Who’s Got Game

As hunting season draws near, Nancy Lawson Remler sets her sights on autumn’s succulent flavors.  Photography by Angela Hopper.

Morning hasn’t broken yet and the woods near Sylvania are still, but real estate developer Jim Reed waits, patient and alert, relishing the silence while cloistered in a deer stand.

“There’s no sound,” the lifelong outdoorsman observes.  “And as the daylight comes, you can see it break over the trees.  Then there’s a moment when it’s like somebody flipped a switch and, all of a sudden, the birds and the forest just come alive.”

It’s not just about the six-point buck he hopes to get, although that would be a sure sign of success.  For Reed, the experience of immersing himself in nature is one of hunting’s greatest joys—second only to a freezer full of rich, tasty venison that will sustain his family through the chilly winter months.

For Reed and countless others, wild game is the ultimate in field-to-fork eating.  By hunting, he is living off the land and keeping track of exactly where the food on his plate comes from.  And since Southeast Georgia is abundant with pheasant, quail, turkey, boar and deer, Reed and his comrades-in-arms aren’t the only ones who mark the days until hunting season opens again.  More local chefs are turning toward the locally harvested, nature-fed fowl and beasts to fill out their menus.

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Nick Mueller, caterer and chef-owner of The Laughing Boar restaurant, laments that “the flavor is bred out of (store-bought meats).  They’re engineered to be big and plump and fast growing, but they’re not tasty.”  Or as healthy.  Game such as venison has less fat content than beef or pork, thus fewer calories and cholesterol.

Wild meat comes from animals that feed on a foraged food supply, accruing a more complex, more memorable taste.  Wild hogs, for instance, are “not fed corn,” Mueller explains.

“This one eats roots and shoots, and the other one eats acorns.  They’re going to have a different flavor, even if it’s the same species.”

Game makes for a delicious dish at any meal.  Alligator Soul executive chef Stephen McLain agrees with most hunters and epicures that simplicity with seasoning “allows the natural flavor of the animal to be the star of the dish.”  He loves a good deer steak “soaked in a little bit of buttermilk and dredged in seasoned flour” for breakfast.  “It’s really, really good,” McLain enthuses.

Hunter Jim Reed takes it even easier.  For venison, he says, “salt and pepper’s good stuff.”

Making the Cut

Matthew McClune, the operating manager at Ogeechee Meat Market, adds that factors other than diet can affect the game’s flavor.

“You shouldn’t go after the biggest buck or the biggest set of horns,” he says.  A skilled shot also makes a difference.  “If an animal has been chased or trapped—which is illegal here for most game animals—(that animal) has hormones and adrenaline pumping through the body.  You’ll notice that in the meat.”

Proper preparation helps avoid those variations in flavor, McClune advises.

“You want a skilled person to process your meat.  A butcher would know how to properly break it down.”

Strawberry-glazed Deer Tenderloin

(Serves 4)

Along with his father, Gary McClune, Matthew provides a number of venison recipes on the Ogeechee Meat Market website.  Their go-to dish, however, is a simple glazed version.

2 pounds venison loin with the silver skin removed

¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns

2 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup beef broth or game stock

½ cup dry red wine

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced

2 cups fresh ripe strawberries, quartered

Season venison with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and sear venison evenly on both sides until browned, but not cooked beyond rare.   Add the beef broth to the pan and stir to loosen the tasty bits.  Add the red wine and cook for 30 seconds.

Remove the venison from the pan and set aside.  Add the vinegar, garlic and rosemary, then reduce the liquid by two-thirds.

Return the venison to the pan to warm.  Add the strawberries and cook about 1 minute.  To serve, slice the venison into medallions and top with the strawberries and sauce.

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Pan-fried Quail with Red-eye Gravy

(Serves 4)

Although Chef Nick Mueller says that duck is his favorite game bird to prepare, he has cooked a variety of wild meats for private occasions. “I remember the first time I was asked to cook bear; I ended up doing a bear Brunswick stew.  It was a big hit.”  Here, the owner of the new Sugar House Bed and Breakfast in Guyton, offers his take on a Southern classic.

Fried Quail

Two semi-boneless prepared quail per person

Brine (see recipe below)

Seasoned flour (see recipe below)

1 egg, beaten, for every four birds

¼ cup whole cultured buttermilk for every four birds

Canola oil

If you are using quail that have been shot by a hunter, it will probably be skinless and have the rib cage intact so it will be easier to deep fry and to ensure that it is evenly cooked.  There could also be some shot left behind, so warn your guests.

Immerse the quail in the brine for 12 to 15 minutes.  Pat the quail dry, then wet the quail in a bowl with beaten egg and buttermilk.  Let the birds sit for 20 minutes or in the refrigerator overnight.

Heat the canola oil in a frying pan or deep fryer to 375? F.  Lift the quail from the bowl and tap it on the side to shake off any excess buttermilk and egg.  Toss the quail with seasoned flour.  Deep fry the quail until golden and the internal temperature reaches 165? F.

Serve over creamy grits with red-eye gravy.  Garnish with crispy bacon.

Red-eye Gravy

6 strips of bacon, cut into ½-inch squares and sautéed crisp (reserve fat and reserve bacon for garnish)

1 onion, diced

4 ounces diced ham

3 tablespoons flour

¼ cup bourbon

1 ½ cups chicken stock

½ cup ketchup or tomato puree

8 ounces smoked sausage, sliced, sautéed separately and drained

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon mild hot sauce, preferably Red Hot

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot, sauté the onion and ham in the bacon fat until lightly browned.  Add the flour and stir to eliminate lumps.  Continue stirring until the flour is lightly browned.  Deglaze the pot with the bourbon. (Note: The bourbon may flame when added, so don’t lean directly into the pot.  It will burn out fairly shortly).  Gradually add the chicken stock, stirring vigorously to prevent the formation of lumps.   Add the tomato puree, sausage and seasonings and simmer for 1 hour, stirring frequently.

Serve over grits and quail.  Garnish with crispy bacon.

Brine

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1 cup salt

4 cups water

6 tablespoons jerk seasoning

Mix all the ingredients together in a large, non-reactive container.  Submerge the quail for 12 to 15 minutes.  If you don’t plan to fry the quail, you can grill it at this point.  Just make sure the internal temperature reaches 165? F.

Seasoned Flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups White Lily self-rising flour

3 tablespoons freshly ground pepper (a mixed peppercorn blend is great)

3 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

Mix all the ingredients together and use to dust the quail.

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Venison Steaks with Cheddar-Sour Cream Biscuits and Pepper Jelly

(Serves 3)

Alligator Soul’s Chef Stephen McLain recalls waking up as a child to see his Uncle Rusty standing over a cast-iron pan, turning these perfectly browned, crispy venison loin steaks.  “Rusty would marinate them overnight in buttermilk, then coat them simply with flour, salt and pepper. We enjoyed them with homemade biscuits and jelly.”  It remains one of his favorite breakfasts to this day.

Venison Steaks

6-ounce venison loin, cut into one-ounce rounds, about ¾-inch thick

1 ½ cups buttermilk

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Canola oil

Marinate the venison steaks in buttermilk for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight.

Combine the flour, salt and pepper, and mix thoroughly.  Heat a large cast-iron pan over medium-high heat and fill up with oil to ¼-inch.  Dredge the marinated steaks in seasoned flour, then back to the buttermilk, and then in seasoned flour again to double coat just before placing the steaks into the heated oil.  Gently fry each steak for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.  Remove the steaks to a paper towel-lined plate to rest for 1 minute before serving.

Cheddar-Sour Cream Biscuits

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

cup sour cream

cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.  Add the sour cream and mix with a fork until well incorporated.  The mixture will be very crumbly. Add melted butter and cheddar, and mix with a fork until a soft dough forms.

Gently roll the dough into balls slightly larger than golf balls, and place each ball 2 inches apart on a non-stick baking pan.  Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Allow the biscuits to rest 3 minutes before serving.

Pepper Jelly

(Yields 1 pint)

1 green bell pepper, seeds removed and medium diced

1 red bell pepper, seeds removed and medium diced

2 banana peppers, seeds removed and medium diced

1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes or ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 cups sugar

¾ cup apple cider vinegar

2 ounces liquid pectin

Combine the green, red and banana peppers in a food processor and pulse until finely minced.  Put peppers, pepper flakes, sugar and vinegar into a non-reactive stainless steel pot and cook over medium heat about 15 minutes.  Add pectin and stir throughout.  Pour pepper jelly into a shallow dish and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour to set before serving.

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