By Jaye Beeler | Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick
In hunting for something charmingly different to do this holiday season — and inspired by the taste-good memory of the reindeer meatballs we devoured in Helsinki last year, I latched on to the idea of a wild game affair.
For me, wild game is a taste from childhood and holidays spent in faraway places where regional food consists of kangaroo, barramundi and witchetty grubs — which I’ve eaten.
For wild game party planning, take some tips from chefs who cook and serve game, reimagining the cuisine of the farmers, fishermen and hunters who populate this peninsula.
If you’re tempted by the earthy seasonal flavors of bison, duck, elk, pheasant, quail and venison, now’s your time to give wild game a try.
“Wild game, wild lake fish — protein that is not traditionally bred for slaughter — is really catching on,” says Dana Wilmer-Lucas, pastry chef and co-owner of Clifford Lake Inn in Stanton.
Her husband, Executive Chef Bernard Lucas, punctuates the inn’s menu with lake fish. The only competition for his pretzel-encrusted Lake Huron walleye with Dijon mustard is his perfectly cooked Lake Superior whitefish and Lake Ontario perch. He’s also experimenting with quail, pheasant and duck — looking to bring out every taste and texture.
“We’re after the wow,” Wilmer-Lucas says. “A beautiful, authentic Michigan product from a farmer, grower, fisher and purveyor just inspires us to do right by it.”
Lansing chef-hunter Daniel Nelson recommends careful cooking when it comes to game, considering most is naturally low in fat, if not lacking it altogether. Nelson helped put together the cookbook “Wild Gourmet: Naturally Healthy Game, Fish and Fowl Recipes for Every Day Chefs,” rediscovering the food value in Michigan’s wilderness — never caged, never fenced.
“A lot of people think game has a strong flavor, and that’s perhaps due to poor care after the animal is harvested, rancidity, or freezer burn,” Nelson says. “If you leave fat on an animal, you will discover that it’s not delicious fat because that gaminess will go there.”
Nelson began hunting at age 12 and by age 16, he says, “I got my first deer and I cooked every bit of that animal. There’s something real about that, a deep connection between taking an animal’s life and consuming its flesh — a lean, pure meat that is incredibly healthy for you.”
Today, Nelson is the executive chef at Eagle Eye Golf Club in East Lansing, but he also cooks wild game dinners for outreach program Gourmet Gone Wild, often featuring venison loin with mustard horseradish sauce, bear-stuffed mushrooms and curry-braised pheasants — meals that garner the kind of accolades typically reserved for farm-to-table dishes. The Lansing-based nonprofit introduces 21- to 39-year-old “urban foodies” to the tastes of Michigan-harvested wild game and the concept of conservation.
“I want to move us beyond the trepidation of eating wild game, which is the next step in ethical eating,” Nelson says.
Executive Chef Ray Hollingsworth (alias “the Camouflage Chef”) at Loon River Café in Sterling Heights understands showcasing wild game’s virtues to new recruits.
“Some people have had a bad experience with wild game because something in the field wasn’t done right, it wasn’t held right, or the buck was rutting so his testosterone is off the charts. If that’s the case, I won’t take him,” says Hollingsworth, who applies classical cooking techniques of braising to break down the meat into velvet yumminess.
“You have to understand that a pheasant cooked to an internal temperature of 165 (degrees) is going to be too tough. That meat needs more to tenderize it.”
That’s right up Jeff Smith’s alley. Smith’s Michigan Venison Co. in Traverse City exclusively sells Michigan whitetail deer meat, which is unusual because most venison on restaurant menus is domesticated red stag deer imported from New Zealand, he says.
Venison’s red meat registers all the best health traits — low in cholesterol but high in protein, iron, vitamins and amino acids. Although it’s an acquired taste for some, proper preparation and cooking make a big difference.
“I want to make primal cuts of venison — loin, tenderloin, roast — more accessible to home cooks,” says Smith, who encourages them to daydream about venison marinated in red wine and spices, roasted with junipers, braised into a ragu and layered into lasagna.
Foodie and freelancer writer Jaye Beeler lives in Grand Rapids with her family.
At Clifford Lake Inn in Stanton, the cooking is famously full-on, courtesy of Executive Chef Bernard Lucas, his pastry chef wife Dana Wilmer-Lucas, who is classically trained in French technique, and sous chef Katie Stuit, all formerly of Leo’s in Grand Rapids.
The grilled quail, marinated in Michigan maple-raspberry vinaigrette and perched on arugula studded through with beetroot, fingerling potatoes, red onion and blue cheese, is as fancy and fanciful as it gets. The grilled lake fish entrée with white wine risotto and red pepper coulis is masterfully cooked. Cranberry galette, complemented by the warming flavors of orange zest and cinnamon, is a perfect holiday ending.
Clifford Lake Inn’s Grilled Quail Salad
6 quail, cleaned and semi-deboned
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups red wine vinegar
4 ounces frozen raspberries
Maple Raspberry Vinaigrette
½ cup raspberry vinegar(see above)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup pure maple syrup
2½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
2½ teaspoons tarragon leaves, dried
½ pound assorted baby beets, washed and halved
½ pound assorted fingerling potatoes,washed and halved
1 pound spring mixed greens, washed and spun dry
½ red onion, julienne thin
½ cup blue cheese, crumbled
For raspberry vinegar, combine ingredients in a jar and refrigerate for three days. Blend in blender and strain out seeds.
For vinaigrette, combine ingredients in an air-tight jar. Apply lid and shake vigorously until emulsified. For salad, stir or shake before using. Marinate quail in 1 cup vinaigrette for three hours or overnight.
Heat oven to 400 degrees, roast beets and potatoes until three-quarters cooked. Grill quail over medium high heat until skin is crisped.
In a large bowl, combine spring mix, beets, potatoes, red onion, blue cheese and ½ cup vinaigrette. To assemble, evenly distribute spring mix to six plates, sprinkle with hard cheese (if desired) and top with quail.
Clifford Lake Inn’s Herbed Risotto with Sweet Corn
Makes 8 servings
4 ears sweet corn
40 ounces (2¼ pints) vegetable stock
1 ounce (½ to 1 cup) chopped fresh basil
1 ounce (about 2) sliced green onions
1 ounce (½ to 1 cup) chopped fresh parsley
½ ounces (½ to 1 cup) chopped fresh chives
2 ounces (¼ cup) white wine, divided
4 ounces (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 ounces (about 2 medium) shallot, minced
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 ounces (about 2 to 4 tablespoons) pureed roasted garlic
1 pound Arborio rice
Roasted Red Pepper Coulis
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ cup vegetable stock
½ cup heavy cream
1 cup roasted red pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
For roasted red pepper coulis, sauté shallots and garlic in butter over low heat for 5 minutes. Add stock, cream and red peppers; simmer for 10 minutes. Puree sauce with basil in a blender until smooth. Let cool.
Clean corn on the cob and cut off the cob but save the cobs and husks and simmer in vegetable stock for a more flavorful stock; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain through fine mesh china cap and keep stock at a simmer.
Blend chopped fresh herbs (basil, scallions, parsley, chives) with half of the white wine; set aside. In a medium short pot, melt butter and add shallots, dried spices and seasoning (thyme, pepper, salt). Cook over medium heat for 4 minutes. Add roasted garlic, Arborio rice and corn kernels; and stir-fry for 2 minutes.
Deglaze with remaining 1 ounce white wine. While stirring constantly, add the simmer stock, 1 cup at a time, until the rice has absorbed all the stock. Add wine and herb mixture to rice, stirring until fully incorporated. Turn off heat and let stand, uncovered, for 10 minutes before serving. Top with a drizzle of roasted red pepper coulis. Offer freshly grated Parmesan when serving.