Friday, 31 December 2010

Elk season.

Inuit whalebone carving of shaman.
The big game hunting seasons last but a short time.  Two weeks for deer and two weeks for elk, antelope season is almost a month.  Surely it is best to be immersed in the hunt, to stay connected to the rhythms of the sunrise and sunset and the weather and to open oneself to the intuition which seems to be crucial to success. This year my hunt was even more disjointed than usual. Many obligations fell in the middle of the short elk hunting season.  Aside from the normal work duties, hunting season falls near the middle of the fall semester, we were finishing building a new house and then, we moved in on October 15th, the first day of elk season. The following weekend was largely taken up with finishing the move.  I was only able to get out two afternoons during the two week long general elk season in the local area.  Neither day did I kill an elk.

On the first afternoon out I hunted an area where I could shoot a bull or a cow. It meant driving further from home but bull elk are by far in the minority and having failed to kill a deer, I was after meat. After a long drive down a very bad dirt road, trying to get to the edge of the Platte River wilderness area, I was blocked by recently fallen trees.   With the pine bark beetles killing the forest I carry a chainsaw in the truck in case a tree comes down behind me blocking my exit.  I did not take the time to clear this one and hunted into the wilderness from where I was halted.  I found plenty of mule deer and elk sign, including sign of a recent mountain lion kill.  I was back to the truck by headlamp after dark, not having seen an animal.

The Southwestern Naturalist 48(1):147-153. 2003
On my second afternoon out, the last day of the local season, I headed back to the same area.  I'd seen enough elk sign the day before that I was not completely pessimistic about my chances for an animal.  As I drove up the canyon on Hwy 230 above Woods Landing toward Fox Park, a very panicked and very large bull ran across the road right in front of me. I looked him in the eye as he passed not fifty feet in front of me. I pulled over about a hundred yards up the road as he jumped a fence and ran off into the forest. It was a large bull, as large as I've seen during hunting season with a rifle at hand. He was dark and carried a six-by-six rack with a huge non-standard drop tine low on the right side that arched down in front of his head.  The atypical tine was thicker at the end than where it attached to the main beam, it was as thick as a baseball bat. For a second I had the irrational thought that I needed to quickly drive on to where I was planning to hunt.  For that second I thought that I could not shoot an elk in the area I was in --  I could not shoot a cow there, but a bull was fair game.  I grabbed my rifle, some shells and my blaze orange hat and took off after him leaving the truck unlocked and most of my gear on the back seat.   I followed his tracks for some distance, stopping to look and listen and then moved off his track following the lay of the land hoping to cut him off further up the draw he was following.   I hunted for a two hours, almost until dusk, and finally I made my way back to the truck to get water and my binoculars.  Rather than hunt back up from the same side of the ridge he'd disappeared over,  I drove around the back of the ridge on some desperately bad roads and hunted him from that side until after dark.  No luck.

I have driven up Hwy 230 more than a hundred times and have never seen an elk on the road there; as I went after him I could not  help but think that he was mine, a kind of a gift. Leaving my binoculars and other gear in the truck was a big mistake.   Elk tend to run until they feel they are safe, which is often not too far, and then will hide in thick cover.  I had little chance of spotting him before he spotted me through the dense lodgepoles without my binoculars.  I believe I would have killed him if I'd have had them. Another lesson learned.

*        *         *  

After that hunt I thought my season was over.  I studied the regulations and discovered that within a two hour drive there were two areas where cow elk (but not bulls) could be tagged until November 14th on a general elk license. The open areas were above Encampment WY on the north side of the Battle Mountain highway and over the continental divide toward Baggs WY. I was not able to get away until the second weekend in November, the last weekend.

Above Encampment there was lots of of snow, I was a bit worried about the forest service road but it was passable, with 4-wheel drive and good tires.  Right at the turn-in  I cut some fresh tracks and I geared up and started to follow them.   It was 7:20 AM.  Before long I was following an animal that was bleeding -- intermittently but heavily at times. It had bedded down more than once and there were pools of blood at the beds, though as I followed, there seemed to be less blood. The animal had large tracks so I was worried that it was a bull (which I could not shoot), or even a moose.  After less than a mile I jumped her. I  could not tell for sure if it was a cow or bull because I only saw the butt before she crashed off into thick timber.  I did not get a shot.

This happened two more times before she crossed the forest service road.  She would wander into an old overgrown clearcut and bed down, even thought I was never far behind.  There was no way for me to be quiet on my approach in those dense places and she'd hear me and crash off before I could even see her.   I followed her tracks to the road and there was truck idling there, she'd crossed, dropping some blood, and some guy had stopped and was following her on the other side of the road -- just to see what was up. He was cutting firewood having killed a cow the night before.  He drove me back to my truck so I could move it down the road (maybe 3/4 mile) before following her again.

I moved the truck down to the new crossing point and took off after her again.  I bumped her out of thick cover again almost right away and did so too more times in the next mile an a half.  At one point, in the heavy cover of an old clearcut, she was very close and she grunted threateningly at me before crashing off.  She did it again about a quarter of a mile further along and I ran forward and as she ran off I took a hail Mary shot through the thick trees.  I knew she was already wounded in some way and I was getting worried about how I was going to get her out since now I was far from the truck. I was shooting 250 grain round-nose bullets out of the 35 Whelen at around 2500 fps; a brush bucker if there is one.  I had followed her more than a mile from the truck, closer to two,  and I did not have my GPS so, aside from the fact that I knew the road was somewhere southwest of me, the only true way I knew to get back to my truck was to follow my tracks.  It was snowing so I was worried my tracks would disappear. At the first shot she stopped, then started wobbling forward -- I ran forward and I could see her clearly this time -- and at the second shot she went down. I hit her in the heart.   It was 10:15 AM, just about three hours after I'd started tracking her.  The blood I'd been seeing was from her left rear leg which was shattered and hanging free just below the hock joint.  I have no idea how she kept in front of me for three miles, maybe four, we'd made wide detours from the road.

Cow elk: I tracked her for about 4 miles.
When she did go down, I was definitely worried about how far from the road I was -- but also, she'd fallen on just next to an old logging road so I thought there might be a way out to the main road.   And then I heard a truck, and although road sounds can be terribly deceiving -- I thought that the road was not far. About twenty minutes later two hunters came walking in on me.  I asked how far it was to the road.
They said "About eighty-five yards, just follow our tracks."
This was luck beyond belief. I gralloched her and hiked back out to get my truck and my dog.  I pulled in my orange toboggan in and carried the game bags.  It took two trips to get her out.  By 3:30 I was on my way home.  I stopped in Encampment, an otherwise deserted town, at the surprisingly stylish Chez Booze and picked up a bottle of Jameson.

I took a chance by following up a wounded animal.  There was no telling if she'd been gut shot or how much meat might have been ruined.  Nichola Fletcher warns that the meat from a stressed animal may be inedible and certainly will not be as good as the meat from an animal that has been dispatched quickly.  But I did feel good about taking an animal that would not have survived the winter.  The meat was hung for a week before I butchered it.  For a change, I had near perfect temperatures, freezing at night and up into the low 40's during the day.  It has proved to be excellent.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Reflections on an unsuccessful mule deer season.

Just after sunrise - Gerry is an orange spot on the hill in the upper left.
 Deer season came and went this year without putting any venison in the freezer.  I've killed 9 deer in the past 11 years, all bucks, some small ones, a few nice ones and a real trophy.  Last year was the first year I didn't kill a mule deer since I've been eligible for a resident Wyoming hunting license.  I wasn't counting last year as a failure because I was hunting elk during during the general deer season and so was not concentrated on deer.  This year I tried and still I  didn't get one.

Gerry sighting in his self-made 257 Roberts built on a Mauser action.

Gerry came out to hunt again this year having drawn a general mule deer license this year.  Unlike last year when we got eight inches of snow the night before the season opened, this year we had extraordinarily warm weather throughout the entire season.  Temperatures were up near 70°F some days.  October is one of the best months in Wyoming but it has not been this warm this late since we've lived here.  The only snow we say was a few flurries one day when we hunted the Platte River valley.

Gerry's 257 Roberts (left) and my 270 Winchester (right).

 We were not the only ones having trouble finding deer this year.  News out of the West Laramie Flyshop was that very very few deer were coming through.   There was some bitter complaining at the gas station/convenience store in Encampment WY too and some blame laid on Game and Fish.  They said they'd only seen a couple of very small bucks come through.  Because of the lower deer populations in the area G&F dropped the doe season this year (maybe they should have done this a few years ago).  For many years now, during the first week of the two week season here int he SE part of the state, licensed hunters are entitled to shoot any deer, doe or buck. During the second week only bucks can be taken.  A doe season is a population control measure, canceling it shows there is some concern about the population in this area.  I took the complaints against G&F heard in Encampment to mean that G&F is lagging and should have not had an open doe seasons for a few years now.
Gerry Cox
There are a lot of pressures on mule deer. For one, I have no doubt that the extraordinarily warm weather which held throughout October was throwing off the normal seasonal patterns for the mule deer.   Locally, the rut takes place in late October or early November.   The bucks typically come out of hiding (wherever it is that that disappear to) and start to herd up with the does by the third week in October.   This year it was not until mid-November that I started to see bucks running with the local herd.  I suspect that this late grouping has something to do with the weather.

It's tough to say how it is affecting the mule deer but the pine bark beetle infestation must be having an effect. The infestation  has impacted 3.6 million acres in Colorado and SE Wyoming.  One theory I hear from a local rancher (Al) is that with so many trees dead now and with the grasses and forbs growing up under the old canopy that the deer have less reason to leave the more protected space.  Al spends a lot of time out in the woods and  even more thinking about the deer and elk populations so I am inclined to think this might make a lot of sense.
Predator populations are up. We heard more coyotes this year than I think I ever have.  On one dawn hunt we heard three different packs in a relatively small area. Mountain lion populations would seem to be up. At the  Mountain Lion Foundation they complained about the liberalized hunting seasons for mountain lions in the state.  This was a move by G&F to try to keep the predator population down.  With fur prices so low, ($10 for a coyote pelt in good condition) there's not as much incentive for coyote hunters to make the effort.  With predator numbers so high I am more open to hunting them.  For many (including me) this is a topic fraught with ethical dilemma and I may discuss it in a future posting.

ATV use has had a significant impact on deer behavior, this I know.  Studies show the effect of ATV noise  on mule deer is negligible though it is significant for elk.  The problem with studies is that you can find a summary of studies compiled by the NOHVCC (an offroad vehicle lobbying group) that argue that off-road vehicle use is even beneficial to wildlife (snowmobiles provide trails for animals to use in winter) and is far less disruptive to wildlife than hikers are.  The thing is, ATV use has exploded and while the number of hikers has grown, it is not so much.  One number I've seen (lost the citation) is that between 1992 and 2002 the ATV use went up by  a factor of 7. On  public lands outside of wilderness areas (and even there too)  there is virtually nowhere you can go on foot that you will not end up crossing ATV paths.  During hunting season, I have frequently hunted up a steep ridge only to find overweight and out-of-shape hunter on an ATV's atop the hill.  The ATV has afforded easy access to places  the previously required significant effort to get to.  No matter what the studies say, it is common sense that a landscape crawling with ATV's has an effect on mule deer behavior in their preferred habitat.

In some states (Utah?) I've heard that ATV use is severely restricted for hunting.  There is a midday period when ATV use is permitted to allow hunters to use them to retrieve an animal.  Otherwise they are not allowed. I wish Wyoming would adopt a policy like this though I am sure they never will.

Dwindling habitat.

For populations overall, dwindling habitat may be the biggest issue and here I am personally culpable in a rather serious way.  We just built a house smack dab in the middle of textbook mule deer habitat (we're surrounded by them.)  There really is no way to justify that choice.  I rationalize it to myself by noting that the land had been subdivided and if I hadn't built a house here, someone else eventually would have.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

September Motorcycle Ride

Perfect day, new tire, 310 mile ride.

Top of Rabbit Ears pass - before the descent into Steamboat Springs.

This was a ride I'd planned last year and then didn't get around to before hunting season started in earnest and the weather got too bad to ride. It took seven hours to ride this route, about 40 miles of it is on gravel. North of Steamboat Lake, route 129  is gravel to within a couple of miles where (as WY 710 - Snake River Spur Road)  it intersects WY 70.  Also, Fox Creek Rd. from Albany WY to Woods Landing is dirt as well.  The entire ride is spectacular, but the ride up and over Battle Pass (elevation 9,955 ft.) on the way to Encampment from Baggs is just about the most perfect winding mountain road for a motorcycle.

View Motorcycle Ride in a larger map

Seen in Walden CO - bow season is open.

In Walden.

Looking back south into CO from the Snake River Spur Road.
Near Lake Marie and the top of the pass over the Snowies on WY 130.

Home again - at the new house.

Friday, 17 September 2010

New Motorcycle Tires

I've been needing new tires on the motorcycle for some time and more recently, the rear tire was so worn out it has been keeping me from riding as much as I'd like. I finally bit the bullet and ordered a set of Dunlop K70's. The front tire is back-ordered until mid-October, but the rear tire is what I really needed so I had Barry Messenger in Fort Collins mount it and balance it for me.

Barry with the SR in his shop.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure what the right tires for my riding would be. A big part of that decision was the kind of roads I ride. Many of my local roads here are dirt and gravel and although the motorcycle isn't really a dual-sport, out of necessity, I ride a lot of unpaved roads. I like the looks of a vintage tire and the K70's certainly are that. The were popular with flat-track racers in the 1960's and early 1970's. I was having some trouble figuring out if the 3.50-19 would fit under the stock front fender when I ran across a blog called Contemplative Motorcycling.  That blogger rides similar roads in Australia and he'd just put a set of the K70's on his bike.  I could see that the wider front tire fit and he is enthusiastic about them.

Final Adjustments.
Barry does great work at a reasonable price and is a font of knowledge about vintage motorcycles, his specialty is restoring older BMW's, though he has some SR spares tucked away in his shop too.  He managed to get my SR running reliably when it was way beyond me and everyone else I talked to.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Slip indicator fishing.

Netting a rainbow that took a chironomid pattern. Photo Chris Knight
Old Flyfish@ mailing list friend Chris Knight passed through Northern CO in late July on a western roadtrip and we arranged to meet at one of the more famous plains lakes in North Park.  Chris and I have fished before in the early 1990's on Skaneateles Lake in upstate NY, mostly we've been email correspondents for a long time.  It was great to see him after many years and to catch up on the doings of other former (and some still current) @Flyfish members and it was a chance to fish a lake I've been wanting to fish for  a few years.

Chris with the ubiquitous fishing cigar.

A few years ago, at the University of Wyoming Flyfishing Symposium, I saw Jack Dennis give a talk about lake fishing.  He showed a video of Brian Chan demonstrating his rather technical methods of fishing chironomids that Chan and others have developed for lakes in British Columbia and eastern Washington.  The plains lakes here in WY and CO have incredible midge populations so the tactics should work here as well, though I  do not known of of anyone who has really figured out how to adapt Chan's methods for the local lakes (and neither did Jack Dennis when he gave his talk.)  Seeing the video Jack showed was impetus for me to buy the Spring Creek Pram I've been using for lake fishing since.

Admiring the effective slip indicator.

The basic technique is based on the slip indicator.   It allows the use of long leaders (30' or more); when you hook a fish, the indicator slides down the line to the fish so you can land them.  Imagine trying to land a fish if you have an indicator preventing you from bringing the fish in closer than 30'.  These long leaders can be necessary to get the fly down to the level where the fish are feeding.

These slip indicators are hard to find and hard to figure out.  In fact, it's been down right frustrating to find any concrete information on them at all.  Check out this video with Brian Chan that claims to show how to use them.  See if you can figure out how to rig one based on his description ( between 18 - 30 seconds in the video); I can't.  Joni, The Utah Fly Goddess has  the only really clear explanation of how to rig one of these that I've seen - it took me a long time to find this. Thank-you Joni.  She also sells them on her web-site.    If you don't know exactly what you're looking for it's hard to find.  Neither flyshop in Laramie has slip indicators nor does the fly shop at Gray reef.  The guys working in those shops "have heard of them" or "had some once" but don't have them now. On our way to the lake to meet Chris, we stopped at the North Park Anglers in Walden.  They had something called the plumbbobber].  It's not the same type of slip bobber Brian Chan or Joni use, but they did come with instructions and I stocked up on these overpriced bobbers in various sizes.

Chris called on the cell phone just as we stopped at the shop and said to "Hurry up!", that the Callibaetis were coming off and the fish were rising everywhere.  When we arrived, Chris was out in his float tube.

Dry fly purist Chris Knight.

The lake we were fishing is known for extraordinarily large brown trout and I was hoping to hook up with one. It took me quite a while to rig up and get the pram in the water, and by the time I did, the hatch was over. No matter, I'd come to fish midges deep. I rigged up with two midge pupa patterns hanging fourteen feet below the slip indicator, they were rigged with a small  split-shot to help them get down. I did manage to hook four fish and land three, all nice rainbows, but not the big brown I was looking for. They were all around 15"-17".  Garrett wandered down the bank and hooked up with a few similar sized rainbows, also on a midge pupa pattern fished deep.

It turns out that Chris is what is known as a dry fly purist; apparently he takes after Fredrick M. Halford.  There aren't many left. As far as I can tell, they mostly hang on the Henry's Fork at Harriman Ranch or on the Beaverkill in NY.  Chris had decided before heading west not to taint his tippet with a nymph of any kind.  One of his custom rods is inscribed "Death before strike indicators."  Chris' main objective for the trip was the small cutthroat streams (all apparently named Frenchman's Creek) in central Colorado and northern New Mexico.  I was sorry he wouldn't take the midge and slip bobber I offered and rig up to match the hatch, even if it was 14 feet below the surface. To each his own.
After lunch, Garrett took off in the pram.  Chris and I  fished until the wind came up in float tubes; no luck. Chris did catch a nice fish on a dry in the late afternoon after we moved over to the Michigan River to get out of the wind.

Garrett takes off in the pram, the fish are always bigger on the other side of the lake.

When Garrett got back he told us the story of the one that got away, a state record for sure.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Sheds on the Winter Range

From Antelope and Deer of North America by John Dean Canton Hurd and Houghton, NY 1877

After the rut in late October the mule deer herd up on the winter range until spring. In mid-February the bucks drop their antlers and, by the time the velvet covered antlers really start to come in, they'll have disappeared to where ever it is that hide until the rut of the following year.  The land all around us is winter range for these large herds of mule deer. It is textbook mule deer habitat. Some of the range is protected. No vehicles are allowed from November until April in the National Forest to the south of us and on the Sheep Mountain preserve, where vehicles are never allowed, access is generally prohibited. In an attempt to preserve winter range there are covenants on the property we own and  on adjacent lands which disallow recreational snowmobile use in winter and ATV use in summer.  It is something.

In January I started seeing two large bucks running with a herd of does the live in the sage country on the ridge to the south of our house.  In the mornings I see them down low, coming to drink from the creek, and by mid morning they browse their way back up toward the ridge tops. Some evenings I see them dramatically silhouetted on the skyline. On February 6th I photographed the deer bedded down on the ridge through the living room window.  I hand held my Canon G-10 to get a shot through a Swarovski CT-75 spotting scope at 35X.  The bucks were bedded down on a hilltop about a half a mile away.

A week after I took the photos Andy stopped by. He passed by the house while he was out scouting elk in anticipation of collecting antler sheds later in the year.   Andy feeds his family almost exclusively on elk, goose and grouse.  He spends much of the year following the elk, whether it's hunting season or not. In the spring when they drop their antlers he's right there to collect them.  More than once he's told me the story of glassing a herd with some nice bulls, driving on and passing back by later in the afternoon and noticing that one of the bulls had dropped his antlers.  This makes for easy pickings, but you need to be out there every day, watching and waiting. 

Shed hunting has become such a popular (and competitive) pastime that the state of Game and Fish department in Wyoming have passed regulations to try to give the animals on winter range a break.  The new regulation makes it a violation to collect antlers on public lands from January 1st to April 30th west of the continental divide (we're east of the divide).  When he stopped in, Andy told me the mule deer had already dropped their antlers. I protested showing him the photos I'd taken just the week before.  "Well, soon." he said.  The next day I saw one of the bucks sitting up on the ridge top with only one antler. I tried to get a photo, but he moved by the time I got the scope, tripod and camera set up.

I've been meaning to walk up there ever since. We've had a series of spring snowstorms that have kept the ridgetops under snow.  With the snow disappearing on the east and south facing slopes on Sunday P and I hiked up to the top of the ridge on Sunday.   I doubted we'd find anything, when they're undisturbed the range of this herd is an area of about 500 acres of mostly heavy sagebrush country. We really didn't have time to scour the whole area but it was worth a look, and I wanted to go up to the spot where they'd been bedding during the afternoons.   As we walked up the hill we pushed a large part of the herd in front of us. I shot some crude video of them.  If you watch it, pay attention to the middle of the image at the beginning.  The herd is so well camouflaged they are virtually invisible, and then when they start moving the  landscape just comes alive.

I started looking in earnest when I got to the place where I'd seen the buck with the missing antler bedded down.  We spread out a bit and I found an antler almost immediately, as far as I can tell, it was the exact spot I'd seen him in.  There was another antler, partially buried in the snow, ten yards away.  These were clearly the antlers from one of the two bucks I'd photographed.  And then, on the other side of the ridge, I found another.  This was clearly an antler from the other other buck I'd photographed, the one with shorter but much thicker antlers.

I searched for the other one of the pair but the wind was blowing and the sun was dropping and we did not find it (yet.) 

The antlers have been sitting on the dinning room table for a few days now.  There is a thread that stretches from the antlers on the table back through time to the memory of those bucks bedded on the hill above. That same thread connects me  to the animals that I saw on the ridge this morning and see every day.  Without their antlers the bucks are indistinguishable from the does now, the does are carrying the next generation of deer that are the offspring of the two bucks whose antlers sit on my table.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Merguez, Sausage and Chorizo making with Carlos

Carlos and I occasionally hunt together; he is a pheasant/grouse/duck fanatic and is generally obsessed with gathering wild meats.  When he sees a deer or antelope or elk I can almost see the little cartoon bubbles floating up from his head with images of steaming roasts and other dishes.   His regular hunting partners are named Teal and Lola;   Teal is a Pointing Griffon, and Lola is an accident, a mix of Pointing Griffon and a German Wirehair that turns out to be a great bird dog.

Carlos and I made sausages and chorizo last Sunday at his house.   I took a fresh loaf of no-knead bread, a bottle of Rioja and 7 pounds of elk meat.  Carlos provided a large pork shoulder, back fat, spices and the fermentation agent and nitrites for the salami.  While we stuffed sausages, Martha cooked us a nice linguine with shrimp and truffle oil.   It certainly is more fun to undertake a sausage making project with a friend, good food and a bottle of wine (a Rioja).  We made a spicy Italian sausage and a Merguez using a mixture of elk and pork. The recipes were adapted from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's book Charcuterie

I should have paid more attention to recipes, ratios  and ingredients but that's part of the pleasure of working in someone else's kitchen, you're not in charge.  You can just relax and do what you're told.  As I recall, and I know that we didn't write it down anywhere but maybe Carlos remembers,  we made the Merguez  following the recipe except that we substituted elk for the lamb.  The Italian sausage was a mixture of  about 2/3 elk and 1/3 pork.   The chorizo, which is cured with nitrites and salt and fermented salami is not cooked but aged for a couple of  months and we made it following the recipe in Ruhlman.

This the first attempt for either of us making a dry aged fermented salami. Carlos is a real scientist, he labels himself  a physiological ecologist, so I was quite content to following his lead on this somewhat more technical form of charcuterie.  In my incomplete understanding, you add sodium nitrite as a preservative to prevent the growth of botulism and add a fermenting agent to get the curing process going.  I don't own a copy of the Ruhlman book and now I can not recall if is it sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate or possibly a mixture of both. I really should have been paying more attention.   The Chorizo recipe  is one point where I understand the Ruhlman/Polcyn book contains a rather serious typo regarding the amount of fermenting agent  to add.  There is an explanation buried somewhere here.

On all sausage blogs there are such fine photos of the salamis hanging to cure.  They often are hanging on metal racks in white tiled rooms.  It turns out to be a more difficult than you might imagine to find a clean, cool, dry  place to hang a salami to cure.  Carlos put his in the crawlspace under his house, not as bad as it might sound, but still not a white tiled room.  I hung mine in the utility room which does stay cool, but which is open to the kitchen.  A few days after hanging them I discovered that the dog had uncharacteristically nipped of the bottoms of two of the links; so much for sterile conditions.  Matt Wright who writes the Wrigthfood Blog has some really interesting  plans for an inexpensive home curing setup.

I used some of the Merguez in a paella and it was great.  Haven't tried the finished Italian links yet and we're still waiting for what's left of the chorizo age.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Eating Around / Le Pigeon

What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.
                         Lucretius (96 BC - 55 BC), De Rerum Natura

For nose to tail eating in Portland there seems to be two places, there may well be more.  Beast is one and  Le Pigeon is the other.  Beast is within walking distance of Clea and Tom's new house but we could not get a reservation.   We did manage to get a reservation at Le Pigeon, the restaurant run by the young chef Gabriel Rucker.  We ate there on a Sunday evening and Rucker was not at the stove.  There is a counter around the cook area and it is possible to eat there on a walk-in basis.  Other seating is at communal tables.  Some find this annoying, we shared our table with a another couple and, other than the fact that many remark on it I found the arrangement unremarkable.   The table settings are quaintly eclectic with mismatched antique flatware,  I especially like the long thin tines more common on older forks.  I learned this  practice from Cecilia when I was in Scotland and we do at home.   Plates were also a mishmosh of random patterns and styles but the wine glasses were of high quality.

Tom ordered the Duck, crepes, chestnuts and Swiss chard.  Penelope and Clea had an Endive, goat cheese, boquerones (anchovies) and radish starter and shared an order of the Halibut.  My grandson Jasper had  a Hamburger, of which they only make five a night. The waitress explained that Rucker does not want Le Pigeon become known as the best burger joint in Portland so they limit their nightly output.  We were there reasonably early and so were able to get one, Jasper enthusiastically claimed it was the best hamburger he'd ever eaten.

Having recently made them at home myself I had to have the Pig's feet starter. The Orecchietti, venison heart, rapini and pecorino was very tempting.  I also planned to have the sweetbreads. Regarding wine: for Tom and I the hostess suggested and we shared a bottle of  Domaine Courbis '05 from Saint Joseph in the Rhône valley.  It turned out to be rather unexceptional and really was the only disappointment of the evening.  Clea and Penelope shared a demi-bottle of Willamette valley  Chardonnay which they enjoyed but which I did not taste.

Pigs Feet, foie gras, cipollini and egg.  The basis of the dish  was not unlike the pig trotters I made a few weeks ago, a patty of tender meat from the foot.  On top of the patty of pig foot was the thinly sliced cipollini (onion).  This was topped with a vinaigrette.  On top sat a perfectly poached egg.   The foie gras was shredded over the top and although there was not much of it it did give distinctive flavor to the entire dish.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

As a main course I had the Sweetbreads, scallop, salsify and citrus.  I had never eaten sweetbreads before, though Jim Harrison has raved about them.  Come to think about I don't know that I've ever eaten salify before either.  Sweetbreads are harvested from lamb and veal cattle and come in two varieties; they are the thymus gland (throat sweetbreads) or the pancreas (stomach sweetbreads.)  I assume I had veal , the ones I had were the oval shaped, and larger, the pancreas.  To prepare them they are soaked in water for a day and then cleaned and sometimes blanched.  Mine sautéed.  Salsify  is a root vegetable whose tender greens can be used in salads  in the spring . The salsify greens were delicately piled on top with some small pieces of orange topped with a citrus sauce from the deglazed pan.  The scallop sat to the side. The texture of the sweetbread is firm yet giving. It was excellent, the delicate flavors and textures of the sweetbread and scallop complimented on another beautifully. If I can find them locally I will try cooking them at home.


From the online reviews it seems that people either love or hate the place; the lovers are roughly in a two to one ratio to the haters.  Some of the bad reviews obviously came from halfhearted omnivores or even misguided vegetarians not happy with the menu's emphasis on meat and offal.  Most complained of the service which, for us, was very good.  The hostess was perhaps a bit over enthusiastic but our waitress was there when you wanted her and otherwise left us alone, perfect. 

As for me, I think Le Pigeon is great.  I like the communal tables, the chefs cooking in the small but open space, the hip young wait staff, the creative menu and well prepared food all add up to something quite special. 

*          *          *  
I cooked two other nights while we were in Portland in Clea and Tom's beautiful new kitchen.  What a pleasure to cook on a high BTU gas stove,  where we live now I cook on a broken electric stove that is only fit for the dump, you could not give it away.  One night I made Pork with dates and dried apricots served on some fresh noodles and a salad.  The recipe is from Reynaud's book Pork and Sons.  I've made this twice now and this recipe alone has made the book worth its cost.  The other night I cooked  prepared Short ribs in coffee with chilies which we served with french fries and a salad. 

Sunday, 7 March 2010

On Making Things

Gerhard Richter,  Annunciation After Titian,  1973 

The German painter Gerhard Richter has claimed that he  painted his Annunciation after Titian because he wanted one.  As I recall the story, he had been in Venice studying renaissance paintings and, more or less decided he wanted a Titian for himself and so he painted one.  The interpretation of Richter's work causes untold consternation among critics and those who would pigeonhole his motivations.  Some propose his work be interpreted as conceptual art rather than on its own terms as painting.  The more common motivation in the art world is to create something new, something that hasn't been done before and yet that is in dialog with previous work.  If we take Richter at his word, his motivation, for the Annunciation at least, is concrete and simply understood by anyone who would make something for themselves. 

Titian, Annunciation to Mary, c.1540

There is a naivety at work (and an audacity too) in looking at a painting in a museum and deciding to make one for yourself.  An acquisitive nature underlies such an action: "I want one."  But in a time when owning your own tools is more and more a kind of  luxury, the idea of "making one for yourself" is a profoundly fundamental and uncomplicated initial motivation.  Later, satisfaction with your own work comes into play.

In 1973 when  Richter painted his Annunciation, owning a Titian was not a financially feasible option for him, so he made one.  This seems to be an aspect of making your own things;  for whatever reason, not being able to purchase one.  I started  cooking, tying my own flies, and working on my  own rifles and shotguns  for much the same reason.  My most recent cooking jag started after we ate in a Tapas restaurant in Portland and I was inspired to make more exotic fare at home.  Early on in my own flyfishing I started tying my own flies.  In Ithaca I'd caught a number of beautiful (and delicious) landlocked salmon on an olive Matuka pattern. I was convinced the color and size of the fly was perfectly matched to the water I fished. When I lost the last one I discovered I could not find another anywhere.   I had to learn to make my own. Guided by similar motivations, I started doing some work on rifles and shotguns.

But why bother? From a strictly functional point of view, from the point  of view of what we actually need to live, none of us is required to  "make" any thing, except money.  And even to make money, fewer and fewer  of us actually make anything, at least nothing  that we can concretely  identity.  By "concrete" I think of something that has a unique physical  identity; something I could poke myself in the eye with or drop on my  toe or burn my tongue on.  Money, a bank transaction, a report, this blog these are not concrete in the sense  I mean. This absence of making things as part of ordinary everyday life  seems to be the core nature of the service economy we have rushed  toward with such a vengeance.  

*          *          *

Writing about customizing and restoring motorcycles and motorcycle maintaining has provided a vehicle for discussion of the contrast between the abstract nature of modern work and the  concrete nature of building and fixing things. 

Monkee #10, Yamaha SR500,Wrench Monkees, Copenhagen
There seems to  be something about motorcycles that inspires this kind of thought.  Robert Prisig's classic Zen  and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values  addresses  quality using concrete  examples from motorcycle maintenance. Quality, and this has something to do with handwork,  turns out to be a surprisingly hard abstract concept to nail down. I first read Prisig's book, and mostly did not understand it, when I  was in my 20's.  I reread it a few years ago after buying an old  motorcycle that required an inordinate amount of maintenance before  I could ride it. I was better prepared to be more critical in my second reading but in rereading it I  also realized the effect it had on me.  Adrien Litton wrote a nice personal account of  the effect Prisig's book had on him the International Journal of  Motorcycle Studies titled Finding the  Zen in Motorcycling.  Litton explains that Prisig's conclusion  seemed to be that perception of quality, as a property or judgment about  the goodness of a thing, is prior to, or somehow more fundamental than  rationality or language.  Litton says, and I'd have to say as much,  that Pirsig's book framed the way he thinks in significant ways.

Matthew Crawford had an interesting article in the NY Times about a year ago; The Case for Working with Your Hands.   Crawford earned a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2000 and, for a time anyway, gave up academia to work with his hands.  He became a motorcycle mechanic.   The Times article came out at about the same time his book was published, Shop Class as Soulcraft: an inquiry into the value of work.   Steven Alford has a nice review and discussion of the book (also in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies.)  Quoting Crawford from Alford's review, the book presents “a nested set of  arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful.  It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and  repair."  Alford really likes the book, and as a motorcycle studies person I expect he would.  The New York Times review  by Dwight Gardner is less enthusiastic and matches some of the others that I have read online.  I see that after the publication of his book Crawford is back in academia which has to make you wonder if working with your hands for a living is so great for someone like Crawford who has other options. My own copy just arrived and it looks great and I'm looking forward to getting into it.

*            *            *

Studying the classic texts on gunsmithing leaves me in awe of the craft. Classic American and British rifles and shotguns represent a  kind of pinnacle of hand craft. Gunsmithing  combines woodwork with metalwork and requires extraordinarily fine  tolerances.   In a well equipped shop a gunsmith familiar with traditional techniques can fix just about anything; and this is the connection to what Crawford calls the ethics of  maintenance and repair. When I think about something not being fixable, I think of a gunsmith who can  form a main spring for a boxlock shotgun from scratch.  My appreciation for gunsmithing and my aesthetic taste in rifles and shotguns was initially formed by  reading Stephen Bodio's excellent book Good    Guns Again: A Celebration of Fine Sporting Arms.  I highly  recommend it to anyone who comes to hunting like I did without a tradition of guns  in their own upbringing. It's been fifteen years since I first read it and I do not believe there is anything better.

Checkering on a rifle or shotgun stock would appear to be  impossible for a tyro.   It was as naive and  absurd for me to hope that I could checker my own rifle as it would be  for most  people to decide they would paint a version of Titian's Annunciation for  themselves.  But I wanted one for myself and could not bring myself to justify paying someone do it for me.  I guess it depends on how hard you want to learn a new  skill, how patient you are at leaning new skills and, in the end, how  much imperfection you are willing to live  with.   
For a rifle, the number of lines per inch (LPI) of the checkering often  counts a measure of the quality of the rifle itself.  More lines per inch takes more time to do and the required work is that much finer. Standard factory  checkering is typically 18 LPI and is often pressed by machine.  Lines per inch of checkering on fine custom rifles starts at 20  or 22 LPI and can go as high as 36 LPI or more.  The quality of the wood determines how many lines per  inch is even  possible by the finest craftsman, so a very high LPI count is  a  reflection on both the craftsman and the wood itself.  Although it distinguishes a rifle, at some point, adding more  lines per inch defeats the functional purpose of the checkering in the  first place; to give the shooter a secure grip on the rifle.  This kind of over refinement, to the point of foiling the functional integrity of an object, is not uncommon when craft is elevated to art.  Many of the best rifles are show pieces, destined for someones gun safe, never to be used as the tools they are, never hunted. 

My  first checkering effort was on a Ruger No. 1A.  The No.1 is a single shot rifle based on a classic  British Farquharson falling block action.   I have Bodio to thank for my infatuation with Ruger No. 1's.  I've owned  three. I bought the 1A from a friend who had reshaped the stock but had not checkered it.  My  checkering job on the Ruger by no means turned out perfectly, but it wasn't bad for a first try either.  Perhaps most importantly, I learned some crucial lessons. Every new job presents itself uniquely,  but as you begin to master the technique you get better as you go. My second effort was on a pre-64 Winchester model 70 that had been rebarreled for the 35 Whelen cartridge, this is my elk rifle.  Among other things I reshaped the 1960's Monte Carlo style stock to a more classic shape, added a Silvers style recoil pad, a metal grip cap and an ebony forend.  The reshaping necessitated a recheckering job.

I've talked to Nate Heineke about checkering. His rifle and shotgun work is world class.  When he opened shop in Laramie in an old bank building I started hanging out whenever possible.  I soon realized he is the ideal gunsmith, I could not have invented him if I'd have wanted to. He describes checkering as the means to create the illusion of straight lines on a  curved surface.  A good checkering cradle and sharp tools are required.  Some well known custom rifle makers were know to have checkered without a cradle, but not many; this is kind of like Lee Wulff tying flies without a tying vise.  I did not have a cradle for the Ruger job and bought one used from an old gunsmith and friend Jim who doesn't checker any more.  As for work habits, Nate says he does just a bit at a time.  He works for a few hours at most on a job and then sets it aside until he is fresh again.  Checkering requires concentration and focus.  I made my worst mistake checkering the Whelen when I pushed on past the point where I knew I was too tired.

The thing about checkering is that you need to keep at it.  The most  important thing that I learned from my imperfect job on the Ruger was  that you need to push on past small imperfections that, at the time, may  seem to be disastrous.  Some of the imperfections disappear as the  pattern is deepened.  Some just get lost in the overall intricacy of the  surrounding pattern. In a lot of hand work imperfections make you want  to just quit. Like most things, persistence is key.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Pig Trotters

Growing up, my family would drive from Delaware and later New York  to Louisiana to see my fathers parents for a couple of weeks each summer.  My grandparents, Wilmer Otis Caldwell (Tieb) and Vera Lola Caldwell (nee Payne),  lived out in the country ten miles west of the tiny town of Waterproof.  Waterproof  lies low behind the levy guarding it from the flood waters of the Mississippi River, it was obviously named in a moment of optimism.  My grandparents ran a little country store with a gas pump outside west of town.  In the early to mid-1960's, before farming became completely mechanized the local plantations grew cotton. Later, as factory style farming took over, most all of them switched to growing soybeans.  In those early days weeds were controlled by field hands with hoes, not pesticides;  when they were hoeing or during cotton picking time, a white driver would drop a truck load of black men at my grandparent's store for their lunch; sometimes twenty at a time.  The tiny store would be packed, shoulder to shoulder with sweaty men, and my grandparents quickly sliced meats and cheeses, making sandwiches as fast as they could for the hungry crowd.  Sitting up on top of the deli cooler was a 2 1/2 gallon glass jar of Pickled Pig's Feet.  The contents of the jar were obviously feet and that jar was always a curiosity and wonder to my sister and I.   It could not be easily explained.  Almost forty-five years later I've cooked my first pig's foot dish. 

                          *                 *                 *                 *

Fergus Henderson waxes poetic about pig trotters in his astounding cook book The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.  He writes, "These are one of the most gastronomically useful exterminates. If your butcher has pork, there must be a trotter lurking somewhere. They bring to a dish an unctuous, lip-sticking quality unlike anything else. The joy of finding a giving nodule of trotter in a dish!"  Henderson calls for them in at least seven different recipes in his book.  Penelope may be alarmed to know that one of them, his recipe for Jellied Tripe (which calls for four pig trotters) looks especially good to me.  I do not believe I have ever eaten tripe before; and I must say P has been enthusiastic about my recent cooking adventures so I am not being fair.

In his description of the merits of pig's feet Henderson uses the word  unctuousIt's funny how you may have lived a life and have almost never noticed a word before, and then suddenly it seems it's everywhere.  I took notice when Dan Barber used it in his beautiful talk A Surprising Parable of Foie Gras.  When I watched the video of the talk the first time I stopped it and backed up to hear him say it again. As an adjective to describe a person it is rather an insult; used to describe the gravy in a stew or the texture of a rich stock it is flattery.

It's not just Henderson who praises the pig foot.  In his River Cottage  Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes about the "glutinous stickyness" and "gelatinous texture" of  a stock or terrine liquor to which a pig trotter has been added for good measure.  Of course gelatin comes from boiled bones, skins and tendons of animals so it is natural that adding a pig's foot to the broth will add texture and nicely thicken it. When I saw the pig's feet on the shelf at Safeway the other day I grabbed them and in the process proved Hugh wrong (a result he'd hoped for). It seems that even if  pig trotters can not be purchased in supermarkets in the UK, they  can be found in American supermarkets, even rather pedestrian ones like the Laramie WY Safeway store. 

The day after I bought the pig trotters, Reynaud's book Pork & Sons arrived in my mailbox.   Like his terrine book, it is beautifully put together.  Not to be outdone by Henderson, Reynaud's book has ten recipes calling for pig's feet.  Except for the slab bacon, I had all the ingredients (if not the required quantities) for his recipe for Pigs feet with walnut oil and caramelized onion.   I only had three pig's feet while Reynaud's recipe calls for ten, which I misread as six - the recipe serves six and, on the next line calls for ten pig's feet.    I do not believe I own a pot big eoungh to hold ten pig's feet.
Some days in the kitchen are pure hell.  Each imperfect solution to an unanticipated problem slowly but surely diverts you further and further from your original intention. Trying new techniques with only a vague impression of how they are supposed to work adds to the pressure.  Problem solving certainly is a key component of the creative aspect in cooking and yet, when the solutions don't come easy, when time is of the essence and when the techniques are new it can be an emotional roller-coaster.  Each successfully completed step or imperfect solution results in unwarranted optimism, each new obstacle seems it will surely lead to total failure.  Learning can hurt your head.  Forging new patterns of though and opening unfamiliar neural pathways is not easy.

The main problem was that I (obviously) had far too few pig's feet for the dish I was attempting.  When the feet were done and I picked the meat from the bones I had no more than a few tablespoons.  This was a problem.  I did have more than a gallon of rich gelatinous broth. Aside from a large frozen shoulder roast the only pork I did have was a couple of rather large frozen chops. I poached one of the chops in the stock and when it was thawed and mostly cooked I chopped it and added it to the tiny pile of meat.  One step further form my intention, but the dinner was saved. I sliced some of the pig skin into thin strips and fried it and added it to the growing pile of forcemeat. Of course the meat from the pork chop did not compare in tenderness or flavor to the few tender bits from the feet, but I had enough to feed the two of us. The recipe says to soften some onion in walnut oil and then to add the meat and salt and pepper to taste. The cooked mixture is then wrapped in plastic wrap in a sausage shape and, while you make the caramelize onions, is cooled to set. Mine did not set. A problem. The final step would have been to slice sausage shapes and to reheat under the broiler. To solve my problem I simply put it in an oven proof pan an reheated. An imperfect solution and another step further from my intention.  Did I fail to include enough fat or soft tendons when picking the meat from the bones?  I thought I had been generous. Should I have added some of the gelatinous broth to the mixture? It seemed quite soft as it was.

An hour later than I'd hoped,  I served my pig's fee topped with a balsamic vinaigrette and the caramelized onions. We ate it with a light salad, bread and a glass of wine; Pinot Noir for me and a Chardonnay for P. It turned out to look nothing like the image in Reynaud's book, but it was a delicious meal none the less.  I put the leftovers (what turned out to be two small servings) in a small terrine and added three chopped prunes and a few walnuts. The sweetness was a good addition and I enjoyed it for dinner alone for two more nights. (P is in the Canary Islands at a conference.)

Perhaps the best result is the stock. I got more than a gallon of rich unctuous liquor.  As promised, it jelled in the jars as it cooled to room temperature.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Cooking with Escoffier

Georges Auguste Escoffier (center)

My blog seems to be transforming itself into a food blog, winter will do that. There's not much that is more enjoyable than staying home, stoking up the wood stove and cooking something new. I do love to cook and I've gone through some intense cooking phases in the past though for a few years now I have mostly stuck with favorite recipes.

More or less, I taught myself how to cook by studying Howard Potter's copy of Escoffier's cookbook.  This was back in the early 1980's.  Certainly not the most efficient approach to learning to cook, but my way is to go to original sources first.  Howard's copy was an abridged version and I soon bought myself an unabridged English translation of Le Guide Culinaire. I've found that often abridged works leave out the most interesting bits; the parts that a modern editor no longer considers relevant usually give a significant insight into the milieux.  A favorite example (from memory) is from de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.  In his travels across America in the early 1830's  he reached St Louis and the great plains. In and of itself I found this surprising, it seemed so far west in 1831.  de Tocqueville drew bold conclusions from the open plains.  His theory was that a great civilization had once inhabited the place and that by completely deforesting the landscape they had destroyed themselves.  As evidence of how complete their destruction had been, he noted that the indigenous people had no stories of this great lost civilization.  He took it as a warning for Europe not to deforest the landscape.  This rather beautiful false theory is not included in any abridged version of his works.  I have no similar example from Escoffier. perhaps someone else can suggest one; something that is omitted from the abridged editions that is somehow interesting.  Like so many of my books, Escoffier is in a box in the attic in these temporary quarters.  I have looked for him twice but have given up.

From Escoffier I learned how to make stock and the basic sauces and an authentic Boeuf Bourguignon. Looking back I realize that Boeuf Bourguignon was an astoundingly good choice of a basic dish to learn since it has served as the foundation for so many braised meat dishes since; stews, daubes and civets. If I am something like a one trick pony in the kitchen stews are my trick.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The 100th Monkey Effect

Albrecht Durer, A Young Hare 1502.
Back in January when I wrote the entries Jackrabbit Hunting  and Jackrabbit Cuisine  I searched for Jackrabbit recipes online and did not find much. Of course, my idea was to try some classic European hare recipes using Jack rabbit.   Since then, I have discovered a really delightful  blog called Hunter Angler Gardener Cook by Hank Shaw.  (The site is so good he was nominated for a James Beard award.) It is well worth the time to peruse the pages there.  He has written about Jack rabbits and hunting them and has a number of great looking recipes including one for Sardinian Hare Stew  and a recipe for Jugged Hare and a similar one for Civet de Livre.

I can't help but feel a bit like there is a 100th monkey effect at play here.  The claim made by proponents of the 100th monkey effect is that once an idea becomes known by enough monkeys (say 100), it has enough force to spontaneously spread to geographically isolated populations.  Soon everyone will be hunting, cooking, eating and writing about Jackrabbits.  Well, maybe not. But with the growing popularity of the local food movement, locavore hunting,  ethical meat and butchering, slow cooking and whole beast dining, this kind of thing is bound to happen.  There are so many classic European recipes for hare and those of us who like to hunt and gather our own food of course are quite likely to try substituting Jack rabbits for the European hare.  But there seems to be a larger meat movement underway.  For a time vegetarians  seemed to claim the moral high ground but meat is where it's at these days.

Twenty years ago I made a rather personal decision that if I was going to eat meat I should be able to hunt, kill and butcher my own meat.  This was pretty radical because no one in my family hunted.  I didn't feel I had to hunt, kill and butcher all the meat I ate, but at least some of it. I like beef and pork and lamb far too much to swear it off for a rather abstract ethical position.  Of course this killing and butchering business is not for everyone and I never really expected others to take it up, but for me it was essential.  And now, after Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma hit the best seller list it seems like all of the sudden my non-traditional hunting friends and I are on the leading edge of a new food movement.  Gerry is writing his own book about it and as far as I can tell, Gil is holed up on a farm somewhere in the mid-Atlantic states trying to reproduce the Jamon Iberico that the customs people confiscated on his return from Spain.

As for Jackrabbits vs. European hares.  I saw many European Hares  in Scotland though sadly I was not in a position to harvest them.  All hunting and fishing rights in Scotland are owned by someone, and I was no one.  Hank points out that you can buy Wild Scottish Hare from from D'Artagnan, purveyors of exotic gourmet meats and foods.  It would be nice to do a side-by-side comparison of  identical dishes prepared with Jackrabbit and European Hare.  I like the looks of Hank Shaw's  Sardinian Hare Stew, but maybe the comparison should be on something with a less rich sauce, something that would allow the flavors to really come through, perhaps a terrine.  The European hare from D'Artagnan is not inexpensive, but the experiment would be worthwhile.  If you try it, let me know.

No Knead Bread

When Gerry came last fall to hunt he left us a real present. He showed us how to make no-knead bread. It is so easy and produces the best rustic loaf you can imagine. The recipe is from Jim Lahey who runs the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC. The recipe Gerry left us was torn out of an issue of Men's Journal; the same article is available online.  It takes about 10 minutes to make the dough.  You let it sit for a day.  Fold it into a floured cloth and let it rise for another hour and then bake it in a large cast iron pot for an hour.  A key to the method is that the cast iron pot holds the moisture from the dough in while it cooks.  You don't need a special bread oven nor do you have to mess with pans of water in the oven.  It really is incredibly easy and makes a better loaf than we can buy in Laramie.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Game Meat Charcuterie

For a number of reasons I butcher my own game meat. It's hard work and usually takes me two days to butcher and wrap an elk for the freezer, this is after it has been quartered, skinned bagged and hung. I am  a slow butcher.   One benefit  of hiring a butcher is that they will typically offer to make sausages as part of the order.  Until now, I have not done so for myself.

Aside from the sausages, there are a number of downsides to hiring a butcher. For one thing, it's expensive.  Last time I checked, it would have cost me $250 to have an elk butchered that had already been skinned, quartered, bagged and hung (that price did not include sausages.) For another, there's really no telling whose meat you'll get back.  This is an issue because there is CWD in the deer and elk herd here in SE Wyoming.  Even though there is no known risk to humans, I have my animals tested at the Wyoming state vet lab before eating them.  I only want the meat from my own animal.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, the local butchers never have enough space or time during the rush of hunting season to hang the meat as long as is needed.

Here is my recipe, sort of cobbled together from sources on the internet and an article in Saveur No. 31 (December 1998).

2                           Natural Sausage Casings (about 4' long each)
2 1/2 lbs                Elk (ground)
2 1/2 lbs                Pork shoulder (ground)
1/2 lb                    bacon (ground)
paprika                 cover and mix 4 times
fennel seed            cover and mix 3 times
oregano                 cover and mix 3 times
garlic                     10 cloves (finely chopped)
red-pepper flake   sparsely cover and mix 3 times
black pepper         cover and mix 4 times
                             (coarsely cracked with mortar and pestle)
salt                        cover and mix 4 times
cayenne                 lightly dusted and mixed 1 time (optional)

Some things I did not have were fatback which would have been better than bacon  and I would have used hot paprika instead of the sweet variety, but I was out.  Choose a pork shoulder with as much fat on it as you can find.

The casings come salted and you need to rinse them and then soak them in cold water while you prepare the forcemeat filling.    Grind the meat.   I cook by taste and feel and have specified spices in my recipe very roughly. You obviously can not taste the uncooked forcemeat  but you can fry up a bit to check the spicing as you go. My instructions "cover and mix" mean to evenly cover the meat mixture with the ingredient  (you can see the size of the bowl I was using) and then to mix thoroughly. The Saveur article recommended chopping rather than grinding the meat though I did grind it.  I did not have fatback pork to add and so used bacon.   The fennel seed gives it a distinctive sausage flavor.  The red pepper flakes are potentially hot though mine are not really.  Reading the recipe you might think these sausages turned out overly spicy, but they are not.  Of course that's a matter of personal taste,but for some reference I will say that I have never been a fan of very hot food that so many people seem to like.

Stuffing the casings was a new experience.  You slide the casing onto the stuffing tube and then tie a knot in the end.  I removed the cutters from the grinder and just used it to force the meat into the casings.  As you go you twist them into the length of sausage you want.  It is almost a three handed operation, pushing the meat into the grinder, cranking and holding the casing as it fills.  After the first 4 feet of sausage, I added the cayenne and made a second batch that was hotter.  Packing the second batch I realized the casings were more elastic than I'd thought at first and I packed them more tightly.

In the end I think the sausages  would have been better if I'd had more fat in them, but leaner sausages do tend to be more chorizo like.   When I cook them I usually just slice them open and pour in some olive oil.
The spicier batch is a bit more popular, though the less spicy ones are excellent  for breakfast.