Get your game on 

Meat-eating season is upon us again. Fall. The time of the hunter, when freezers get filled with the tiny bodies of birds, the haunches of gigantic elk, some bear hearts and, more than and above anything else, Bambi, the whitetail deer.

If you couldn’t get through the opening paragraph without your diaphragm slamming against your stomach, you might want to set this aside and pick up a gardening magazine. This is for those who like to bring game to the ground, run it through a processing plant, freeze it, thaw it and rend the flesh, gnawing away at however it turns out when cooked.

In my experience, at least, that’s how it’s most often done, at least during deer season. Uncle Ned and his “simple” boy head into the woods, avoid being shot down themselves by those whose primary interest in “going hunting” is plenty of booze and trailer whores, plug a deer or two, gut them, tie them to the car and haul ass home. There they lug their kill to a meat processor, and some time later pick up a pile of paper-wrapped meat chunks that have been run through a bandsaw and very likely don’t come from the deer they killed.

People turn away their offers of venison, saying it tastes “gamy” — and it probably does. Or it’s tough. Or they don’t know how to cook it. Or they take it, mutter thanks, shove it to the back of the freezer and forget about it until it’s discovered, iced-over, upon their death and the disposal of their estate.

What I’m going to tell you sounds complicated (compared to what’s described above, I suppose it is), but the added effort will pay off big-time in tenderness, flavor and a nascent ability to make new friends with gifts of meat:

Handle it carefully in the field.

Hang it.

Age it.

Butcher it yourself.

The only formal training I’ve had in food and cooking was a class in game cookery about a dozen years ago in the kitchen of Schoolcraft Community College’s increasingly respected culinary arts department. It was taught by Chef Milos Cihelka, a European-trained World War II émigré who became the first Certified Master Chef in the United States and has since spawned enough others for Michigan to rank only behind New York in the number of masters. Scratch almost any of metro Detroit’s finest chefs, and you’ll find training under Cihelka.

He’s the Godfather of Sole, a brilliant fish chef; he knows more fine things to do with game birds and animals than any other chef I’ve encountered in about 15 years of doing this stuff; and is a gifted teacher.

I’ve written about him before, here and elsewhere. He was the guy I told you about in this space who hangs ducks and other game birds by their necks, in a controlled environment, until their bodies drop free, carefully “decomposed” to their peak flavor and tenderness. It’s a European thing, and he made me a believer.

In that remarkable three-session game class, he taught us this and much else. The first night, we walked in and took our seats in the teaching kitchen while confronted with a large, dead and gutted deer carcass hanging from a meat hook. In less than three hours, Chef Milos skinned the deer (and told us how to preserve it for tanning), “broke it down” (hand-butchered it) into discrete parts, carefully dissecting muscles and muscle groups into roasts, ribs, chops, steaks, stew meat and burger with no waste (try that with a bandsaw), then taught us how to cook several of them while making a meal, with sides, for more than 20 of us. It was dinner theater.

Along the way, in nonstop, good-humored banter, he taught us how to care for the carcass on the trip home from the hunt (tying it in full midday sun onto the blistering hood of a car is not a good method); how to skin it by hand or using a car and chain; how to hang it, in what temperature range, and to rub a mixture of vegetable oil and ground chile pepper throughout the body cavity, nostrils and on the mouth to keep flies away, if they’re an issue.

Then he taught us to butcher, which isn’t all that tricky, but too much so to describe here.

But you can learn all these things and more in the comfort of your own living room! It happens that Chef Milos partnered with Rita and Jerry Chiapetta (you’ll remember Jerry from his years on Michigan Outdoors) to put his game classes on video. The series, Wild Harvest Videos, is divided into segments on large game, fish and birds. Each offers clear video on technique, from field or stream to freezer, with countless tips that can be applied to any of your cooking. Each also comes with a small recipe booklet.

I’ve used mine often and have had them for years, but they’re still available, new and used, from amazon.com, and directly from Chiapetta’s video production company at wildharvestvideos.com.

Why this infomercial, this shameless plug? I don’t get anything out of it, but am happy to share anything of this usefulness and quality.

Get it. Learn it. You’ll be a true hunter-gatherer, one with the knowledge and skills to bag your prey, howl at the moon with guts in your hands and blood on your teeth — then go home, tie on an apron and make some dandy meals for the wife, or husband, and those hungry brats.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to rbohy@metrotimes.com

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