IN THE GASTRONOMICAL good old days wildlife graced almost every table. Indeed, game provided a mainstay of the American diet, and people on the frontier probably didn't realize how lucky they were to have succulent furred and feathered game almost as daily fare. Today, wildlife meats are luxuries - a game farm mallard duck costs more than $3 a pound.
When I was a youngster growing up on the Great Plains, game was the fall-time staple. The daily limit of prairie chickens, grouse and ducks was fifteen each, and four Canada geese. Shotgun shells cost a little over a dollar for twenty-five in those days, shooting was permitted on practically everyone's land and one had to be a rotten marksman not to get his limit.
The result was that my parents and I, in common with others in that part of the country, ate game birds from the opening of the season early in September until the closing, usually in December, of what was called the northern flight, the southern migration of birds hatched and grown in Canada. Then, in winter, cottontail rabbits were popular table fare. There was no big game in the vicinity.
Prairie chickens and grouse, virtually the same fowl, abounded. Several methods of hunting them were practical, but my parents were relaxed shooters.
They hitched up Old Snip to a single-seat buggy, and Touser pointed, my parents jumped out of the buggy. As the birds were flushed by their advance or Touser's, they fired away, my father with a Parker 12-gauge double, my mother with a 20-gauge Parker double. She took the high deflection shots better than my father. I started out with a 16-gauge Remington pump gun, and did less well than my parents.
I often hunted prairie chickens alone on foot, for almost out of our back door unbroken prairie stretched for miles, and grain field stubble extended across the great aching spaces to the horizon - perfect land for game birds. The crisp autumn air was spiked with wisps of smoke from burning stacks of straw, for the harvest was in. I'd hike until I flushed a bird or a covey.
Duck shooting was also great sport. In my youth, the Great Plains were dotted with sloughs, potholes and tiny lakes, some fed by creeks, pronounced "cricks," so clean and clear that one drank out of them. Mallards and teal nested in the reed-filled waters and brought up their young there. This was long before the agribarons drained sloughs and the highway lobbyby turned the engineers loose to crosshatch the natural landscape with tangles of concrete ribbons.
Legal duck shooting began at sunrise. Usually we would get up at 4 a.m., pull on long johns, woolen socks, rubber hip boots and a warm shooting jacket, then pile into a Model T with others, and set forth in the dark. The headlights blinked on the gravel roads, then dirt trails that ended at the slough. There we gathered shocks of grain and carried them, some over the barrels of our guns, through mud and water to clumps of tall reeds where we dumped the shocks to sit on, and then put out our wooden decoys and waited for the dawn. The rich aroma of fall permeated the air, and the slough exuded the scent of natural transformation of water plants into aquatic mulch.
Then the mallards flew in from their morning feeding, or ducks from other potholes glided in, all with a whistling of wing feathers. Most of the shooting was easy, almost straight on, but always there were some fast and high-flying birds, and some that demanded high deflection, which made for skillful shooting. There was plenty of action, but even during the lulls, just being in the open generated euphoria.
By about 10:30 or 11, no birds were flying - the coots or mud hens, which some gastronomes like, were considered beneath us, and so we broke of the encounter and waded to shore after picking up our ducks or having them fetched by a retriever.
The lunch everyone carried was rough and ready. Prohibition reigned, so the cocktail was a shot of "alkie" flavored with dubious things such as fake raspberry juice. The accompanying sandwiches were usually of homebaked bread, generously buttered by someone with a Norwegian-connected friend who churned the butter, and filled with slices of cold wild duck or prairie chicken. Sometimes a hunter brought along home brew, but he was lucky if it hadn't exploded while being jounced over the rough roads.
If you are unable to go hunting with a Parker shotgun, you can use a Parker ballpoint and write for a variety of game from Kaufco Sales, 55 Virginia Ave., West Nyack, N.Y. 10994. Or telephone 914/3588884. Kaufco has quail, partridge, pheasant, ptarmigan, mallard and Muscovy ducks, geese, venison, boar, buffalo, grouse, rabbit, hippopotamus, wild turkey, llama, antelope, rattlesnake and other items.
The French Market, 1632 Wisconsin Ave. NW., 338-4828, Magruder's, 5626 Connecticut Ave. NW., 244-7800, and Larimer's, 1727 Connecticut Ave. NW, 332-3366, are among the area markets that also stock some of these.
Commercial game is usually frozen, and much of it (imports aside) is grown on game farms. There's no denying that birds and animals produced under such conditions lack the complete gamy taste of their wild counterparts, but still they are highly palatable. The French saying is applicable. "Faute de grives, on mange des merles." (It must be said that the French blackbirds eaten for want of thrush feed - especially in Corsica - on olives, juniper berries and a nut of the pistachio family, a diet that imparts a flavor and aroma incomparable even compared with the meat of the thrush.)
Speaking of incomparability, the ortolan (Emberiza hortulana ) is the most recherche bird I have ever eaten.It is generally conceded to rank as the most delicate in France. These tiny members of the yellowhammer family are indigenous to Bordeaux. They are trapped (never shot), then fattened on millet and cooked with utmost simplicity: briefly on a spit or in small individual boxes made of school copy paper which are placed near an open fire so the birds cook in their own fat.
I had them cooked on a spit in Bordeaux, and I still remember the perfume of their lightly cooked flesh, eaten from my fingers with only salt and pepper for seasoning. (Old prints show ortolan eaters with napkins draped over their heads to entrap the aroma of the birds as they ate them in their entirety.)
Getting back to American reality, one must remember that wild creatures get much more exercise than domesticated ones. This means they have less fat, which must be compensated for by larding or covering with slices of fat such as fresh or salt pork. Also, game tends to be chewy, so you may want to marinate some birds (such as old geese) and cuts of furred game, and then braise them. But I would rather chew a bit more han one does with domestic meat and fowl than soak the game in a vinegar solution, or parboil it and thereby dilute the wild taste. Nor would I want to use a tenderizer as some books recommend.
The degree of doneness, especially for wild fowl, is a matter of taste, especially for ducks. Although I was brought up on well-done prairie chicken, grouse and duck, my choice for duck today, especially canvasback, is blood-rare, which I believe gives full rein to its incomparable taste.
One shouldn't be frightened about cooking game. It's no more difficult than preparing domesticated birds and animals. In the recipes that follow, nothing more than standard cooking techniques and equipment is required, and if you have a penchant for a particular herb, sage for instance, let your palate be your guide. (Be sure to save carcasses for making a broth that is superb as a cooking liquid or just as consomme.) Great Plains Prairie Chicken
This recipe, from memory, was common on the Great Plains, but especially for old prairie chickens and grouse (common heritage). The age of the birds was judged by the pliability of their beaks (the older the stiffer). 1 prairie chicken or grouses 1 each medium onion, carrot and stalk of celery, all minced Salt and pepper 1/2 teaspoon dried sage 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup game or chicken stock
1. Season fowl inside and out and put sage and vegetables in the cavity. (Truss if you wish, but it's not necessary.)
2. Brown bird in hot butter.
3. Place fowl in casserole with tight fitting cover. Add broth.
4. Bring casserole contents to boil on top of stove, then put in 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half to two hours, basting, and adding stock if necessary.
5. Remove bird from vessel; the breast should come off easily in two pieces and be cooked entirely through.
6. Skim fat from casserole liquid and serve with the fowl. Great Plains Prairie Chicken Sauteed
This dish should be made with really young birds, which can be identified by small size, also the beak-testing described above. This applies to grouse as well, and while the dish may be chewy compared with tame chicken, the chewing is worth the task. 2 small prairie chickens or grouse 2 tablespoons clarified butter (See note) Salt and pepper 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 bourbon, brandy or Scotch
1. Cut bird into serving pieces, reserving back, neck and innards for making game broth.
2. Shake fowl pieces in a paper bag with flour, salt and pepper.
3. Melt butter in a heavy frying pan and brown bird pieces. Continue cooking at low heat about twenty-five minutes, adding a bit of game or chicken broth if pieces look dry.
4. Test for doneness with a skewer or fork to see if juicies run clear, meaning the bird is done.
5. Remove from pan. Pour in bourbon or other spirits. Flame and dislodge the brown bits in the pan, and serve this pan sauce with the bird.
Note : To clarify butter, put a stick of it in an overproof measuring cup in a 200 degree oven until it melts. Refrigerate. The clarified butter will solidify on top. The white substance beneath should be discarded. Or you can pour off the clarified butter when taken from the oven and discard the white substance. Refrigeration is the easier way. Gallimaufy of the Great Plains
Serves two or three
Some birds are so old, or tough, or both, that they are too difficult to eat even braised. Or you may have leftovers from even tender specimens. Whatever the source, here's the way to treat them. 3 to 4 cups diced wildfowl meat, boned and skinned 2 cups minced onion, celery and carrot 2 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 cups game or chicken stock Salt and pepper 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon each dried thyme and sage 1 tablespoon flour 2 ounces brandy, bourbon or scotch (optional)
1. Brown meat briefly in half the butter, which is especially necessary if you are using slightly cooked pieces, such as legs from rare cooked ducks.
2. Add vegetables and cook about five minutes.
3. Put meat and vegetables into a casserole, add seasonings and stock and bring to a boil, then place in a 350 degree oven.
4. Let cook gently for about one and a half hours, testing for doneness at end of time and adding stock if necessary.
5. Knead remaining butter and flour together and add bits of it while stirring. (If you are watching calories, stir a tablespoon of instant blending flour into a bit of the cooking liquid and put it into the stew instead of the kneaded butter.)
6. Heat brandy or other alcohol and flame it in the dish. Roast Duck
The canvasback, called "can" for short, unquestionably was the choicest of wild ducks. In those dreadful days of the market hunter, who helped to deplete American wildlife, they brought $10 to $12 a pair, far more than other species. The succulence of the can stemmed in part from its diet of wild celery which is also true for the redhead duck that is a close second. Neither may be taken today, however.
Whether to hang ducks depends on one's taste: two to four days in a cool place will result in slightly "high" fowl, which means it is gamier than a bird just killed. My preference is on the high side.
Serves two 1 wild duck 3 tablespoons butter at room temperature Salt, freshly ground black pepper, leaves from one bunch of celery and one stalk minced 1/2 cup game or chicken stock
1. Wipe bird inside and out with a cloth soaked in gin and wrung out.
2. Season inside and out with salt and pepper.
3. Put celery leaves and stalk in cavity of duck and close opening.
4. Coat breast-up duck with butter.
5. Roast in preheated oven for eighteen to twenty minutes.
6. Detach legs, slash across in several places and broil, cut side down and cook to desired doneness.
7. Slice breast thinly with bird in oven pan in which cooked, this in order to catch the juices that will ooze out. Leave slices in juice.
8. Remove breast slices and deglaze pan with stock. Serve slices with legs when they are done with pan juicies. Pressed Wild Duck
This is a variation of the Tour d'Argent's famous dish, but with wild duck. Classically, a duck press should be used. One is available at the Kitchen Bazaar, 4455 Connecticut Ave. NW, at $350. However, I find that the pressing can be done with a handle-style orange juicer, if sturdy, or a potato ricer, especially the hotel size. With lots of muscle, a mortar and pestle could accomplish the same end, but it would surely be a messy job.
1. Follow the same procedure as for roasted duck through step 7.
2. Cut carcass into pieces and press in whatever device you have, or pound with mortar and pestle.
3. Add 1/2 cup of dry red wine and about two ounces of foie gras or pate de foi grass, the juice of a half lemon, salt and freshly ground black pepper to the press, and process again. Add 1 1/2 ounces of brandy to the extracted juice, heat slightly and swirl in two tablespoons of butter.
4. Serve the sauce with the breast slices, and legs, or save the latter for dishes such as the gallimaufrey described above. Chevreuil Roti ala Chatelaine
This is the recipe of Alex Comnidis, chef/proprietor of the Iron Skillet, 5838 Columbia Pike, Bailey's. Cross Roads, 820-3333. I can vouch for this treatment because I was a guest at a dinner of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs when Comnindis cooked the dish; it surely rates among the finest renditions of venison I have ever eaten. The recipe is for two legs of venion, weighing about seven pounds each, but the chef says that if a smaller quantity is used, the proportions for the marinade would remain the same. Comnindis points out that if you like game high, the venison can be kept in the refrigerator for two weeks before marinating it.
A good-size venison leg should serve about sixteen Venison leg, legs or other cut or cuts boned and skinned 1 pound fresh pork fat Salt and pepper Marinade (see recipe)
1. Season venison with salt and freshly ground pepper, lard it with a larding needle and tie a piece of fresh port over the top.
2. Place venison in a large vessel, pour marinade over it and place in a refrigerator for two weeks; turn it frequently.
3. Remove venison from marinade and dry it, brown in butter along with vegetables strained from marinade.
4. Add liquid from marinade to step 3 and cook in a preheated 450 degree oven for one and one-quarter hours; remove venison and cover with a towel wrung out in hot water to keep meat moist.
5. Slice venison and serve with sauce (see recipe), wild rice, red cabbage and artichoke hearts with chestnut puree. Marinade 1/2 cup oil, olive or other 3 diced carrots 2 diced medium onions 2 Diced stalks celery 1/2 teaspoon allspice 2 tablespoons crushed peppercorns 6 cloves chopped garlic 6 bay leaves 3 cups red wine 3 cups white wine 1/2 cup wine vinegar 10 cups water
1. Lightly brown vegetables in the oil.
2. Add other ingredients and boil fifteen minutes.
3. Cool marinade before pouring over the venison. Sauce Marinade with vegetables Roux of 8 tablespoons butter and 4 of flour 3 tablespoons clarified butter (See butter clarification under Great Plains Prairie Chicken Sauteed, above.) 10 peppercorns crushed 4 ounces madeira 1/2 pound puree de foie gras (pate de foie gras can be used) 2 ounces truffles 2 tablespoons butter
1. Boil marinade with vegetables and the roux together for fifteen minutes and strain.
2. Brown shallots in clarified butter with peppercorns, add madeira, foie gras and strained marinade, and stir. Add truffles and swirl in the 2 tablespoons of butter. Roast Canada Goose McDaniel
This recipe is by Washington's gastronomical guru, Robert J. McDaniel, from his forthcoming book, Bounty of the Bay, a collection of observations and recipes centering on the best edibles from the Chesapeake Bay and its shores.
Six generous portions 1 Canada goose of 6 to 10 pounds 1/2 cup butter 1 cup finely minced onion 2 cups dry white wine (Boordy Vineyard from Maryland is fine) 2 dozen freshly shucked select size oysters and their liquor 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon 1 teaspoon paprika 1/2 cup freshly chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 3 to 4 cups dry breadcrumbs 1/4 pound salt port cut in thin slices 1 ounce brandy or bourbon 1 ounce sherry Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup thick cream or sour cream (optional)
1. Melt butter in pan, add onion and stir over medium heat until onion begins to brown. Add liver, heart and gizzard, sauteing until lightly browned. Add wine, cover pan and simmer gently for twenty minutes. Remove liver, heart and gizzard and reserve for gravy; save remaining liquid for basting.
2. In anothr pan, simmer oysters in part of their liquor for five minutes. Add remining liquor with nutmeg, tarragon, parsley, paprika and cayenne and blend breadcrumbs carefully into this mixture.
3. Dampen goose with bourbon or brandy and sprinkle with salt and pepper inside and out.
4. Stuff goose with result of step 2 and cover breast with salt pork slices.
5. Place bird breast up in large roasting pan and put in preheated 450 degree oven. After fifteen minutes reduce heat and baste frequently with liquid from step 1. Continue to roast, allowing twenty minutes per pound. Remove salt pork from breast for the last twenty minutes.
6. Remove goose. Skim fat from pan juices and add minced liver, heart and gizzard with the sherry and about 1/2 cup of water. Stir over low heat until gravy is slightly thick, and stir in cream if desired. Servegravy with slices of the goose.