Get in the Game
Discover new ways to use game meats on your menu
chef/owner of Angeline in New Orleans
As diners become more adventurous, they cross over into the "game zone" with lamb, foie gras and duck. But, as diners mature, do you still really consider those fairly ubiquitous offerings game? These days, to truly get into game, you can tinker with more adventurous exotic meats like antelope, rabbit, squab, elk, alligator, quail, rattlesnake, wild boar and, yes, even kangaroo.
While it may not be — and may never be — mainstream, more and more chefs are venturing deeper into game territory and more and more diners want it. Like other meats, there are countless ways to prepare game meats. You could make venison marsala; antelope osso bucco; or various carpaccio or charcuterie. But whatever you make, it still must be appealing and familiar to diners.
"When you first put something on your menu that's a little different or unusual, it takes a little while for people to warm up to it," said Alex Harrell, chef/owner of Angeline in New Orleans. "If I use something unique, I'll prepare it in a way that's approachable or recognizable and that people are familiar with."
Case in point: Harrell's signature Southern fried quail. The chef grew up eating fried chicken in Alabama and would usually put honey and hot sauce on the cold chicken the second day. His quail is an extension of that, elevating the more familiar fried chicken with the gamier fowl, served with honey, house-made hot sauce and a hoe cake. Harrell also has done a lamb shoulder dish, which he describes to diners as the "best pulled pork they've ever had," and serves it with a sorghum dumpling, which is essentially gnocchi.
"We've just changed some of the ingredients, but people are comfortable with that and they're willing to take a food journey with you," he added.
And where meat eaters generally have no issue eating chicken, other meats, like rabbit, may not be as palatable. But more people have dipped a toe into the rabbit pool, especially when chefs get more creative with it.
executive chef of Local Provisions in Asheville, N.C.
"People are always weird about rabbit, but it tastes like chicken," said Justin Burdett, executive chef of Local Provisions in Asheville, N.C. "It’s mild, is easy to work with and has more working parts like the belly, loin, front legs to confit and you can braise the back legs."
Burdett started doing rabbit belly bacon back in 2008 after doing an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. From there, he started curing, smoking and charring it on the grill. Then he did a salad with braised legs and eventually started using the organs in nose-to-tail preparations. He eventually made a rabbit summer sausage, which he serves chilled with sorghum butter or a house-made mustard.
Burdett added he likes using game meats in fall and winter because they lend themselves better to heavier accompaniments like pumpkin, braised greens and tart cherry. If using game in spring and summer, he turns to foraged foods like young pine cones, nettles and wild celery as pairings.
While breaking down and preparing four-legged game meats is essentially the same as non-game, keep in mind that game meats tend to be leaner, due in part to a free-range diet where the animals naturally forage for acorns and chestnuts. This can lead to slightly sweeter, lower-fat meat, like venison.
"It's a good option for someone who doesn't want a fatty steak," Burdett said. "It's a good alternative for people who are doing diets with lean meat."
When cooking game, remember that because it's leaner, it could dry out. Be sure not to overcook the meat and you may have to marinate it longer, Harrell said. He added that game offers guests the opportunity to experience more assertive flavors and different textures. He likes using wild boar for this reason. Harrell prepares it as a sausage and serves it with Georgia clams and a variety of spices.
"The flavors work well,” Harrell said. The clams have a sweetness and the boar has an unctuous, gamey quality, but richness with fat. We make a sweet Italian sausage with fennel, coriander, chili flake and smoked paprika. The dish has become very popular."