It used to be that you had to be a hunter, or a hunter's friend, to eat game, but now more and more of it is available at butcher shops and specialty markets. It is, of course, not wild game that is available in the market, but farm raised, since wild game cannot legally be sold.
Whichever, Americans are eating more game now than they have in a century. While game from the wild has a richer, gamier flavor, you do take the chance of cracking a tooth on buckshot, in the case of birds, so farm-raised game does have its positive aspects.
Farmed game, as the name suggests, is raised under captivity. It runs less than wild game, so it isn't quite as tough. The breeder can control its diet, which can be an advantage with marine fowl (wild duck may taste like the fish on which it fed). Thanks to an explosion in game farming, it's relatively easy to find quail, pheasant, partridge and venison. What's amazing is that a modern American can buy farm-raised antelope, llama and even hippopotamus.
What accounts for the new-found popularity of game? "For starters, it's got more flavor than beef or pork," says Ronald Savenor, owner of Savenor's Supermarket in Cambridge, Mass., which has one of the nation's largest game selections.
"Game is healthier than conventional meat," says Mitch Niayesh, a San Francisco-based game distributor. "It contains no steroids, antibiotics, artificial hormones and a lot less fat than regular meat." Niayesh reports that a growing number of his customers are people who have developed allergies to the chemicals in beef, or who are watching their cholesterol levels.
Game is leaner than beef, pork or lamb, so it has a tendency to dry out. There are several techniques for keeping it moist. The first is marinating the game, traditionally with a marinade that includes red wine and juniper berries; the latter can be replaced with a shot of gin.
If you're not worried about cholesterol, another way is to bard it or lard it. In the former, thin strips of fatback or bacon are wrapped around a roast or game bird. As the game cooks, the fat melts, tenderizing the meat. In larding, thin slivers of fatback or bacon are inserted in the meat, using a hollow slender implement called a larding needle. For additional flavor, the fat strips can be marinated in gin or cognac and rolled in pepper or thyme.
Savenor recommends cooking game at a higher temperature (400-500 degrees) for a shorter time than one would cook beef. "You want to heat the meat quickly," he says. "Prolonged cooking will dry it out." According to Savenor, venison, elk, buffalo and other game tastes best served medium rare.
Niayesh likes to accompany game with red fruits, like lingonberries and red and black currants. "The tartness of these berries helps bring out the full rich flavor of the game."
RONALD SAVENOR'S BUFFALO LOIN WITH PORT BEET SAUCE (4 servings)
Buffalo has a richer flavor than beef with half the cholesterol. The same preparation could be used for venison, moose or beef tenderloin.
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 medium-sized cooked beet
1 large shallot
1 clove garlic
1 small carrot, peeled
1 stalk celery
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup port wine
1/2 cup veal or beef stock
1 bay leaf
5 black peppercorns
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon arrowroot
2 pounds buffalo loin
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
Prepare the sauce. Peel the beet and pure'e in the food processor. Mince the shallot and garlic. Finely chop the carrot and celery. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Saute' the shallot and garlic for 1 minute, or until soft but not brown. Add the honey and cook until foamy. Add the balsamic vinegar and whisk until dissolved.
Add 5 tablespoons port, the stock, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns, carrot, celery and pure'ed beet. Gently simmer these ingredients for 20 to 30 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste. Strain the sauce through a fine meshed strainer into another saucepan. Dissolve the arrowroot in the remaining 3 tablespoons port. Whisk this mixture into the sauce and bring just to a boil: The sauce will thicken. Correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Keep the sauce warm.
Cut the buffalo into 2-ounce medallions and set aside.
Just before serving, heat the oil in a large frying pan over high heat. Season the buffalo medallions with salt and pepper. Saute' the medallions for 2 minutes per side, or until cooked to taste. (Savenor suggests serving them medium rare.) Transfer the medallions to plates or a platter. Spoon the sauce over them and serve at once.
Per serving: 440 calories, 47 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 120 mg cholesterol, 235 mg sodium.
SAUTE OF WILD BOAR (6 servings)
This recipe comes from chef Fernand Chambrette, instructor at the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris. Thanks to the wild game marinade, it can be made with tame supermarket pork roast -- but don't tell the French chef that.
1 haunch of wild boar (or 5-pound pork roast)
FOR THE MARINADE:
1 bottle dry red wine
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 stalks celery
3 cloves garlic
10 juniper berries or 1/4 cup gin
3 sprigs parsley
5 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
TO FINISH THE STEW:
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Approximately 1 cup flour, for dusting
3 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, for saute'ing
1 cup veal or beef stock
2 to 3 tablespoons red currant jelly
1/2 cup heavy cream
Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley, for garnish
Cut the boar into 1 1/2-inch cubes. Combine the ingredients for the marinade and marinate the boar overnight. If you are in a hurry, you can bring the marinade to a boil, let it cool, then marinate the boar for 5 to 6 hours.
Strain the boar, reserving the marinade. Separate the meat from the vegetables and blot each dry with paper towels. Season the boar with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess. Heat the oil in a large casserole over high heat and brown the cubes of boar on all sides, working in several batches if necessary, so as not to crowd the pan. Transfer the boar to a platter with a slotted spoon. Discard all but 3 tablespoons fat.
Saute' the reserved vegetables until soft but not brown. Return the boar to the pan with the reserved marinade. Bring the stew to a boil. Add the stock, reduce the heat, and gently simmer the stew for 1 hour or until the boar is tender.
Remove the meat with a carving fork and transfer it to warm serving dish. Whisk in the red currant jelly and cream into the sauce and simmer for 1 minute. Correct the seasoning. (If necessary, add a little more red currant jelly or vinegar. The sauce should be a little sweet and a little sour.) Strain the sauce over the meat, pressing the vegetables with the back of a spoon to extract the juices. Sprinkle the wild boar with chopped cilantro and serve.
Per serving: 631 calories, 52 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 26 gm fat, 8 gm saturated fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 237 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.