There is a truism in any endeavor: If you are afraid to fail, you will never achieve true success. I’ve made no secret of the fact that, more than just being a decent home cook, I am trying to delve deep into fish and game cookery and return with nuggets of wisdom that I can share with you. Anyone can slap down recipes. What I want is to learn how to extract the full measure from every fish or bird or furred animal that we as hunters, anglers — and eaters — put on our tables.
A tall order. And a dangerous one, in a way. Let me explain: Once they leave the field and enter the kitchen, nearly every hunter I know is deathly afraid of ruining their game, for which they have worked long and hard for and that has died for their table. This fear manifests itself in hunters, and especially anglers, when they stick to one or two tried-and-true recipes for their quarry. How many of us know the guy who fries every fish he catches in cornmeal? Not that there’s anything wrong with this, and I love fried fish. But there is more to life than fried things. Really. No, I mean really there is. Honest.
I am not immune to this fear, except that I have several dozen recipes — techniques, really — instead of a handful. I sear. I saute. I roast and grill. I rarely steam and never boil. I make good food, sometimes great food. But there is so much more to know. So I have begun looking at recipes in a new way, and I am trying to step out on the high wire a bit more. Nothing a real, trained chef would consider daring, but still.
All of which leads me to the antelope, the salmon, and the duck.
I, like many of my cheffy, foodie brethren, am fascinated by the technique of sous vide, which is essentially precision boil-in-the-bag. I even bought Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide to study the technique. Why, I have no clear idea, as the immersion circulator required to do this technique properly costs $1,000. And no, I have not sprung for one. Yet.
Why bother with sous vide? Well, you can get some amazing results, especially with tough meats. And many game meats can be tough. It is also an excellent technique for offal, and I love my guts. You can basically cook something forever without toughening it up. You need a vacuum sealer, which I have — as any hunter or angler should — and I am a big fan of carryover heat in my cooking: turning off the heat and letting the fading warmth within the pot or pan gently finish whatever it is I am cooking. So I decided on a poor man’s version of sous vide.
Basically I heated a large stockpot full of water to a little higher than I wanted the meat to be, dropped in the sealed meat, turned off the heat and walked away. All that water holds heat pretty well, so to cook the antelope you see at right, I got the water to 175 degrees before turning it off. To cook the salmon in the top picture, I brought it to 160 degrees. If I had an immersion circulator, I would have set it for 140 degrees for the antelope, 130 for the salmon. I like those temperatures, but that’s just me.
How did it work? Pretty good, although you can see the sealing creases on that piece of salmon. The outsides of each meat were a little overdone, which is fine if you have a nice sear on it, not so fine without it. Think gray. Bleh. I think if I lowered my starting temperatures a little I’d get better results. Here is my working version of the salmon recipe, and I will post the antelope recipe once I perfect it.
One thing I will say is that I like the effect of adding just the teeniest bit of smoked salt onto the sous vide antelope right at the end. A great addition, one I will remember.
Speaking of smoked things, what about that duck? As crazy as it sounds, I had never smoked a duck before. Other birds, yes, and lots and lots of red meat and fish, but never a duck. So I had these two ringnecks in the freezer that I wanted to smoke, because ringnecks can be strong-tasting and I wanted strong flavors to match it. I also grabbed a gadwall from the box freezer to add to the mix.
I brined them in a mixture of salt, maple syrup, garlic, bay leaves, etc. overnight and then let them dry for an hour in a breezy place. I then smoked them over almond wood for 3 1/2 hours. They looked nice when they came out.
But no crispy skin. I am on a quest to find a foolproof method of getting a serious cracklin’ crisp on my duck skin — without massively overcooking the breast meat. Smoking did not do the trick, sadly.
What might crisp up these bad boys? Hmmm…I don’t know…maybe…DEEP FRYING? Yes folks, it’s true: I deep-fried the smoked ringnecks tonight, a sinful thing I know. I deep-fried them in canola oil at about 330 degrees for about 5 minutes on the breast side, 3 minutes on the back side.
It was good. Very good. But the skin still lacked that awesome laquer crunch of a Peking Duck. How do they do it? Holly and I decided that I need to smoke the ducks for a shorter time — maybe 90 minutes — and deep-fry them in hotter oil for a longer time. Suggestions, anyone?
What I did succeed in making crispy was the salmon skin chip you see on top of the sous vide salmon above. That was a little revelation. What I did was remove the skin from the king salmon (which I received thanks to my friend Jon at Five Rivers Guide Service) and pack it in salt for about eight hours. I then rinsed it off, dried it really well, coated the skin in olive oil and roasted it at 375 degrees for about a half-hour. I topped it with some slices of preserved lemon. It was pretty cool, but the lesson learned was to salt it for less time, as the chip was really salty. I’ll try it for only 4 hours next time.
Another coup was the mushrooms. Mushrooms, you say? Where? They are the “potatoes” you see with the salmon dish. I wanted to do something different, and I had a king oyster mushroom, which is basically a big stalk. I cut it into coins, sweated the coins in a dry pan until they gave off their water, then sauteed them over high heat in some niter kebbeh, the Ethiopian spiced butter I made a few weeks ago. Fan-goddamn-tastic.
The bottom line is that most of what hit the plate in these last few meals I had never done before. Some of it worked, some of it did not. Ski fast, fall hard. I must say Holly is a saint for being my personal tester, and while I rarely cook something so bad we can’t eat it (except for that wretched wild boar liver we still shudder about), she has gotten better at telling me when something isn’t great. More salt here, a little overdone there, less of this and more of that. Eventually, we hit on a winner.
None of this is rocket science, although a basic knowledge of science is invaluable in the kitchen. It’s about stepping out on that high wire, and not caring if you fall off once in a while. Remember, there’s always a net: It’s called the trash can.