As pretty as it is, and as wonderful as it tasted, this recipe is unrepeatable. I am OK with that.
It’s not that the plate of food you see above was overly difficult to make. Anyone who can cook a steak can cook this venison tenderloin, and the little potato-like thingies are yampa tubers, simply sauteed in olive oil. The brown pasta is cavatelli made with acorn flour — a little sporty, but not overly so. The red dots are rose hip puree; OK, harder to make but again, not terribly technical. And the lovely green garnish is fresh pennyroyal, along with its flowers.
Sound like an odd combination? It is, admittedly so. Yet it all tasted wonderful together on the plate. In fact, it is one of the tastiest dishes I’ve made in a long time. (This doesn’t always happen with I walk the high wire while cooking.)
But flavor wasn’t the only reason I put all this seemingly unrelated ingredients on one plate: Everything you see comes from within 100 yards of where I shot my deer this season.
At the center is the tenderloin of the deer itself, the hunter’s prize. The little buck had been hanging around in a field of wild roses, a field ringed by redwoods and tanoaks. Nearby stood a thick stand of yampa, one of the tastiest native tubers of the West. And the field you had to walk through to get to the deer was studded with minty pennyroyal, each footfall perfuming the foggy landscape. This dish is a celebration of my hunt.
My hunt. Not yours. Of all the dishes I’ve made here in the eight years of writing Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, this is perhaps the most deeply personal. It is an edible memory of a single place and time. I share it not only because it tasted great, but to bring up a larger point: Our environment can be a wellspring of inspiration, if only we care to look. As British chef Marco Pierre White is fond of saying: “Mother Nature is the true artist; the chef is merely the technician.”
Nature provides, more than we know.
As a species, we once understood this more intimately. Where I live near Sacramento, California, the local Miwok Indians ate roughly 160 different plants in the course of a typical year. Some from necessity, some because, well, this or that plant happens to taste nice. The Miwoks are not unique in this knowledge.
Everyone reading this has a vast array of untapped flavors and ingredients to work with that are special to where you live. Berries, tubers, greens, nuts, game, fish: All have a place on a modern table.
Take this dish. This is another largely unrepeatable recipe, a culinary poem to the Boreal Forest of Alberta, where I hunted grouse with my Canadian doppelganger, Kevin Kossowan. It’s spruce grouse, pan roasted (perfectly, I might add) in unrefined canola oil served with two kinds of spätzle — one made with pine pollen, another with rye and birch bolete mushrooms, which grow abundantly where we hunted. Balancing this out were pickled huckleberries, fresh lingonberries, salt ground with spruce needles, plus a few extra needles as garnish; they taste citrusy, if you’ve never eaten them.
It is the grouse and everything that lives around it, all on one plate.
To put it together, all I had to do was be aware of my environment — and know what was and was not edible within it. And of course, what might work well together, and what makes a balanced plate of food. I won’t lie: This sort of playing with flavors is a game reserved for cooks who know their way around a kitchen. But it’s important to know that you need not forage in the Boreal Forest, or really any wilderness, to cook with a sense of place. Grounding your own cooking really starts in the market, not the wild.
Consider this: The same dish, cooked with different starches, fats, sweeteners and acids, can taste dramatically different — and create an intense sense of place in and of itself. As just one possible example, imagine a plate of fried fish, served with a starch and a sweet-and-sour sauce.
- In the South, the fish could be catfish, dusted in fine cornmeal and fried in lard, served with grits and alongside a sauce of sorghum and cider vinegar.
- In the Upper Midwest, the fish could be walleye, dusted in rye flour and fried in sunflower oil, served with wild rice alongside a sauce of chokecherry syrup mixed with malt vinegar.
- Around the Ohio River Valley, maybe it’s yellow perch, dusted in wheat flour and fried in butter, served with corn and a sauce of maple syrup and cider vinegar.
- In California, you might use lingcod, dusted in rice flour and fried in olive oil, served with local rice and a mix of sweet and sour citrus.
See the possibilities?
The point of all this is not to suggest that you cook fancy dishes like the ones I made with my deer or that spruce grouse — although they are certainly fun to create. The point is to explore what’s special about where you live, wild or not, and then celebrate that in your cooking. We all live somewhere interesting. You just need to look around.