Ordinary Kitchens: The hog files

A brief tale of turning my grandparent’s ordinary kitchen (and garage) into a butcher shop and meat locker.

A few weeks ago, while visiting my grandparents in sunny southwest Florida, my boyfriend Chris went on his first wild hog hunt, and it was a great success. As I have mentioned before, I consider the real story of such adventures, the ones I tell people and write about, to start in the kitchen. Once an animal has been field dressed, skinned and at least quartered, then I step into the process. So let’s start there.

Chris brought the hog back to gram’s house quartered and on ice in a cooler. Then, for the next few hours, her garaged transformed into a butcher shop as we separated out the cuts and portioned it to freeze.
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Neither of us have a ton of experience butchering a whole animal, but we felt it out, literally. If you pay attention to the meat it shows you where to cut and trim.

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Gram and pops were both really good sports about the whole event, but for a while gram refused to come into the garage. She would just shout, “how’s it going guys?,” periodically from the safety of the house. But then, she got curious.

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She even asked for more details on the kill shot!

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Ok, she didn’t ask for more details, but once we got her into the garage, she was getting the whole story. By the end of the night she was assisting and it was awesome! Now I guess we’ve both been places and seen things we never thought imaginable.

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When everything was cut, we vacuum sealed and label it all and then somehow got it to fit into the freezer.

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Once we got the meat home (in the cooler, checked-in and flown under the plane like normal luggage – who knew?) I started experimenting with the best ways to cook it. So far, we’ve made stew, pulled pork and red curry. Recipes of the stuff that turns out awesome to come!

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Squeaky Clean Shepherd’s Pie

As I am posting this it is about 40 degrees, damp and misty outside. On a night when I am most likely staying in and watching a movie under blankets, it is equally important that the movie choice is perfect and I have some awesome comfort food in the oven. Here’s what is on the menu tonight:

Clean Venison Shepard’s Pie
Serves 4

Ingredients:
1 small head of cauliflower
3 large carrots, peeled diced
1 small or 1/2 large onion, diced
1.5 lbs ground meat (I used venison but any ground meat works well)
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 tbsp of fresh chopped herbs (I mixed Oregano, Parsley and Thyme)
1 tbsp parmesan or Romano cheese, finely grated
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of crushed red pepper

Preheat over to 375F. Cut cauliflower into 1-2″ chunks and lay out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika. Drizzle with olive oil and roast until tender and starting to brown, about 30 minutes. When it’s done, let it cool and then dice it into very small pieces. You can leave the oven on when you pull the cauliflower out.

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While that is cooking, peel and dice your carrots into 1/2″ pieces. Boil them for about 10 minutes until they are soft, but do not have to be fully cooked, then drain.

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large fry or sauté pan. Add onion and sauté on medium low heat until translucent. Add ground meat and turn up the heat to medium. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. When meat is brown and mostly cooked through, add the cooked carrots and corn and cook for a few more minutes. Remove from heat.

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Combine 2 tbsp olive oil with chopped herbs and parmesan. Add a pinch each of black and red pepper. In a large bowl, toss chopped cauliflower with the mixture until coated.

Line a baking dish with ground meat mixture, about 1″ deep. Cover completely with cauliflower.

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Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes. Let stand a few minutes before serving. Enjoy!

In Interrupt This Blog to Bring You the Hunting Season

Sometimes I feel like I lead a double life. Part of me, the part I’ve known for longer, is horrified by the idea of meat production. She likes bunny rabbits, cute cuddly things, animal adoption and wildlife rehabilitation. She became a vegetarian and enjoyed that it made her conscious about eating every single day. The other part of me, the newer part that I understand better, watches in fascination as a deer is butchered on her kitchen table. She takes pictures so she can write about it, and eats venison sliders hot off the stove in the same room with the butchered carcass. She recognizes that a squirrel with a broken leg left to the coyotes in the woods is not a total waste. She knows that nature can be as brutal as humanity. She is more sure of this lifestyle than any that has come before.

I admit it, the shock value of eating squirrel or trying a little bite of deer heart (because why not?) have long since gone for me. Things I never even knew were a part of life have become common place, and living with a hunter has been a huge part of that. This elicits mixed responses from the people in my life who know me best. They still can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. I just know it’s right.

The thing is, at this point in my life I have a hard time even picking up a package of organic chicken at Whole Foods without wondering how many miles away that chicken was slaughtered, or why it’s wrapped in so much plastic. I have no reservations, however, about the fresh and “free range” meat in my freezer. Since I have made the decision that I am ultimately a meat-eater, I might as well know everything about it and understand exactly where it comes from. For a while I thought I couldn’t handle that, that I just didn’t want to know about or experience most of the lifecycle of these animals. That’s not the case any more. Knowing is the only way I can do it.

As a bonus, all of the wild game I cook is incredibly lean, lending itself well to the culinary experiments of a clean eating blogger. This brings me to the newest freezer challenge: 30lbs of ground venison and about 30+ more pounds of steaks and stew meat.

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I think I squeezed in a few frosty beer glasses and an ice cube tray on the freezer door, but other than that there is not much else in there. Well, there also might be a pheasant and/or a snow goose. I’m really not sure.

What did we cook first, you ask? Read on my friends, read on.

Squirrel Salad Sandwich

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Hear me out.

The backstory: A few weeks ago I attempted to make bread for the first time. It was a focaccia. Baby steps. Focaccia is both relatively simple to create and the epitome of a savory delight. But I was nervous and had mixed feelings about the results so I didn’t post about it. I consider this a poor move, and that sort of hesitancy stops here and now. What is this blog if not a shared adventure that sometimes involves weirdness or failure?

This brings me to the squirrel salad sandwich. For college graduation I bought my boyfriend (Chris) an L.L. Bean Cookbook, which describes squirrel meat as a wild game delicacy whose flavor cannot be matched. We kind of ignored this statement for a while, until last week when he brought home a field-dressed squirrel. This was in compliance with the house rules: If something is put in the fridge as a cleaned, prepared and unrecognizable ingredient, then I will most likely accept it and turn it into a meal.

However, I was totally turned off by this squirrel. For days it was (metaphorically) staring me right in the face, forcing me into some deep and uncharted self-inquiry. I never in a million years thought I was the kind of person who would taste, never mind cook, a squirrel. Am I that person? Is this too far? What does this mean? Would I post about it? Slowly I began to wonder, what will it taste like?

If I didn’t make a decision soon it was going to spoil, and that had to be worse fate of all. It’s just meat. I’ve tried rabbit. Among meat-eaters, rabbits are generally accepted as an offbeat thing to stew or braise, and how are they actually any different? I respect belief systems, but it’s hard for me to get behind an idea with which I do not agree.

So, we boiled the squirrel, pulled the meat and I took a bite. I’m not even sure what I wanted to feel, but it was just downright tasty.  Cross my heart it tasted like the dark meat of a chicken- moist, mild, and completely palatable. Chris made the rest into a chopped salad with mayo, mustard, celery and dried cranberries to share with a few curious friends, and that was the end.

I doubt that I am going to start eating squirrel on the regular, but I am glad I cooked it and glad I tried it. There are countless epicurean adventures to be had with food and I want to make sure I approach each one with consideration, lest I miss out for no reason. I’m not sure where we go from here, but trust I will let you know.

This leaves me wondering, how do you feel about the weridest thing you’ve ever tasted?

Clean Venison Enchiladas

If you are anything like me, some days just make you crave a hearty, comforting meal that won’t throw you off the healthy eating track. This was one of those days, and it coincided perfectly with not wanting to create an extra dinner element for anyone who might feel they need meat to be a whole person. I feel as though I tackled this challenge with grace and ended up with quite a tasty morsel to show for it. The starting point was pulled venison I had in the fridge, and then I remembered this simply and super tasty enchilada sauce that has come through for me on a few occasions. Things just kind of took off from there. If you are having one of those days, I hope this warms your belly and puts you in a good place.

Clean Venison Enchiladas

Ingredients:
Clean Enchilada Sauce
(original sauce recipe from The Naked Kitchen)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1tbsp whole wheat flour
3 tbsp chili powder
12 oz tomato paste
2 cups vegetable broth
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp cumin
3 cloves garlic, minced
sea salt to taste

for enchiladas:
6-8 corn or whole wheat tortillas
1.5 lbs pulled venison (though any meat will do)
12 oz vegetarian refried beans
optional toppings: cheddar cheese, avocado, plain greek yogurt

Preheat your over to 350 F.

To make the enchilada sauce, heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and stir until smooth. Stir in chili power and cook for an additional minute.

Add the tomato paste, veggie broth, onion powder, cumin, and garlic. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for about 4-5 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Next, line a baking dish with a thin layer of enchilada sauce. If you are using corn tortillas, place them between two damp towels and microwave for about one minute so they steam and soften.

Fill each tortilla with a 1-2 spoonfuls of beans and then venison. Make sure they are not too stuffed that they don’t close! Roll them up and place them seam down in your pan.

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Pour remaining sauce over the top of the enchiladas. (Depending on how many enchiladas you end up with and how deep your pan is, you may end up with extra sauce, which freezes well.)

Cook uncovered for 30 minutes. If you are adding cheese, sprinkle it on during the last 5-10 minutes.

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Top with a spoon of plain greek yogurt and diced avocado to serve. Any leftover sauce or enchiladas can be frozen.

Note: This recipe is freezer challenge approved.

Slow Cooker Pulled Venison

I love game meats, but there are a few cuts that I prefer with a bit of dressing up. So when I happened across a clean pulled pork recipe in a magazine this week, is was an opportunity I could not flip past. Out came the last winter’s venison stew meat from the recesses of the freezer to defrost overnight. The next morning it took me about fifteen minutes to prep everything for the crock pot, and I was out the door to work.

Slow Cooker Pulled Venison
(adapted from Cuisine Tonight’s Quick and Easy Menus)

Ingredients:
1.5 lbs venison stew meat, cubed
4 lbs extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 tbsp fresh rosemary
1 tbsp fresh oregano
2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp fennel seed
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine

Chop garlic, rosemary, oregano, salt, fennel seed, and red pepper flakes and mix with olive oil. Place meat and spice mixture in a plastic bag and shake until the meat is coated. In a saute pan, sear meat on all sides on medium heat.

Place meat along the bottom of a 3-4 qt slow cooker, and then add broth and wine. Cook on high for 4 hours. When meat has cooled, shred into small pieces. Use to spice up that same old lunch sandwich, for a twist in stew or even as filling for enchiladas!

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Note: This recipe is freezer challenge approved.

Six Pack Beefaroni

While summering in the Finger Lakes region of New York last year, I was introduced to Beefaroni- a classically amazing pasta dish I had somehow never had before. (Among other life-changing things I was introduced to in the Finger Lakes were the Finger Lakes, wine tasting, and dry Rieslings.) The cheesy, saucy deliciousness took my idea of comfort food to a whole new level. I’m pretty sure I had three bowls full just to make sure it was real.

Upon arriving home and back in the real world, I began toying with ways to lighten up this dish and make it into something I could eat all the time. Here is what I came up with.

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:
1 medium sized spaghetti squash
1qt. tomato sauce
extra virgin olive oil
ground turkey or lean ground beef (I have also used venison and bison, which are both fabulous lean options)
sea salt and pepper to taste

optional twists:
1/2 lb shell or elbow pasta
1/2 lb firm tofu (diced small)
parmesan or romano cheese to sprinkle

Baking the squash
Preheat your oven to 350F. Cut the spaghetti squash in half length-wise and scrape the seeds from both sides. Sprinkle each half with sea salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil.

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Wrap both halves (separately) in tin foil and bake for 45 minutes. The squash should be very tender and string easily when scraped with a fork when done. The flesh color will turn a brighter yellow. Test both sides before you take it out of the oven. Remember it will continue to steam in the tin foil as it cools. Set aside. Once cool, scrape the insides of both halves to make your “spaghetti.” If you bake the squash ahead of time this is a quick meal to throw together during the week.

In the meantime, heat up a saute pan and toss in your ground meat or tofu when hot. If using tofu, add a tbsp of olive oil to the pan before adding it. Season with salt and pepper to taste. After it browns, cover with tomato sauce and simmer on med-low for 10-15 minutes. If you are cooking pasta as well, put it onto boil as well.

To serve, start with your spaghetti squash, (pasta if using it) and then top with meat or tofu and sauce. I especially love this meal because it’s easy to make a clean veggie meal, and add the meat and pasta to keep everyone in the house happy. Both versions are tasty, satisfying, and make great leftovers.

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Meat version on left, veggie version on right