Cooking wild game in general, and moose in particular, is a lot like cooking other meats, explained Lily Joslin to a group of hunters, cooking enthusiasts and others at a late November “Wild Game Cooking” workshop hosted by Kennebec Valley Community College and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at KVCC’s new culinary arts lab.
“Moose,” said Joslin, a butcher by day, cooking and nutrition educator by night, and a student in the masters program in Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College, “is basically the same as deer, just bigger.”
“Moose is a member of the deer family,” added Bonnie Holding, IFW’s director of information and education, who provided the meat used in this particular workshop. She enlisted the expertise of Keel Kemper, a wildlife biologist, to assist class participants “with understanding the animal and the various cuts.”
On the menu for this workshop: Two recipes prepared with moose tenderloin and rib eye.
“These are good rib-sticking recipes,” said Joslin, who grew up in a hunting family, but is not a hunter herself. She was assisted by Alex White, a culinary arts student at KVCC.
A Hearty Offering for a Cold November Night
Joslin and White began the workshop with a lesson on how to use ground moose meat.
Using a recipe that Joslin adapted from her “grandmother’s adaptation of her great grandmother’s recipe,” the pair prepared Nana’s Stuffed Cabbage with Venison. “It combines salt and sweet to offset the gaminess we get from wild game,” she said, adding, “My grandmother’s tasted like candy.”
To create pliable cabbage leaves, Joslin parboils the cabbage head whole until it softens and the color “blooms,” becoming more vibrant. “You want the leaves whole,” she added. “To peel boiled cabbage you score it with a knife at the base” and remove the leaves one at a time.
Joslin recommended making the meat mixture, as per the recipe that she provided, while the cabbage is boiling.
To make the sauce, which Joslin refers to as “goo,” mix onions, raisins, brown sugar, lemon slices – rind and all – and layer it with other ingredients in the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish.
Adding a layer of sugar, about one-half cup, between the “goo” and the cabbage rolls makes it even sweeter.
Joslin referred to the act of rolling the moose meat mixture in the cabbage leaves as a “meditation,” yielding “protein packed balls of deliciousness.”
Layer the cabbage-wrapped tangerine-size balls of moose meat on top of the “goo” and sugar, said Joslin, “making sure that the rolls are not sitting on top, but are smushed in there and drizzled with oil and apple cider vinegar.”
After three hours in the oven at a low temperature, “everything will stew in the sauce together” and the result is what Joslin calls “a delicious and awesome goo or sauce . . . a combination of sweet, salt and acid.”
“It’s the easiest thing to make and easiest thing to make . . . your own,” said Joslin. “You can’t mess it up.”
While the Venison Stroganoff with Spaetzle seemed a bit more complicated, Joslin and White made it look easy. (She provided that recipe as well.) The most difficult part, perhaps, is preparing a perfectly cooked cut of tenderloin or rib eye.
Joslin recommended generously salting the meat on both sides and cooking it fast, in a cast iron saute pan, in butter.
“There’s almost no such thing as too much butter,” she said, and a “high heat, quick sear is the way to go.”
“145 degrees for steaks and roasts translates to medium,” noted Joslin, adding, “It’s the absolute food safe temperature.”
A medium rare steak would be cooked to 135, ground meat should be cooked to 160 and previously cooked meat should be reheated up to 165.
When the steaks are cooked, let them rest for about 10 minutes on the cutting board before slicing. Joslin recommends slicing them really thin and “across the grain, for the best flavor.”
“I use the same pan to cook the steak and the stroganoff,” explained Joslin, “to keep the brown bits.”
Serve the thinly sliced moose steaks over the stroganoff, a dish made with paprika, mushrooms, sour cream and egg noodles, and Spaetzle, “a dumpling made with egg, flour, nutmeg, cream, salt and pepper” on the side. “The Spaetzle,” she said, “is a very traditional pairing for this dish.”
Taste and safety: Challenging the myths
“There are so many bad game recipes out there,” said a workshop participant, noting these two proved to be both delicious and hearty.
“There are a lot of myths out there on the landscape about what tastes best and why,” said Kemper, an expert on herd management, “and age and sex of the deer can affect the quality of the meat, as can the health and diet.”
“The ‘gamey’ flavor” that can be a less-desirable characteristic of recipes prepared with wild game, usually “comes from hanging the deer,” said Kemper.
Some hunters, he said, “hang their deer for an extended period of time, believing that aging or curing the meat will make it more tender.”
While this may be true, “it’s a difficult process,” said Kemper, and safe “aging occurs in controlled situations involving time, temperature and humidity, and it cannot be done in your garage or on the silver maple in the yard.”
According to Kemper, the best practice is to “get your deer processed as quickly as possible and give up on thinking that you’re going to age it to make it tender.”
Joslin, a professional butcher, and White, who is learning butchering techniques at KVCC, agreed.
Flavorful and lean
According to Joslin, “fat is where meat gets most of its flavor, but the fat content of game is famously low because they are active, wild animals who move around — so the idea is to add fats, like butter.”
“And what spices go well with game?” asked a workshop participant.
“There are so many,” said Joslin, “and adding herbs and spices is a personal preference.”
“There is a very traditional preparation method involving juniper berries. There’s something about a juniper berry sausage that is just like Christmas in a meat,” said Joslin, adding that “it tastes like a Christmas tree and is weirdly complementary with steaks and sauces.”
Joslin also recommended “paprika, a traditional eastern European spice, and sage,” her go-to spice, as well as Korean and many Nordic spices, like the juniper.
“You can use really good stocks to impart additional flavor, and my favorite stock to use in this kind of cooking is duck stock,” said Joslin. “I prefer it to just about anything else.”
“You can make a stock out of the bones,” she explained, “if you want to use the entire deer.”
“If you’re a lean meat person, there is nothing like venison,” said Joslin. “I think it’s the tastiest that there is. I advocate substituting venison in some of your beef recipes.”
According to Holding, in addition to deer and moose, hunters in Maine often look for recipes on how to cook bear, wild bird, water fowl, small game and fish. To answer such questions, KVCC and IFW have scheduled classes in January, February and March regarding how to cook water fowl, fish and small game such as rabbit or squirrel.
Venison Stroganoff with Spaetzle
Adapted by Lily Joslin from recipes on the Hunter-Angler-Gardener-Cook and Farmgirl Gourmet websites
Makes four servings
For the spaetzle:
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black or white pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup sour cream
Up to 3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
For the stroganoff:
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound venison steak
4 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 large shallots or 1 medium onion, diced
1 cup milk*
3/4 cups hot water (or beef stock)*
1/4 teaspoon Better than Bouillon Beef Base (omit if using pre-made beef stock)*
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch*
1/2 teaspoon salt*
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/3 cup sour cream*
1. Make the spaetzle first. These can be made up to a day ahead and stored in the fridge. Mix all the ingredients except the heavy cream together in a bowl. Now thin the sticky dough into a batter that is a bit like really thick pancake batter with the heavy cream. There is a spaetzle maker tool that I use to make spaetzle, but you can also just use a colander with wide holes.
2. Get a pot of salty water going over high heat. Once it boils, form spaetzle by running the dough through the spaetzle maker directly into the boiling water. If using a colander, place about 1 cup of the dough in the colander and use a rubber spatula to push the dough through the holes into the boiling water. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
3. Boil the spaetzle until they float, about 1 minute. Skim off with a slotted spoon or a spider skimmer. Move them to a baking sheet. When they are all made, toss them with a little oil so they don’t stick together.
4. To make the stroganoff, salt the venison well and let it sit on the cutting board for 20 minutes or so. I do this while I make the spaetzle. Get 2 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan good and hot over medium-high heat. Pat the venison dry and sear all sides well in the butter. Cook until rare to medium-rare. When the meat is ready, move it to a cutting board and let it rest.
5. Add the mushrooms to the pan and turn the heat to medium high. Soon they will give up their water, and when they do, use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When most of the water has boiled away, add the rest of the butter to the pan along with the shallots and saute until the onions soften, stirring often.
6. Add the milk, beef stock, cornstarch, salt, pepper and paprika to the mushrooms and onion/shallots. Stir to combine and cover. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for 10-12 minutes.
7. While the sauce simmers, saute the spaetzle in another saute pan over medium-high heat with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter until warmed through. Slice the cooled venison thin.
8. Add the sour cream to the sauce and simmer for 5 more minutes. Remove from heat and pour sauce over spaetzle and venison. Serve immediately.
Recipe notes from Joslin:
1. To decrease prep time, 8 ounce wide egg noodles can replace the spaetzle in this recipe. You can double the starred ingredients and add the noodles along with them to cook (step 6).
2. Original recipes consulted:
Nana’s Stuffed Cabbage with Venison
Lily Joslin’s adaptation of her grandmother’s adaptation of her great-grandmother’s recipe
Makes 12 servings
For the rolls:
1 large head cabbage
3 pounds ground venison, seasoned to taste (garlic, sage, salt, pepper)
3 pieces bread soaked in cold water, broken into small pieces
2-3 eggs, beaten
For the sauce:
2 large onions, sliced
2 tablespoons chicken fat or butter
2 cups raisins
1/2 cup brown sugar
12 ounces tomato soup (from a can or box works, though I usually make my own)
12 ounces water
1 lemon, sliced
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Steam cabbage to remove about 12 cabbage leaves from the head. Boil the 12 leaves until pliable. Rough chop the rest of the head.
3. Combine the ground meat, soaked bread and eggs.
4. In the bottom of a roasting pan, mix together: onions, butter, raisins, brown sugar, tomato soup, water, chopped cabbage and lemon slices.
5. Make tangerine-size balls of the ground meat mixture, fill the cabbage leaves like burritos, and place the filled cabbage leaves seam side down on top of the onion, raisin and chopped cabbage mixture in the roasting pan.
6. Cook in a 300 degree oven for 3 hours, uncovered. Baste and turn often, every half hour or so. Use a thermometer to make sure the rolls’ internal temperature reaches at least 160 degrees.
Recipe notes from Joslin:
1. For a gluten-free version, replace the soaked bread with a cup of cooked rice.
2. Depending on the kind of tomato soup you use, you may want to increase or decrease the amount of sugar you add.
3. Adding cooked mushrooms or mushroom powder is a great way to round out the ground meat filling.
4. This recipe keeps really well. Save the leftovers and eat throughout the week; the flavors will deepen with time. Also great to freeze and reheat in big batches.
5. A favorite from-scratch tomato soup recipe via New York Times Cooking: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1013383-tomato-soup