You Got Game?

By Karl Klooster

Prehistoric humans hunted and foraged, living off whatever the land provided. For them, wild animals were essential to survival. If choices were available, some species were undoubtedly preferred as a meal. But they still had to be stalked, caught and killed.

The advent of agrarian societies dramatically altered the edible landscape. Domesticated animals were already captive assets, so to speak. With the exception of nomadic peoples, hunting for one’s supper was no longer a necessity.

This change did not, however, eliminate a certain demand for wild game that has continued to the present day. Some people seem to derive a visceral satisfaction from venturing out into forest and field in search of four-footed entrées or feathery fare.

When properly prepared, venison, duck, goose, quail, pheasant, buffalo, caribou, elk and the like can be distinctively delicious. If supplied by a relative or friend who was personally responsible for the repast, another dimension is added to the indulgence.

That level of experience, however, is no longer commonplace in a now predominantly urban America. These days it’s more likely that the “wild” creature in question will not have grown up in the wild.

In some ways, this may be a good thing. Whereas it removes the “fearless hunter” element from the equation, the control factor has attributes that are more benign than trying to bag an elusive big buck or lay down effective fire on a fleeing flock of ducks.

Regardless of the source, game presents culinary challenges imaginative chefs relish taking up and offers gustatory possibilities that can make the effort most rewarding. Selecting compatible wines further enhances the epicurean adventure.

Showcasing the diversity of wine and game, a group of 10 Northwest chefs recently joined celebrity chef Chris Cosentino of the Food Network to prepare a 10-course feast at The Resort at the Mountain in Welches.

The occasion was the ninth annual Wild About Game dinner sponsored by Nicky USA, a Portland-based company that specializes in wild—actually, not so wild—game. Almost everything they sell is farm or ranch raised.

Owner Geoff Latham started the business in 1990, at first exporting to Japan and other Pacific Rim countries. The Oregon State University agriculture grad said he was born to sell something connected with the land.

The business name comes from the nickname for a Japanese associate who encouraged and supported Latham early on, becoming a close friend in the process.

He has built the company a step at a time, developing positive relationships with farms and ranches whose philosophy is free range and open-barn raising, retaining an environment that, although obviously controlled, is as close to nature as possible.

Deer, elk, antelope, buffalo and caribou, for example, roam over expansive acreages featuring both open fields and wooded areas. Game birds live in aviary settings with netting draped across the tops of trees high overhead.

Drawing from a broad spectrum of these sources, Latham and his staff have put together a cooking competition that is both highly demanding and greatly rewarding. The demands are on the chefs; the rewards come to those who dine on the results.

Ten different game birds and mammals—duck, quail, squab, pheasant, partridge, guinea hen, venison, elk, rabbit and buffalo—were prepped and anonymously packaged. Each chef then selected a package from the cooler, not knowing what it contained.

In other words, the chefs and their assistants had to have recipes or “game” plans, if you will, in mind for 10 possibilities. As Will Cisa, sous chef to David Kreifels at Laurelhurst Market in Portland, put it, “The challenge called for some serious strategy.”

Kreifels and Cisa, who ended up winning the competition, put together a two-part approach. If the luck of the draw brought them a mammal, it went one way, if a bird, another way. In either case, the recipes, themselves, were creatively challenging and work intensive.

Rabbit, the least “wild” and most often seen on gourmet menus, turned out to be the Laurelhurst Market pick. They had decided in advance that if they drew rabbit, the recipe would have to be particularly complex and demanding.

Their strategy paid off. “Viridian Farms provide us with a great selection of fresh produce,” Cisa said. “We used their Piment d’Espelette and Pimenton, as well as Swiss chard, yellow onion, Basque frying peppers and celery ribs.”

For the herbally uninformed, Piment d’Espelette is a highly prized Basque pepper and Pimenton is smoked Spanish paprika. For the tenaciously cooking inclined, Laurelhurst Market’s complete Oregon rabbit recipe is reprinted below.

Second place went to Phil Oswalt and his team from the Multnomah Athletic Club, who benefit from working with consulting Executive Chef Philippe Boulot of Heathman Hotel fame.

Selecting last, Oswalt drew venison, the quintessential game meat. He put together a roasted venison rack with Matsutake mushrooms and venison liver hash, accented by a sherry reduction and accompanied by fingerling potatoes.

Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon garnered third for the culinary magic he performed on buffalo, or American bison. Rucker made buffalo heart perogie, seared buffalo liver and fig salad with chestnut butter sauce.

Whether you spell it perogie, pierogi, piroghi or several other variations, the dough-filled Polish treat—a Pittsburgh favorite—proved to be a winner for the Le Pigeon contingent.

As to the wines, although perfect pairings could be the stuff of culinary legend, there are no ideal game wines that stand head and shoulders above all others.

Assertive Syrah alongside beefy buffalo, classic Cabernet mated to majestic elk and fruity Beaujolais paired with plump bunny all sound sympatico, but the reality is that recipes play the major role in determining wine selections.

Predominant entrée flavors can run the gamut from bold and hearty to rich and creamy, pungent and spicy to tangy and herbal, light and delicate to tart and citrusy. Compatibility with each profile calls for a different wine type.

Every year, the Nicky USA folks invite a different Oregon winery to supply wines. Previous participants have included Chehalem, Soléna and Anne Amie. This year WillaKenzie Estate did the honors with their 2006 Pierre Leon Pinot Noir and 2008 Pinot Gris.

When a masterfully executed entrée and a beautifully balanced wine are brought together, the pairing can add depth and nuance to an already intriguing gustatory experience.

The Wine & Game dinner in Welches obviously delivers at that level. If they really stretched the limits, who knows what might be on next year’s menu—goose, ostrich, grouse, moose, wild boar, bear? ◊

Nicky USA

World-Class Game Birds & Meats
Online Store:
Contact: 503-234-4263 (Portland)
Products: Rabbit, Bison/Buffalo, Quail, Pheasant, Squab, Partridge, Poussin, Goose, Beef, Nicky Farm Sausage, Oregon Lamb, Duck
If you don’t see what you are looking for, download a full product list from the website and phone in your order.

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