THE GREAT DEBATE OF EATING GAME AND FISH

THE GREAT DEBATE OF EATING GAME AND FISHI was looking through my copy of “Hawkeye” last month when a photo of a youth holding up a nice bluefish caught my eye. The image itself brought back memories of my first blue, and as time went along my kids first ones as well. What also got me thinking was the caption along with the picture that read,”think Noah ate it? Many wouldn’t because of the bad taste reputation, others find it delicious.” It is true, bluefish, along with many others have gotten a bad rap over the years of not being a good fish to eat, especially north of Boston. Striped bass, while not as severely, share the same bad billing as do Atlantic mackerel, cod, squid, and pollock. What a shame. Reasons vary with different species, the blues, pollock and mackerel are dark and oily, strippers are reputed to have high PCB levels, and squid are just plain UGLY. My favorite is when many, many people have told me over the years that they only will eat haddock and not cod because of the worms in the cod. Do they have worms? Absolutely, BUT so do haddock and all the rest of salt water fish. Most people have never seen a worm in a fish, their perceptions are just misled by this common tale, and have developed over the years and generations into a mind set against cod. Others think that haddock tastes better. Truth be known there is little to no taste difference. Both are highly delicious white fish that when fresh and cooked in the same manner then set side by side the chances of telling them apart are slim to none. During my fishing career I would always get requests from family and friends to bring them fish from time to time, and many would ask for haddock, and I did give them haddock if there were any to spare, but on the days when cod was all we caught I would deliver that instead, and no one ever knew it wasn’t haddock or complained their fish didn’t taste good, in fact they always clamored for more. We fishermen have a saying around the boats, when you skin a cod fillet it magically becomes haddock. Bluefish, mackerel, and pollock are in fact dark and oily, the pollock to a lesser degree but in fact this is what adds more flavor to their flesh. Preparation and care is a key factor. Many recreational fishermen simply don’t care for their catch properly. All fish, but especially the dark meat fish must be bled and cooled as soon as they come aboard. If you leave the blood in them for any length of time it permeates the flesh giving it a strong taste and darker color. As soon as it is off the hook simply slash it’s throat, toss it into a bucket of ice and sea water to bleed out and start the cooling process, then stow it properly in a cooler with ice until time for filleting. You will notice a difference, the white fish like cod and haddock fillets will be snow white, and the blues, mackerel, and pollock will not be a bloody deep red. All white fish are best prepared as simple as possible so as not to mask it’s true flavor which is light, and the latter group are delicious with a splash of white wine, butter and garlic cooked under a broiler or on a grill. All of these fish, both dark and light will make excellent chowder, soups, pate, and can be cold smoked. Put a boneless fillet or two of smoked bluefish and cocktail sauce out at a party and folk will eat it as if it were candy. Squid, yeah they are kind of weird looking, but so are monkfish, ocean catfish, and ocean perch. The real names of these latter three are angler fish, wolf eel, and red fish. Long ago clever people in the marketing business renamed them to sound more appealing to the public, but I guess they must have figured squid have always been referred to as calamari and left it at that. Squid, calamari, are abundant, easy to catch and clean, and are delicious. Good chefs around the world in many very high class restaurants have come up with countless recipes to prepare calamari and if you happen to be out for dinner some night and see it on the menu it’s worth trying. My favorite is deep fried, in fact I prefer it over fried clams. As for the PCB thing in striped bass, it’s a discretionary decision. If you’re worried about it follow the recommended guidelines and only eat it once a month or whatever the government recommends, but don’t turn your nose up at it. Broiled simply with a little butter and a touch of salt, pepper and lemon, along with a nice salad, rice and a glass of wine it will make a fine meal. There is a little sliver of darker meat in the middle of the fillet that can be remover prior to cooking if you find it offensive.

Now for our furry friends from the forest. Ever hear someone say they don’t care for venison because of the “gamey taste,” Or “I had it once and didn’t like it.”? Poor care of the beast after it was harvested or bad preparation may have been the culprit. I have tasted bad quality venison once or twice, both times it was from deer that had been feeding predominately on hemlock and the cook had cooked it on a grill like a sirloin beef steak. It had come out chewy and bitter, but had he marinated it over night in buttermilk the bitterness would have been removed . Another reason meat goes bad is the treatment an animal gets after the kill. A deer that is poorly field dressed, like leaving the chest cavity with heart, lungs and blood, or rupturing intestines and the urine bladder will result in tainted meat, especially if the animal is then left to hang head up for a couple weeks in warm weather. I carry a small block and tackle in my truck to hang the deer by the neck or antlers so that when I slice it open the innards and blood will run down and out. For the times when the block is unaccessible I lay the animal on a hill, log, or rock to achieve the same affect. If I happen to have access to water I will also rinse the body cavity to clean away any traces of blood, feces, or urine. As for the hanging time there is a wide number of opinions. Some insist letting it hang outside for a couple weeks to tenderize the meat. It does do that because the enzymes start to break down in the tissue soon after death, however, if the temperatures vary as they do here in New England in the Fall, warm days ans cool nights, bacteria will grow and often the net result will be what butchers call “stinky meat.” I myself prefer to skin out the deer right away as the hide comes off much much easier when there is some residual body heat, then hang it neck down in a climate controlled environment (walk in cooler) for several days before butchering. If there is no access to a walk in, then a dark shed, garage or barn is second best. When hanging the back legs should be on a spreader to keep the body cavity open to allow air to circulate and cool the internal temperatures. Sawing down the breast bone and inserting a stick as a rib spreader will also help this process. These procedures will apply to all game and fowl alike. Clean cool body cavities will result in better table fare.

There are the times when wild game will tend to be on the tough side. Large rutting bucks, does in heat and Canada geese can be a little on the leathery side, especially the leg and thigh of the goose. Many hunters will convert almost all these deer into hamburg, and only breast out the fowl throwing out the tasty legs section of the bird. Good preparation is the key to this dilemma. A cook faced with the tough meat situation should become friends with either a crock pot, cast iron Dutch oven, or pressure cooker. A tough venison roast, or a quartered goose slow cooked in the first two for 4 or 5 hours with wine and seasoning will produce mouth watering fall off the bone meats and gravy. The pressure cooker can be used to can meat which will not only be tasty, but kept in a cool pantry or root/wine cellar will keep for many months much better than frozen. I have friends that did an entire moose one fall and that meat was just as good a year later as the day it was packed. The process is simple, cut the meat into chunks, pack them into a Ball Jar with a pinch of sea salt, screw on the cover and cook in a pressure cooker with water in the bottom for 45 minutes or so. The meat mixed into a spaghetti sauce, or creamed with peas, onions and carrots over toast is a joy to behold on a cold winters night.

There will always be a crowd out there that will insist they don’t like something, but you know what? It just leaves that much more for those of us that appreciate the outdoors way of life and all the bounty it brings.

Keep your powder dry,

Capt Don.

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