Eat Fresh: A closer look at game meat

Pop quiz: How long does it take for the food we eat to reach your plate? If you’re buying meat from the local supermarket, it’s possible it’s spent up to two months or even longer going through the supply chain. That serves most people just fine, but with increasing concerns over quality of meat — as well as hormones and treatment of the animals —many people choose to take a more natural role in feeding their families.
The coming of autumn also ushers in the sounds of rifles and the sight of orange-bedecked hunters heading into the woods to try their skill in hopes of bringing home a few meals. One of the most common game meats is venison, or deer meat. Many people liken venison to beef in terms of texture and taste, albeit “gamier.” Depending on the dish, it might even be difficult to tell the difference — for example, spicier or heavily sauced dishes like chili are perfect for first-timers.
Renee Shrader, a 30-year-old mother of two from Wilkes-Barre Township, went hunting for the first time at the opening of the season this year and killed her first deer. “I wanted more meat in the house,” she explained. “Each hunter only gets two tags. So my husband, Mark, can only take two deer (if he gets them!). I also just wanted a chance to get my own meat, to see if I could do it.”
Opening day proved to be a miss for Shrader, but a few days later, her patience was rewarded. Her father butchered the deer and they were eating venison steaks that night. “I like the way venison tastes,” she said. “The deer I got this year went from standing there to eating it within three hours. You can’t get much fresher than that! You don’t know how much time meat in the grocery store spent between being butchered and when you’re eating it,” she said.
While stocking a freezer with venison was one motivation, Shrader says she also looked forward to improving her marksmanship and having a chance to spend time with her father. “It’s something he always does, and we don’t do a lot together,” she said. “So it was fun! And I’m looking forward to trying turkey hunting next. I really want to get one, since I stopped eating deli turkey because of nitrites (preservatives used in many lunch meats), and I love turkey sandwiches.”
Joel H., of Scranton has been hunting for more than 15 years. He’s experimented with many different preparations, and said that venison can be used in any dish that would normally use beef. As for the taste, he says many people are turned off by a gamey flavor. However, “That’s baloney,” he said. “A lot of times that flavor comes from meat that wasn’t handled properly — it wasn’t field dressed correctly, or they allowed bodily fluids to spill on the meat, or it wasn’t cooled the right way.” According to Joel, venison will taste richer and is a much leaner meat, so it may be drier than many cuts of beef. One trick is to add a little bit of ground chuck or bacon to balance, he said. “But, just like a pork chop doesn’t taste like a ribeye, different animals do have slightly different characteristics.”
One of his favorite recipes uses the backstrap of the deer (“Like the filet mignon on a cow,” he clarified). Cut the backstrap into medallions, pan-sear them, add a brandy cream sauce and mushrooms for a delicious dish. Joel says this is the recipe that convinced his wife, Andrea, to enjoy venison.
Depending on the size and frequency of meals, a single deer can last up to a year when properly frozen. But Shrader plans on replacing multiple meals per week with venison. “Now, because we’ll have so much, I want to use deer meat maybe three times per week,” she said. “No hormones, not processed, fresh from the animal, right into the freezer and to your plate. And my kids love it! That was another reason. The kids are picky, but they love venison – both of them.”
In fact, according to a recent National Geographic article, women are the fastest-growing demographic for new hunters. Most cite a desire for additive-free meat as a primary reason for joining the sport.
The list of cuts from just one deer reads like a butcher’s bill: “We have some ground, some cut into steaks or roasts, other whole cuts, kielbasa, and we set aside some roasts for jerky,” Shrader said.  As for meals themselves, the sky is the limit: “Burritos, chili, steaks, roasts. Also, jerky, jerky, and more jerky!” For the record, the venison jerky samples Shrader provided were delicious.
Smaller game such as rabbit, or game birds like quail, pheasants, and squab (doves or pigeons) can prove more challenging to hunt. “We love doves,” said Shrader. “I haven’t been dove hunting– I don’t think I’ll be able to. I would like to try; they’re just too fast… but so good!”
Venison is clearly the most popular game meat in the Northeast Pa. region, but there are many variations. In fact, the Pocono Environmental Education Center in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is hosting a Game Dinner to showcase some of the delicious options available from the woods to your table. The dinner is this Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. and will start with a spring greens salad, followed by bacon-wrapped quail legs, rabbit pot pie, venison sausage and rice, and assorted desserts. There is also a vegetarian option for those who might wish to accompany a carnivore but do not want to partake in the eating of meat. Tickets are $35 per person or $60 per couple.
This is the fourth year for the PEEC game dinner, which is partially a fundraiser for the facility. “It started out as a fall celebration of the foods available from farms and forests in our area, but now it’s more of a community ‘friendraiser’ event,” explained Jeffrey Rosalsky, executive director of the PEEC. “We thought it would be a nice way to get the community together. Year to year, the menu varies slightly depending on what we can source locally. Last year, we even had bear!”
The individually sized rabbit pot pies are a specialty of PEEC chef Wendy Gannon. “We had a donation of these old, porcelain tea cups,” said Rosalsky. “Wendy looked at those and said ‘you know, I can make individual rabbit pot pies out of these!’ So she puts the filling in, puts the crusty pastry on top, and they are delicious!”
Although the dishes represent game available in the region at this time of year, because it is a public event, PEEC selects its meat from locally farm-raised animals. Rosalsky said PEEC expects between 80 and 100 people at this year’s event. Approximately 70 tickets had been sold as of press time, but he said there is typically a last-minute rush. Call PEEC at 570-828-2310 for tickets or more information.
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