Tender Wild Turkey Legs
I met with USA Today reporter Dan Higgins and talked him through cooking turkey legs. This recipe can be adapted to goose, duck, or pheasant legs as well. The trick is be patient and letting the legs simmer away so the tendons break free from the meat. Then you’re free to take it in any number of directions—sandwiches, BBQ, even re-braising for tacos.
Drumsticks from one wild turkey, with or without thighs
2 quarts of well-flavored beef broth (store bought or home-made)
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, chunked (optional)
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Wild Turkey à la USA Today
Upon hearing that USA Today Food and Drink Reporter Dan Higgins wanted to write about cooking a wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, this Wisconsin-based National Wild Turkey Federation employee was happy to connect him with a bird and a recipe. It’s fitting that Ben Franklin’s choice for our national symbol and Exhibit A for conservation success stories—in which the National Wild Turkey Federation and state of Wisconsin play leading roles—should appear, on this most American of holidays, in a paper called “USA Today.” The trick to preparing wild turkey and other game is keeping it moist and tender. This is accomplished, here, by slow-and-low cooking and pinning bacon strips to the bird; dried fruits provide bright, contrasting flavor. Wollersheim Pinot Noir or Ale Asylum Ambergeddon are local libations that won’t disappoint.
1 wild turkey, plucked
Coarse sea salt, fresh-ground black pepper, and poultry seasoning to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, minced
2 stalks of celery with leaves, chopped fine
1 cup dried apricots (or other dried fruit of choice such as cranberries, cherries, currants, prunes, golden raisins, or peaches)
1 quart of stale French bread, cubed
6 slices of thick baco
2 cups orange juice
Heavy duty aluminum foil
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Generously season goose inside and out with salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. Melt butter in a skillet and brown the onion and celery; allow to cool. Mix together with apricots and bread. Loosely stuff goose. Pin bacon strips to the goose breast using toothpicks; place in a large roasting pan. Add orange juice and over with loose “tent” of aluminum foil. Roast until meat begins to break away from the breastbone, basting every half hour with drippings. Allow bird to cool. If gravy is desired, skim fat from pan drippings and thicken with flour or corn starch. Carve as you would a domestic turkey and remove stuffing. Serve with home-made cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and whatever other trimmings your family likes.
DEER CAMP BREAKFAST BAKE
This hearty casserole is a simple solution to a perennial camp problem. Everyone wants the comfort and calories of a big breakfast before heading out, but few of us want to sacrifice precious sleep to get up and cook. After decades of going out hungry or bumbling in the dark kitchens, I arrived at a solution: make Deer Camp Breakfast Bake beforehand. You can eat it cold in a pinch, but it’s best reheated in the oven or microwave.
1 red bell pepper
I loaf of stale French bread, sliced into rounds
1 pound bulk breakfast sausage
1 onion, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 dozen eggs, beaten
2 cups of cheese, grated (I used cheddar, brie, parmesan, Gouda, and asiago)
I loaf of stale French bread, sliced into rounds
3 cups of whole milk
1 dozen eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon dry mustard
There are many reason why spring turkey hunting is so popular. One is that it’s the main spring hunting season in most states. Another is the chance to interact with Meleagris gallopavo in all his strutting, spitting, fanning, drumming, gobbling glory.
But, what keeps me and more than a few others in the spring woods, however, is something entirely different. Spring turkey may be the main hunting season going on, but there are plenty of other seasons going on.
Early turkey hunting periods coincide with perch, northern, and walleye spawning in many large river systems. And by time the first Saturday in May rolls around—which usually happens during Period C—a whole host of gamefish seasons are underway, with the panfish spawn close at their heels. A hunter, say, in the heart of Zone 1 can be cast into a headlong frenzy, between dawn in the turkey blind, late morning on a trout stream, and evenings on the Mississippi River, to say nothing of snapping tender asparagus shoots and prowling around dead elms for mushrooms (make sure you have landowner permission before entering private lands).
This isn’t to say I don’t love to turkey hunting, or get jacked up hearing gobbles on the next ridge. I do. It’s just that there’s so much going on in the natural world and it’s bee dead for so long, that I'm in usually in the grips of serious spring fever. Turkey hunting becomes, for me, a kid-in-a-candy-store, embarrassment-of-riches proposition. More rational outdoorspeople might assign a day for each: one for turkeys, one for mushrooms, one for fish. But I to want to do all things at all times.
Getting well into my fifth decade, I’ve learned that I’m not going to change this, so I might as well embrace it. I’m going to emerge from the end of my turkey week cut up by briars, infested with tickets, and plain old worn out. But I’m going to be toting a treasure trove of wild foods. A mess of fat, red-fleshed trout on ice, a few pounds of backwater crappie fillets, a ziplock of spicy watercress, a few rubber-banded bundles of wild asparagus, a burlap Basmati rice bag full of morel mushrroms, and maybe a handful of wild leeks. Like as not, there will also be a tender jake or big tom turkey riding home with me.
Do I savor secret these away in the chest freezer for another day? Hell, no. There’s something about spring’s first fruits that makes me want to eat them all at once. To gorge caveman style. Fish goes first, panfried with asparagus on the side. Next are morels cooked plain and simple in butter. Finally, there’s the coup d’grace—wild turkey with morels and ramps (sometimes called wild leeks). Seasoned hunters and anglers truly appreciate a meal of fresh wild protein they’ve harvested. When other prime wild edibles are added, it’s just that much better.
I portion my wild turkey —to give each meat types its best treatment. I cube and flour the breast and cook it quickly to a rich caramel brown. Then, brown the mushrooms and leeks in the drippings, deglaze the pan, and put the works in a Dutch oven. Flour locks in moisture and flavor and also helps build a rich gravy that absorbs the earthy juices of the ramps and mushrooms.
The thighs, trimmed away from the drumsticks, are even more flavorful. These can go in with the mushrooms, but I like to pound them thin, dredge them in panko, and serve them as schnitzel with pan gravy.
Drumsticks have first-rate flavor, but they are tough. Think low and slow. A long simmer in beef broth with onions—6 hours or more—will allow you to strip the meat from the tendons. This can then be turned into whatever shredded meat you like. Add sauce and make them into barbeque, accompanied by bread-and-butter pickles and buns. Add Mexican seasonings, grab some fresh salsa and guacamole, and heat up corn tortillas for a meal of first-rate tacos. Or thicken the simmering broth into a gravy and serve it over the shredded meat, as you would pot roast, with a side of mashed potatoes.
Driftless Wild Turkey
Wild turkey, morel mushrooms, and wild leeks (sometimes called ramps) are all springtime wildfoods available in Wisconsin. This dish also honors the Driftless area, where wild turkeys were successfully reintroduced in the 1970s and 1980. The mix of woods, mast trees, oak savannah, farm fields, and prairie make for ideal habitat for wild turkeys, which were originally found in Wisconsin south of a line extending from La Crosse to Green Bay and down to the Illinois border.
Breast fillets of one wild turkey—cut into 1-inch cubes (or to desired size) seasoned with salt, black pepper, and thyme
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup melted butter or cooking oil
1 quart chicken broth (or broth made with giblets, neck, and back of a wild turkey)
½ cup sour cream
3 ounces all-purpose flour for thickening
½ pound or more morel mushrooms, soaked in salt water and sliced (note if the supposed morel mushroom is not hollow, discard it immediately as it is likely a false morel which is edible)
4 wild leeks (ramps), washed and chopped (substitute shallots if ramps are not available)
Turn those big chunks of deer meat into delicious Sunday dinner!
Wild game cooks know that ground venison swaps out nicely for tacos, burgers, and chili—and that backstraps and steaks are some of the finest, juiciest meat around. But what they may not know is that venison roasts can be fall-apart tender and packed with flavor. Making this happen in your kitchen or camp is easy. Just follow these tips.
Watch the heat: You might be tempted to crank your oven to 350 and toss in your venison roast. Don’t do it! This is a sure way to turn top-shelf chow into chewy shoe leather. Instead, keep your oven in the 180 to 250 range. Depending on the oven and size of roast, this means eight hours cooking on the long end and three on the short end. Make sure to cover your roaster and start out with a cup of broth or wine in the bottom. This combination of low temperature and moisture works wonders.
There’s a certain sadness that sets in when hunters see winter approaching and realize their favorite season is drawing to a close.
The flip side to this, however, is that many of us have put up a good store of game. And the months ahead are the perfect time to reap the rewards of our labor—and show a final gesture of respect to the animals we’ve harvested.
While gamebirds add variety, venison is king of the chest freezer. My aim in the next few columns is to give hunters a few new kitchen tricks to try. And to put to rest those wrongheaded notions about venison being tough or gamey. But, before we get into the business of backstraps, steaks, roasts, and burger—which I’ll handle in future installments—let’s bullet point some basics of venison cooking.
Hunters know that pursuing game is a challenge. That’s what makes success so rewarding. Maybe that’s why duck hunting—doubly uncertain because these birds are both wary like all game animals and here only briefly—can be some of the most addictive of all hunting.
Add to that the fact that Badger state hunters can enjoy fast wingshooting in habitats ranging from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River to secluded inland marshes for more than a dozen species of waterfowl. It doesn’t hurt that the state’s official dog (the American water spaniel) is a duck dog, and that we have a rich heritage of decoy and skiff making dating back more than a hundred years.
Did I mention eating? Perhaps, slow-roasted goose with sauerkraut and apples. Quick-broiled teal seasoned with nothing more than butter salt and pepper. And then there’s mallard breast seared in a white-hot cabin skillet that’s juicy as any steaks. How about savory soups like duck with barley and mushrooms?
Wild duck can be singularly delicious. But it can also be strong and gamy, tough and leathery. The good news is that it’s easy to make a memorable duck dinner, and avoid common cooking pitfalls. Just follow these simple tips, and you’ll be able to do justice to these fine-feathered friends:
Hunting season begins at different times for different people.
For some that’s Saturday of the 9-day gun deer season, while for others it’s the start of pheasant, grouse, duck, or bow. And for many NWTF members, it’s not really hunting season until their turkey permit says so.
While these may be openers for traditionalists, a host of migratory gamebird seasons begins September 1. These seasons give hunters additional opportunities. And surveys show that hunter opportunity is key in a world of plummeting license sales, where only enhanced recruitment, retention, and reactivation can save the day.
Mourning doves, teal, and Canada geese—the legal species that open on September 1—may seek out different habitats and may carry with them different hunting strategies and regulations. But these gamebirds, which are largely local-raised and young-of-the-year, have one thing in common: they make for great eating.
Another unique opportunity that presents itself during the warm, waning days of summer is fresh garden produce. Ripe tomatoes and piquant peppers. Crispy green and wax beans. Sweet corn. Fresh herbs. And then there are apples, pears, raspberries, and blackberries waiting to be made into pies, cobblers, and sauces.
As with many things in life, the motto “simplest is best” also applies to game cooking. For teal and mourning doves, that means a quick plucking or breasting followed by a one-hour soak in cold salted water to draw out the blood and shot.