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Elk Hunt 2013

11.19.13

Elk Hunt - Hunting

Elk are damn smart. Someone visiting Jasper National Park might not think so as they drive by an elk casually grazing within the throw of a paperweight, but in any other setting they demonstrate why they out-survived the sabre toothed cat and the wooly mammoth. I’m serious, look it up. They’re nocturnal feeders [park elk excluded], so you’re essentially trying to get between them and their feed just before dark, or coming back from it at first dawn. It’s how the hunt goes – one I’ve been doing since 2006. When my calf moose draw was declined for the first time since that same year and I was left holding an antlerless elk tag, I was highly motivated to buy deer tags. Such was my optimism for success.

As it turned out this year was going to be different. The guys had been out before me [I'm spoiled, I know] and had two fields with serious amounts of elk track to hunt. First night out there was a missed chance at a large herd. Next morning I saw a bull that I’d have had no chance at even if I had a tag. This was already success as my prior experience was hunting elk morning and evening for days without seeing a thing. Day 2’s evening, we spread out across the field where we’d had the chance the first evening. I heard animals in the bush right away, but without cows chirping or bulls bugling there was no way to know for sure whether it’s deer, a coyote [one did turn up], a moose, etc. An hour or more in, as legal shooting time approached and after a visit from a coyote, my heart freaked out as I saw a string of elk walking out of the bush into the field to feed about 150-200 yards away. A lot went through the brain in those few seconds that get printed indelibly before pulling the trigger – including a pile of adrenaline that doesn’t help the cause. It IS antlerless, right? Not interested in making THAT mistake. It IS a safe shooting direction considering the location of my hunting partners, yeah? It’s broadside. There are other animals coming, should I scope others? They’re calm now…do I have time, or if I hesitate will they turn and bolt? I then had this moment of realization that I’d been hunting days of years for this one singular moment to happen – my crosshairs on an elk I was tagged up for. Committed. Pulled the trigger. The elk went down in its tracks. I got really, REALLY cold as the adreneline jolt went away. One of the most memorable hunts of my life just ended as well as I could have hoped.

Elk Hunt Kill

I suspect my gratitude for the successes I’ve had big game hunting this year is in part to last year’s doing without having been on the floor sick rather than on my hunt. I went a year without big game for the first time in a decade. Not a drama as there many other delicious things to eat, but it made me consider how much it’d become part of my culinary culture. My grandfather’s recent passing reminded me all season of the legacy of culture he left behind. My dad shared a story this time out about my grandfather first taking him deer hunting when my dad was 21. He’d shot a whitetail and didn’t even know what to do with it when it was down. My dad’s one of the most seasoned, accomplished, and cool-headed hunters I know. My newbie-ism is slowly dissolving, and I’m now bringing my kids out. Just in my immediate family game will have impacted the culture and flavours in our  Canadian kitchens for 100-200 years. When I was a kid that sounded like a really long time. It doesn’t anymore.

Dry Cured Elk Heart Verdict

12.12.11

I got a lot of questions about how the dry-cured elk heart turned out – and I didn’t know until today. Sliced into it exactly one month after the start of the cure, and I’m on the fence if leaving it longer would do it harm or good. You can see in the photo that the exterior’s dry like a jerky, while the interior’s got some texture like a lightly cured fish. Describing fish texture and game meats in the same sentence likely doesn’t conjure pleasant thoughts, but it’s not unpleasant. That’s what’s shocking.

My expectations were strong, rich, heavy, mineral/irony, dense. It in fact is delicate and mild – almost to a fault. It smells lightly like game but not strongly so, with light smoke notes from the cold smoke [I'd go longer next time], and is simply mushroomy & salty. I noticed the mushroom, then looked to see if I’d added any, and sure enough it’s obvious in the photo below that I’d dusted it with crushed wild mushroom and hadn’t noted it. I need to work on my note-taking-discipline. The texture reminded me of a thin slice of lardo in texture [more on that later] – denser than the norm, but in a pleasant way. Overall this is so light, in fact, that when thinking about pairing a wine, I think it would be lost by any red, even the lightest. I wanted a brandy after giving it a go.

So the dry cured heart was surprisingly delicate. Next time around, I’d omit the mushroom [too dominant], and herb and cold smoke it quite a bit harder so that it had some aromatic balance to the game vibe on the nose. Other than that, pretty happy with this one. Yes, I’m a little surprised.

Dry Cured Bull Elk Eye of Round, Part 1

12.07.11

The day we butchered this year’s bull elk, we started curing a couple pieces of eye of round whose fate was to dry in my cellar. Outside the loin and tenderloin – which I’m so not going to dry cure – eye of round is about as uniform a shape as comes out of an animal. That makes it handy for dry curing as it dries evenly and ready all at the same time as  opposed to having a dry end of a piece and an end that needs time. It’s also a bit of a boring and not particularly tender cut on a big animal, so adding some interest via dry curing is now my default use rather than having an uninspiring steak or roast from the cut. It cured in the fridge for 17 days simply in salt, instacure #2, and black pepper. I gave the pieces a quick rinse today and dusted them with some dry summer savory and maldon organic black pepper. Tied them up like a roast, wrote up the tag, and hung them.

Below you can see the tags I’m now using. They’re little shipping tags from an office supply store, and they happen to slip perfectly onto my S hook hanging setup. They also happen to be very easy to read hanging on the hook, as opposed to tied to the string – you can stand in the middle of my cellar and easily read all the tags of what’s up there without mucking about. Handy. This is the first time I’m actually tracking start weight, a step I should have taken long ago to track progress – you can measure moisture loss by loss in weight. The waiting begins.

Dry Curing Elk Heart

11.12.11

Heart is a misunderstood piece of offal. Like the tongue, and unlike the liver or kidneys for example, it’s a muscle rather than an organ. Like pig heads and other butcher-shop wastage that makes me cringe, the heart often ends up left in the gut-pile of a hunted wild animal, or tossed in the bin at the local meat processor. My guess is the big meat processors have figured out how to make some use of it by burying it in a processed meat of some kind. Which brings me to a story.

Last year, as I contemplated cutting the testicles out of a recently harvested bull elk, my dad expressed concern that I’d gone crazy. He dislikes wine too. My joking rebuttal at the time was that he eats hotdogs and drinks brandy, so he essentially eats testicles and drinks wine, in one form or another. In his defence, heart [and tenderloin] traditionally doesn’t leave moose camp, as it’s enjoyed first. My point here is that heart is meat. Not working with it is a waste.

As I cleaned up the fresh heart from my recent bull elk adventure [great video here re: cleaning one], I contemplated what its culinary fate might be. It then occurred to me that there was a nice thick slab, not too different in shape and size to a small pork jowl, that might be suitable to dry curing. A quick google of ‘dry cured heart’ turned up virtually nothing. Will it work out? No idea. But it’s worth a shot. For those interested: 356g bull elk heart, 1g instacure #2, 11g kosher salt, 1.5g black pepper. Into a bag, into the fridge, to cure for a week or so. It’ll then be rinsed, and I’m thinking lightly cold-smoked, maybe with a light dusting of ground dried herbs, then hung in the cellar to dry. I’m pretty curious to see where this goes – most of the dry curing I’ve tried have been variations on well beaten paths. This, not so much.

Big Game Hunt Report

11.12.11

In 2006, I saw 67 moose in 2 days. This year, 1. That’s more than just a change of luck. That’s a 98.5% decrease. Their populations had already tanked by 2007, and this past winter’s ridiculously deep snow did them in again, according to locals. I’ll have to remember to mention what winter, or perhaps worse, the torture of ticks, does to animals next time somebody gives me a hard time about hunting one. Death by insects or starvation would suck worse than death by bullet, I’d wager.

Other than a short bout of luck with some ruffed grouse, action was slow. I had a draw for a calf moose. No moose in sight, nevermind a calf. So after the first night, my hunting partners suggested picking up a general bull elk tag, just in case we saw one. Not that we’d seen one. But somehow the elk populations are good despite the deer and moose taking a kicking – probably because they’re extremely smart. That evening I picked up a bull elk tag – cows and calves are by draw and I was declined my draw this year. The very next morning, we spotted 3-4 cows, 2 calves, and a legal bull in the same field where I shot my first moose in 2006. Funny how you don’t forget the locations where you shot animals. The elk were 650 yards away – no chance. At least we’d seen SOMETHING.

Then came evening. Spent the evening seeing zero moose, again. Then, about 15 minute before legal shooting time ended, we decided to see if the elk perhaps had made a mistake and come out around the bush where we saw them in the morning. As luck would have it, they made that very mistake. And as luck would have it, they were within shooting range, looking into the sun at us, unable to catch our wind, and kept feeding and walking towards us. Your fate when hunting is tenuous. You can be frustrated, tired, and disappointed one minute, and a minute later be full of adrenaline and have an animal on the ground to field dress. So no calf moose this year – for the first time since 2006, our freezer will be full of elk rather than moose. I’ll take it. The quarters are hanging at 2.2C and 60%RH in my garage, and in a few days we’ll be butchering. I’ve already started a dry curing project, more on that next.

Elk Brési w/ Wild Mushrooms & Labrador Tea

03.27.11

When butchering this cow elk in late November, I noticed how particularly perfect the shape and size of the eye of round would be for dry curing. No wonder it’s been done for eons. As usual, here I am, not innovating.

As I had run out of my first ‘test batch’, it was time for a more confident crack at it. Larger piece, thicker piece this time. I used Ruhlman’s  [poor Polcyn, always excluded] ratios of salt, sugar, pepper, and instacure #2, but for aromatics, looked to what I had as wild pantry items. Morel powder, shaggy parasol powder, wild thyme, and labrador tea. Sounded good in theory, but I suspected the labrador tea wouldn’t bring much to the party – that was until I crushed it with a mortar and pestle. Holy evergreen. Lovely evergreen. I hope that shows up in the final product. If so, it may become a standard terroir-driven pairing for me for this item.

So it’ll go into the fridge for a week, maybe two if I’m being forgetful(?) to cure, and then hung in the cellar for a long, long time. I’m going to guess two months minimum, with it being in a good zone for a few months past that. So I should be enjoying this through the summer with zippy salads, cheeses, and cold apple wine.

[update: this piece was scraped of aromatics and cellared March 27th. Told you I'd forget.]

Jerky – Some Recipe Refinement

12.11.10

I got an email this morning from Throwback at Trapper Creek regarding my previously posted jerky recipe, which led me to responding with a couple recipe tweaks – one of which is pretty key in my mind, so I figured I should post those thoughts here as well.

First. On my first elk jerky batch of the winter, I had sliced the cow elk round while still mostly frozen. It sliced a dream on my cheap deli slicer. I added the cure ingredients right away. The jerky was enjoyed, but I found it gamier than expected. On this most recent batch, I let the sliced par-frozen meat defrost pre-curing. I was suprised how much blood was released during the defrosting, so I poured it off, and may have even given the meat a quick rinse. Ah. The potential source of gaminess: the blood. The result? Less gamey jerky. I had unknowingly allowed the blood/juices related to defrosting become part of the cure flavors on that first batch. Not a good plan, in my books. So I will forever defrost the sliced meat fully and drain pre-adding the cure ingredients – yields a far cleaner flavor.

Second. Less importantly, I gave onion a go rather than garlic. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of my fridge stinking like meat and garlic – not sure what about that turns me off, but it does. Result with onion is very nice, more subtle/delicate than garlic. Maybe next time, leeks.

Time to take out the next piece of elk round, as this batch won’t last the week.

Jerky Pleasing All Parties

12.05.10

Jerky has become a repertoire item around our home – something that reappears over, and over, and over – like bacon. At risk of offending all parties, jerky pleases food snobs, picky eaters, and red necks equally – and I actually don’t quite understand why.  Not many foods can transcend those gaping holes in preference, so why does dried raw meat turn people on? How does my daughter spit roast chicken on her plate, yet pound back the uncooked, dried game meat that she’d otherwise never touch? I think it’s largely a texture preference that’s plugged into our DNA, evolution telling us that this is safer to eat. I use this recipe still. Were I to use the exact same ingredients and stir fry the meat, the picky folk, game haters, food snobs, red necks, and children wouldn’t eat it. But dry it, and shabam.

In all honesty, although I enjoy jerky – especially as a portable snack food, I’m not one to get too overly excited about it. I get excited about dry cured sausages, but not this. But so long as others do, and it’s an effective way to get people excited about eating game meats, I’ll keep making it, and they’ll keep eating it as fast as I can make it. One of the great things about game – jerky is obscenely expensive to purchase retail, in the neighborhood of $50-60/kg. When a game animal like this costs you zero, it makes for some pretty fantastic value add. A boon for this cheapass.

Butchering Cow Elk. I’m done.

11.25.10

I’m tired of butchering. I’m tired of writing about butchering. I’m tired of making you read about it. I’m done. So very, very thankfully, this was the end of the butchering road for 2010. No more. By next fall, I’ll be stoked to get back at it, I’m sure, but for now I’m happy to pack away the knives and butcher paper for the year and call her quits.

How on earth do I have a cow elk to butcher, you ask? A friend offered to share, and I opted for a hind quarter of a cow or side of calf if they were successful – and they were. I picked the quarter  up this morning and gave the guys a hand butchering, then cut my quarter here and there throughout the day – one of the perks of having a cellar sitting at 1C: I can now hang animals and tackle them whenever makes sense. Of note here is the copious fat on a later-season elk – I can’t say I’ve cut a game animal with this much fat, although my dad says all the elk in Nov/Dec are fat like this. As per Hank’s advice, I melted some fat in a pan to smell it and assess its quality and keep-ability – and it actually wasn’t all that bad. I expected worse. It had a fried-cheese-fat vibe, actually, that I’m sure some folks would be quite into. I kept a fat-on top sirloin roast for the first time in my life.

It’s been a pretty big year in the big game hunting department, my freezer sporting sections of antelope, calf moose, bull elk, and now cow elk. I also partook in tenderloin of both white tail and mule deer thanks to friends’ sharing. Quite the cornucopia of wild meats. The work is now done. Time to enjoy some winter rest.

How to Harvest a Tongue

11.21.10

I recently was invited to attend a culinary competition at NAIT. On the menu were local lake fishes, elk, bison, and pulses [legumes] from our province. Pretty cool to see pickerel starters done 12 ways by 12 teams – reminds me of home.

The table I sat at, which happened to be served the menu from the winning team, was attended by the family of one of the competitors – myself being the odd man out. Which led to discussions of why I was there. Which led to the question from a female diner “how do you remove the tongue out of a game animal? I’ve tried, and couldn’t get it“.  I’m fairly certain I’ll go my whole life without being asked that again while eating at a fine dining establishment.

What’s funny, is that I actually had taken photos of the process while on this year’s calf moose hunt. I took the tongues of both the calf moose and the bull elk – which is seen in the photo. I’ve harvested them ever since first trying them on this night.

A few words of advice for those wishing to give it a go. First, although doable, removing it while the animal is hanging is a chore. Things are moving around too much. Get the head set up securely. With this bull elk, the antlers and a stump provided the best setup I’ve ever worked on for the operation.  Next tip. Do it while the animal’s still warm. Every part of the process is easier if you do.

First, expose the bottom of the jaw as seen in this photo.  See that ‘V’ formed by the jaw bones? You need to run your knife along either side to free it up. I’ve found the tricky bit is freeing up the the bottom tip of the V. It doesn’t seem to want to let go there. I keep cutting out that V until I can grab the tip of the tongue from the inside, and pull it out. Once you get there, the rest is easy – simply cut away whatever else is holding it in, and take it off as far up as you can. What to do with it? .

I’m surprised at the bad rap tongue seems to have. It’s not weird. It tastes of the animal meat it’s from rather than like an organ or something funky. My dad made fun of me as I took the cheeks out of this bull elk – clearly not normal for the guys, and as the razzing and teasing carried on about lips and assholes [I did mention that I'd take the testicles if it wouldn't cause an evidence of sex concern while transporting the animal], I shot back with a comment how he who mocks off-cuts and wine drinking probably eats more of both in his hot dogs and brandy than I. We laughed.