marinating the onion and pepper wedges in olive oil or Italian salad dressing and begin preparing squash and wild rice as follows.

While the squash and wild rice are cooking, pre-heat the grill and soak the bamboo skewers for 15 minutes before skewering the meat along with onion and sweet pepper sections as desired.

Timing is critical now. Be sure table settings, beverages, garlic toast and any other side dishes are ready before putting the kababs on the grill. About 5 minutes before the squash is done, begin grilling the meat and ushering the guests toward the table.

Get everything else on the table as the meat cooks. The goal is meat with slightly charred edges and still juicy in the middle, no more than medium rare.

Serve immediately. Leave stragglers in the dust to go hunt down their own elk.

Offer a toast to the guests and the prey that gave its nourishment to you this time and not another sort of predator.

Then wolf it down.

Note: I prefer a Traeger smoker grill at 400 to 450 degrees, but mesquite charcoal briquettes in a grill work well, too.

Yield: 4 servings

Baked Acorn Squash

2 acorn squash

4 tablespoons salted butter

4 tablespoons brown sugar

Cut the acorn squash in half lengthwise using a big knife and rubber mallet. Scoop out seeds. Score the squash meat with the knife in a checkerboard pattern. Coat each half with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Place on baking pan skin-side down in about 1/4 inch of water. Bake the four halves for 1 hour at 400 degrees until squash is soft and the top is browning. Spoon the melted butter-sugar over the edges of the squash before adding the wild rice to the squash cavity.

Yield: 4 servings

Apple-Raisin Wild Rice Pilaf

I’m particularly fond of this recipe for the “stuffing” from “The Best of Wild Rice Recipes” by Beatrice Ojakangas.

1 cup raw wild rice, rinsed in hot water

3 cups apple cider

1 1/2 cups water

6 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1/2 cup raisins

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 large, crisp apple: pared, cored and diced

In a large saucepan, combine the wild rice with cider and water. Heat to boiling, stir, cover and simmer 40 to 45 minutes until rice is cooked. Drain. In heavy skillet, melt butter; add the almonds and raisins and cook over medium heat until almonds are toasted, stirring. Add remaining ingredients and sauté two minutes. Stir in the cooked wild rice. Heat to serving temperature.

Then spoon mounds of the pilaf into the hollows of the squash for serving.

Yield: 4 servings

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