Take a look around your food-hunting grounds: Finding a nice cut of bison, or even antelope, is easier than ever these days — just ask Chef James Boyce, executive chef at Cotton Row Restaurant, an elegant yet down home all-American cookery in Huntsville, Alabama, that specializes in game meat.
Chef Boyce has been in on the game-meat game since he bounced out of his crib. He was born and raised by a pack of hunters in Upstate New York, so venison, quail, rabbit and a bumper crop of other delicious, exotic meats were frequently on the menu at home.
The rest of the country is just catching up with Boyce and his fellow hunt-happy cohorts — and for good reason. Game meats' copious health-boosting, love-handle whittling attributes are cause enough to replace the beef steaks in your diet with venison steaks. In fact, most game meats provide low-cholesterol, low-fat, low-calorie, high-protein, mega-vitamin imbued alternatives to our usual go-tos (beef, pork, chicken) — and they also taste better. Why? Because they are, like us, what they eat.
"What they put in their bodies has an effect on their overall taste — wild animals, in addition to running around instead of being cooped up in a pen like most domestic farm animals, helps them develop muscles with a deeper flavor — they also forage for their food," Boyce said.
Instead of dining on little more than corn and soy, wild animals roam the fields and forests, eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, which makes them much more toothsome — and it's a cheap and easy way to tap into the growing move toward eating meat from animals that have been put on special diets in attempt to produce sweeter, richer or more tender flesh.
"I've eaten pork from animals that have only been fed apples and it is absolutely amazing; you can actually taste the sweetness from the apples," Boyce said. "But you can get similarly delicious cuts of game for a fraction of the price, because they forage for a variety of fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables and the complexity of their diet comes out in the final product."
Not sure where to start? Here are five sure-fire picks to get you into the game:
The game: Venison The score: Tastes predominantly like grass-fed beef, with notes of liver. Prepared simply, the livery "gamey" notes people either inherently love or detest will shine through. So if you want a healthier steak that tastes like, well, steak, don't serve it straight up — dress it up with other strong flavors like wine reductions, sauteed mushrooms, horseradish mustard, etc.
The play: Treat each part of the venison as you would a cow: marinate it, roast it or braise it accordingly, Boyce said. Venison can even be grilled.
The payback: Three ounces of venison tenderloin delivers 127 calories and 1 gram of saturated fat (2 total) to a beef tenderloin's 160 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat (7 total).
The term venison comes from the Latin word venari, which means "to hunt." It has long been associated with royalty and may be the ultimate game meat. New Zealand is ground zero for venison meat, but Americans are developing a taste for it and it's widely available at higher-end grocery stores and butcher shops around the country (just don't be surprised if you have to order ahead). Expect to pay between $10 and $30 a pound, depending on the cut.
The game: Wild Boar
The score: Tastes like free-range, fruit-fed pork. This is a great game to ease into — there are no shocking, earthy notes that may offend those solely accustomed to reconstituted chicken and pork "parts" — just a straight shot of palate-pleasing, full-bodied flavor.
The play: Wild boar should not be overcooked; because it's on the lighter side, it can be dry and stringy if cooked too long. Long, low, moist cooking works best; for traditional chops, bake with a sauce. Or pan-fry on medium (NOT high) for a quick cook. Wild boar is also delicious barbecued. Consider marinating any cut overnight in pineapple juice or wine, which will break down its muscle fiber and help it cook evenly and quickly, with moist and succulent results.
The payback: 3 ounces of wild boar will yield 1.1 grams of saturated fat (3.7 total) and about 136 calories — compare that to pork's 3.7 grams of saturated fat (10 total) and roughly 190 calories — oink.
Wild boar, the pigs more unruly and delicious ancestor/cousin, is native across Northern and Central Europe, parts of Asia, North America and Africa. Boar is eaten with great relish in these areas — especially Italy, France and Germany. Consider ground boar for your next sausage dinner, or toss it into a pasta sauce in lieu of another ground meat. Boar is widely available at mega-marts, specialty retailers and butchers. Expect to pay $5.99 a pound — and up to $40 or so, depending on the cut.
The game: Quail
The score: Tastes like white meat chicken with a sweet, nutty, mildly smoky flavor. And unlike white meat chicken, it doesn't dry out easily or develop the texture of curdled cream cheese mixed with undercooked polenta.
The play: Quail should also be prepared like chicken, except put on a pair of kid gloves. It's slightly more delicate, so keep a close eye on it when roasting it in the oven. Another great way to coax fantastic flavor out of the bird is to quickly pan-fry it in vegetable oil to get a nice brown caramelized skin and then finish baking it off in the oven. Quail also happens to be great on the grill. The birds pair really well with rice and other grain dishes.
The payback: A quail breast boasts just 69 calories and 0.5 grams of saturated fat (1.7 grams total). Compare that to the same amount of breast meat in a chicken (quails are smaller), and it clocks in at around 100 calories and 0.6 grams of saturated fat (2.7 total).
Quail are related to pheasants, and they populate almost every nation on earth. French cuisine has traditionally put the bird the work the most, but Japanese cookery is quickly catching up. In the Philippines, quail eggs are widely utilized in the country's great traditional of phenomenal street food, most notably in kwek-kwek, or eggs dipped in orange-hued batter before being skewered and deep-fried. They are cropping up in grocery store freezers around the country and are available at butcher stores everywhere. Expect to pay $7.99 to $16.99 for a whole quail.
The game: Rabbit
The score: Tasted like an especially flavorful milk-fed veal without the sneaking feeling of guilt that inevitably comes from eating baby cow. Just keep on telling yourself that when someone brings up Little Bunny Foo Foo or Bugs Bunny.
The play: Rabbit is extraordinarily versatile because it's so hearty — it's a good game to begin experimenting on because it's almost impossible to screw up. Baked, fried, roasted, boiled, broiled, grilled, marinated, thrown dry in a pan at screeching high heat, no matter what you do to this meat, it's going to be good.
The payback: Three ounces of rabbit meat will yield 167 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat (6.8 grams total; three ounces of veal is around 213 calories, 4.2 grams of saturated fat (10.7 grams total).
Rabbit, perhaps because of their notorious breeding habits, populate most of the world. They're also eaten almost everywhere and are featured in many nations' web of myths. We're all familiar with the Easter Bunny, but other traditional rabbit stories could kick our poor hopper's tail: consider the Aztecs, who worshiped a pantheon of 400 rabbits known as Centzon Totochtin, which represented fertility and drunkenness; or the Native American's Nanabozho, an all-important god related to the creation of the world. Good news though: the Easter Bunny could probably take out Japan's mythical rabbits who live on the moon for the purpose of making mocha, a snack of mashed sticky rice. Rabbits are widely available in grocery stores and butcher stores around the country. Expect to pay $8.99 to $16.99 a pound depending on the cut.
The game: Pheasant
The score: Tastes like dark meat chicken without the greasy mouth-feel. It's the perfect bridge for those straddling the light-dark meat pit. It's as light as a feather on your tongue, but packs the kind of luscious, buttery, grassy, sublimely deep flavor that can only be found on the dark side of the poultry bod.
The play: Pheasants, like chickens, should be cooked according to their age. Younger pheasants will produce more tender meat and can be roasted much like a chicken — solo or with stuffing. Older pheasants should be avoided, because to produce a yummy tender, roast, you're going to have to have to either lard it or bard it (add layers of fat either to the outside or under the skin of the bird, thereby eliminating the health benefits). And like chicken, it can be prepared in pieces, pan-fried, on the grill, or baked.
The payback: A half a pheasant (or 352 grams) has 468 calories and 4.4 grams of saturated fat (12.8 total). Compare that to about 750 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat (30 total) for the same amount of chicken.
An obsession with eating pheasant grew out of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts from 750 B.C. when they sailed from Thessaly, Greece, in search of the Golden Fleece, during which they acquired many golden birds, or pheasants. Dining on the bird became a decadent symbol of wealth and royalty, and cutting into the pheasant has long been considered the high point of an aristocratic feast. They are still extremely popular among the hunting, polo-playing set in Great Britain. While you may have to buy the bird frozen, it's getting easier and easier to find it at big supermarkets and certainly at your butcher store. Expect to pay between $3 and $25 a pound for the royal bird.
James Boyce's Recipe for Pheasant: Pan Seared Pheasant Breast with Pearl Onions, Pomegranate, Yukon Potatoes & Artichokes (Serves 4)
- 1 cup pearl onions
- 1/2 pound small Yukon potatoes
- 1/2 cup pomegranates
- 3 artichoke hearts, cooked and quartered
- 2 pounds pheasant breast (boneless)
- 1 Tablespoon of olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 10 small Shiitake caps
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 1/4 cup apple juice
- 1 teaspoon chopped sage
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Bring 3 quarts of water with 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil.
2. Add pearl onions and potatoes. Cook for 5 minutes. Drain. Set aside and do not cool.
3. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Season pheasant with salt and pepper, place in pan with 1 tablespoon of butter. Cook pheasant for 3 minutes each side. Remove from pan and keep warm.
4. Add to the pan the onions, potatoes, pomegranates, artichokes, garlic, mushrooms and remaining tablespoon of butter. Cook for 5 minutes stirring often.
5. Add broth, juice, chopped sage and cook for 3 minutes more.
6. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve vegetables on large platter with pheasant on top.
Other game meats worth a play: ostrich (tastes like duck on a diet); guinea hen (tastes like dark meat chicken); antelope (tastes like grass-fed beef); buffalo (tastes like free-range turkey) and goose (tastes like duck).