Game of Bones
Nicky’s USA offers another wild party on the mountain
By Jim Gullo
Like turkeys at Thanksgiving and the legs of innocent lambs at Easter, these squabs had seen happier days. At eleven a.m. on a recent Sunday morning next door to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, a whole sheet pan full of unfortunate squab breasts lie glistening, naked and wine-red, waiting a brisk pan frying. Their forest friends — the elk, the goat and even the hapless and frequently adorable rabbit — awaited similar fates. Cows, pigs and chickens mostly had the day off, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the more exotic animals made out of meat had plenty to quail about when the annual Wild About Game festival returned to the environs of Portland.
This was the 14th year that Geoff Latham, co-founder of exotic meat and game bird purveyor Nicky USA, and its Oregon-based Nicky Farms, has staged the Wild About Game event. Experience showed in the event’s smooth running with 37 purveyors of mostly exotic fare distributed between two floors and the patio of the Wy’East Day Lodge, and the crisp execution of a competition among professional chefs, who had put on their game faces for a shot at being named top dog — oops, bad choice of words.
The ease of the event’s execution left Lathan, dressed in a black Nicky Farms shirt, circulating the crowds, grinning and wishing everyone a great time. Why the competition among chefs? I asked. “It’s all about educating,” he quickly replied. “We want people to see how chefs do it. And I wanted the chefs to learn from each other.”
He added that Cathy Whims, the six-time nominee for Best Chef: Northwest by the James Beard Foundation, was the event’s first winner, back in the days when you could hardly find a squab — much less foie gras — lurking in the woods. Now, Latham does a brisk business supplying restaurants and stores up and down the West Coast with a variety of farm-raised game and birds.
“They’re not just putting out food today,” he added. “They’re putting out stories and more passion here than in any other event.”
Back in the kitchen, the squabs may have had a thing or two to say about passion, but there was no time for squabbling. At one end of the service line, Chef Jin Soo Yang of Portland’s Bamboo Sushi was overseeing a team of assistants firing up the first round of entries — coincidentally, also entrées — for the squab segment of the competition. At the other end of the line, Chef Jason Stoneburner, of Bastille and Stoneburner in Seattle, and an assistant were furiously chopping and plating their own game of bones.
Yang was smiling and cheerful, possibly because he was the best-looking male in the room by a long shot. He drained a salad of bright, citrusy summer kimchee and dropped a small portion into my hand. It was to be the only vegetable I ate all day, and quite delicious. Working with chopsticks, his sous chefs quickly seared the squab breasts in smoking hot pans greased with duck fat and plated them with a pretty, caul-fat wrapped chunk of foie gras, the kimchi — for color — and squab tsukune (meatball). Every squab should be so lucky.
Stoneburner, who was no pigeon in the squab department, offered some tips on handling the delicate little game birds after plating his soup of squab cappelletti with a confit leg and chanterelles.
“Like any animal, there are a lot of different parts to the squab,” he offered, “and they all cook at different temperatures and times. Each part should be cooked separately. And never discard the bones, because they make a brilliant stock.”
This heated competition among chefs from Seattle and Portland would be repeated three times in the ensuing hours, with elk, goat and rabbit providing the gamesmanship. After each round was plated and judged, the public was then invited to sample the dishes and judge for themselves which game was a winner. Since it was a Sunday in September, football games were broadcast on TV screens around the space, and, at times, it became hard to choose between the beef on the screens and the bunnies on the plates.
To that end, I was intent on setting a personal record in game and exotic meat consumption that would rival a Lewis & Clark/Corps of Discovery member. At one table sponsored by Anderson Ranches Oregon Lamb, plates contained a spicy Moroccan lamb stew, lamb tartare and chunks of roasted lamb with a dollop of dill-infused yogurt. Sensational. At another table, poor Lissa James from Hama Hama oysters in Washington was frantically shucking 40 dozen briny, tasty bi-valves that must have themselves wondered how they were invited to this particular game.
Cheesemongers cut the cheese, craft brewers poured samples of suds, and a woman from South Carolina named Angela was pickling tiny, speckled quail eggs from “the oldest quail farm in the country.” There were pâtés and terrines of venison and goose, morsels of rabbit wrapped in bacon, smoked everything and a giant Fermin pig’s leg that had flown all the way from Spain to be mounted on a jamonero rack and sliced paper thin for sampling.
We can only conjecture that perhaps that pig regretted he hadn’t been diverted to, say, Tucson. My sole regret was that only a small handful of wineries made the scene — Brooks, Soter, Colene Clemens and Erath among them — and missing were pairings of game-friendly pours like Syrah, a good Southern Oregon Claret or Cab Franc, and, well, Gamay Noir.
For the record, the overall winner of the competition was Chef Shane Ryan of Matt’s in the Market in Seattle. He thumped the rabbit contest, as it were, with his own bacon-wrapped rabbit roulade, black garlic, chanterelles and summer truffle grits.
All of which goes to show that there’s more than one way to skin a … oh, never mind. Exotic is as exotic does, and I, too, am now wild about game.
McMinnville freelance writer and author Jim Gullo is working on a novel about the Marx Brothers.