If you're a novice hunter, chances are you'll be out in the field with an experienced woodsperson when you score your first kill. But what if you're not — or what if you find a steaming specimen on the side of the road and don't want the meat to go to waste? Then there are some tricky tasks in your future.
If you live in the right place, you may be able to find a butcher's shop, slaughterhouse or old-timey general store willing to do some of the dirty work. There are also expert cutters scattered all over the state who've equipped their homes for large-scale processing. James Blais, head of the meat department at Shelburne Supermarket, runs a "custom cutting" biz on the side. "I do about 150 a year, mostly deer," he declares. Blais has a special cooler for hanging meat while he's waiting to process it, and the knife skills to create any cuts his customers want.
Others go the old-school route and do it at home. John Buck, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, falls into that category. The aptly named Buck has been hunting for 40 years and is well versed in the art of dismembering deer.
But whether you plan to butcher a doe or buck yourself or pay someone to do it, you've gotta have the guts to get the guts out ASAP.
In separate interviews, Blais and Buck offer a primer on what to do with a downed deer:
SEVEN DAYS: One way or another you've got a Bambi carcass in front of you. What do you do?
JOHN BUCK: Once you are successful in getting a deer, you need to eviscerate it immediately . . . The long-term objective is to cool the body down, so it won't spoil on you and the meat will taste better.
SD: Besides a strong stomach, what does it take?
BUCK: A good sharp knife, rubber gloves and a willingness to learn about deer anatomy.
SD: OK. So I've slit the deer's belly open and scooped out all the guts, dragged it to my vehicle, weighed it at a "reporting station," and now it's at home. What next?
JAMES BLAIS: Generally speaking, you'll hang it from the hind legs. Then you take the hide off. It takes some pulling and cutting, but then you just peel the hide away. An average deer takes 10 to 20 minutes to skin.
SD: I know that some people hang deer for a day or more. Should you skin it before or after it hangs?
BUCK: It's absolutely easier to get the skin off of it immediately. Once the skin dries onto the muscle tissue, it's very hard to pull it off. It takes great strength.
SD: Great. Skin it while it's fresh. Was the head still on when you did that?
BLAIS: Try not to cut the head off first. Any time you cut the hair or cut through the hide, you get hair on the meat itself. It's like glue; it just sticks to the meat.
SD: Sounds good so far. Now how do you get it into chunks that fit in the freezer?
BLAIS: I take it off the bone, starting from the neck and the shoulders, and work my way up to the top. I just use a boning knife. The old-fashioned way used to be to take it and cut it on a saw. But most people like to have it boneless, 'cause it's not nearly as gamey that way. A pretty standard cut would be steaks and hamburg or steaks and sausage, but some people like roasts and some people like stew meat.
SD: Mr. Buck, do you approach it the same way?
BUCK: I quarter the animal. Each side of the rear end gets cut in half. I take the shoulders off and sever the head. Then I fillet the major muscle groups off of each section of the deer with a 4-inch boning knife. You bring those muscle pieces inside and cut them up on the kitchen counter. At that point, it's very recognizable as food. It doesn't look like an animal anymore.
MORE STORIES FROM THE HUNTING ISSUE:
by Ken Picard
by Mike Ives
by Patrick Ripley
by Margot Harrison
by Suzanne Podhaizer
An oenophile offers some tips
Joerg Klauck of Vermont Wine Merchants will provide the wine pairings for the game dinner at Mary's restaurant. Here are a few of his thoughts on pairing wine with game:
"Whether it's game or any other dish, I try to rely on two basic principles. Balance the weight of the food and the wine and the mouth feel of each. Balance or contrast the wine with the seasonings and flavors of the food. This will liberate people to think beyond red with one food and white with another."
Recommended wines for . . .
Rabbit: A lighter red, such as a Pinot Noir or Beaujolais. Or a fuller-bodied white, like one from the Rhône.
Water fowl: A more full-bodied Pinot Noir, Côtes du Rhône, Syrah or Shiraz.
Venison: Cabernet; Merlot; a nice, full-bodied Zinfandel.
Bear: Big Australian Shiraz, Cabernet.
Boar: Merlot, Chianti, Barolo or Barbaresco.
Hunters and chefs share their recipes
Helen Rounds, secretary of the Neshobe Sportsman Club in Brandon:
"Usually you cube the meat out just like a regular beef stew. I cut up my carrots and put them in the bottom of the Crock-Pot, and put in some onions and diced potatoes. I put the venison on the very top and pour in a can of chicken broth, and put in 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce. Then I let it cook all day."
"We had some moose that was given to us by the game warden. It got hit by a car. We ground it up and made it into hamburger. We put a little oatmeal in it. You fry them first in a frying pan, and then put them in a Crock-Pot with a sweet-and-sour sauce made out of cocktail sauce and grape jelly. They really soak up the flavor."
"Bear can be a little tough. We smoked it first in the smoker. That kind of tenderized it. We put it in a barbecue sauce we made with ketchup, Worcestershire, lemon, garlic and honey. Again, you let it cook all day in a Crock-Pot, and it comes out very, very tender. It's almost like pulled pork, 'cause the meat kind of softens up. Or you can serve it on some hamburger rolls like a sloppy Joe."
John Buck, wildlife biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife:
"I stir-fry onions, mushrooms, garlic and peppers in butter or olive oil and reduce them to a sautéed consistency. I might add a little water, too, to make sure I have a good amount of liquid in there. Then I dice up the mallard breasts into bite-sized pieces. I put them in, cover it, and let it simmer over very low heat until the meat is done. You can probably do this in half an hour from start to finish. For a base, I like egg noodles; I like brown rice, something hearty to go with the hearty dark meat."
"Sometimes venison can be tough, depending on what cut it is. Stick it in the Crock-Pot with onions, turnips, squash, peas. Make a salad out of it, basically. I also put in red wine, a Merlot, or something rich, and Worcestershire and soy. Garlic, of course. Add all of this to your own personal taste; just keep adding till you like it. You just don't want to overpower everything with one flavor. Let that cook for 24 hours, and you'll make a lot of friends."
From The United Church of Christ Game Dinner Cookbook:
Like pork, the trimmings from roasts, chops or any small pieces can be ground into sausage. Grind the pieces as for making sausage or hamburg. For 10 pounds of ground meat, add the following seasonings.
1 1/2 oz. ground sage
1 1/2 oz. poultry seasoning
1 oz. pepper
2 1/2 oz. salt
1 oz. sugar
Add seasonings to ground meat and mix well with hands. It may be quite sticky. Form into small roll, or put into a bag as pork sausage, or form into small patties. As it is nearly all lean meat, a little oil or bacon fat needs to be added to the fry pan when frying.
Doug Mack, chef-owner of Mary's Restaurant at the Inn at Baldwin Creek:
Rabbit Stew (serves four)
One rabbit, about 3 pounds, cut up
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped celery
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
1 teaspoon salt
One bay leaf
4 cups water
4 cups dry red wine
2 cups diced carrots
4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
4 oz. sliced mushrooms, sautéed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup water
Dredge rabbit pieces with 1/2 cup flour. Melt butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat; brown rabbit pieces on all sides. Add celery, onion, salt, pepper, bay leaf, 4 cups water and wine; bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and simmer rabbit stew for 2 hours. Add carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms; cook for about 25 to 30 minutes longer, or until vegetables are tender. Combine 1/4 cup flour and 1/3 cup water; stir until well blended and smooth. Stir flour mixture into the broth; cook and stir until thickened.