Cooking With Wild Game

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Last year, at 32 years old, and in the name of knowing more about where my food comes from, I made a couple life-changing decisions.

First, I applied to intern at what is, arguably, the best restaurant in the country. Second, I cut down on store-bought beef and chicken (not pork; there are some things we should just never live without). Lastly, I made the decision to get my hunting and gun licenses.

I grew up butchering and eating wild game — my father, grandfather and uncles are all hunters. I have very vivid memories of family dinners where deer, moose, duck and rabbit were the star of the table. I know grown adults who would wince at that sentence, but it was just normal — and delicious — for me.

Despite growing up in a family of hunters, I never really took interest in hunting myself. As much as I enjoy eating them, I am, through and through, an animal lover. It took me more than 30 years to realize that the modern hunter is as much responsible for the conservation of the animals they harvest as they are for putting food on the table. Canadian hunters contribute hundreds of millions every year to game conservation.

There are, however, plenty of hunters who do it purely for the sport. To me, those people are cowards. The real work comes post-kill. Dressing and butchering an animal is not easy work. In today’s world, where the most we ever see about where our meat comes from is the cellophane-wrapped cuts at the grocery store, the effort post-kill is, for me, the most rewarding part of the food cycle. It’s emotional, exacting work. And if you really care about where your food is coming from, you recognize the responsibility you have to the animal who just gave its life so your family can eat.

I get the same primitive, bone-deep satisfaction from a successful hunt that I do from building, staring at and cooking on fire. If you’ve sat around a glowing fire with friends and family, you know exactly what feeling I’m talking about.

There are a few basic rules about cooking with wild game:

  1. It is almost always leaner than the farm-raised animals you are used to eating. Therefore, it’s a lot easier to overcook.
  2. Because of the lower fat content, most game (especially small game) takes better to pan-searing and braising than it does to grilling.
  3. Let the animal sit in a cool place for 3-5 days post-kill before you cook it. Enzymes will break the flesh down, naturally tenderizing it.
  4. Offal– heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, tongue, and all the good bits — are exceptions to rule #3. They should be enjoyed as fresh as possible. And if you are not eating them, you damn well should be.

It is generally easier to skin an animal than it is to pluck it, so you are not often left with the skin after you’ve butchered it. The skin add’s plenty of fat and flavor, so to compensate, you can add it back in by cooking the game with pork sausage (if you are braising) or duck fat or butter (if you are frying).

Of all the delicious ways to cook game, my favorite is rabbit braised Portuguese-style. Here’s how you make it:

  • Rabbit (here’s a good article on how to break one down)
  • White wine
  • Beer (lager, or something light)
  • Fresh garlic
  • Onion
  • Bay leaf
  • Fresh parsley
  • Fresh oregano (optional)
  • Black peppercorns
  • Olive oil
  1. Combine all ingredients above to make a marinade.
  2. Marinate rabbit for at least 24 hours, and up to a week. The longer the better.
  3. Combine all ingredients in a covered pan, sprinkle with salt and bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2-2 hours, or until meat is falling off the bone

I like to remove the rabbit, strain the liquid and use it to cook rice. Alternatively, you can also add Parisienne potatoes to the pot.

Enjoy!

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My Secret Life as a Closet-Chef: Apprenticing at Eigensinn Farm

I have a confession to make: for the past six months, I have been living a double-life.

Monday to Friday, I lead the Customer Success team for a Toronto-based software start-up, and one of the fastest growing companies in Canada. I have nearly a dozen direct reports across four different teams, and am responsible for managing our most valuable asset — our customers. It’s a dynamic, fast-paced, chaotic, whirlwind of a role, and I think I am great at it.

However, every Friday night since the end of April– after a week spent in the office, or travelling across North America to client sites — I drive two-hours North of Toronto to work weekends at one of the top restaurants in the world: Eigensinn Farm.

I am a closet-Chef in training.

Eigensinn is much, much more than a restaurant, though. The brain-child of Chef Michael Stadtlander — one of the most celebrated and respected Chef’s in Canada — Eigensinn is a 100 acre canvas where Stadtlander merges art, nature and food into one. He raises the best free-range pork, chicken and duck you will ever taste alongside 20 foot sculptures of trees made from wine bottles and bake houses made from broken dinner plates. The herb and vegetable gardens burst from the ground surrounded by fences made from fallen trees and salvaged scrap metal. All along the property — in forests, clearings and in a myriad of hand-built structures — are dining room tables, chairs and fire pits built from the earth on which they stand. They are used in each of the exclusive (and expensive) outdoor dining events that dot the seasonal calendar at Eigensinn.

The food at Eigensinn can best be described as German-inspired, French-executed, Canadian-grown farm-to-table. Chef Michael cooks almost exclusively with organic and locally grown ingredients, many of which are harvested on the farm. Stand-out dishes from my time in the kitchen included pan-friend yellow perch with a maple and sea buckthorn reduction; black currant and chartreuse sorbet; pigs-head sausage; asparagus and herb soup with pike dumplings and wood sorrel; maple peach strudel; milkweed flower beignets; stinging nettle ravioli.

As you read this and wipe the drool from your mouth, you’re probably wondering how I landed an apprenticeship with one of the world’s best chefs? The same way I’m telling you about it: I wrote him a letter.

On New Year’s Day 2017, I made two food-related resolutions. First, I wanted to cut down on packaged and processed foods and start caring more about where my food came from. And second, I wanted to take real steps towards cooking professionally.

My love for cooking goes way back. Born to Canadian and Portuguese parents, some of my earliest memories are in my Grandmother’s kitchen. From an early age, I was encouraged to explore my palate; when most kids were struggling with broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I was eating dim sum, octopus, pig’s tails and tripe. I was cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner on my own at 14, and have done so almost every year since. I had worked in kitchens all through University and College, and while I continued cooking for friends, family and at special events, I began trading in my Chef whites for suit jackets and ties shortly after school.

Cooking at Eigensinn, though, was a different thing, entirely. For starters, in my five months on the farm, I spent nearly as much time doing farm work as I did in the kitchen. For those of you who have not had the fortune of living the farm life, that means rising early to feed and care for the animals, gardening, harvesting, foraging, lifting, fixing and building. And all of that was followed by dinner prep, service, clean-up and assisting, where needed, at Eigensinn’s local sister restaurant, Haisai.

Dinner service on the farm — while informal in many ways compared to other fine dining restaurants — is extremely special. Never mind the cost ($300 per person, BYOB), the exclusivity (15 people maximum per night, reservations many months out), the location (it’s two hours North of Toronto, quite literally in the middle of nowhere) or the space (Stadtlander’s living room). Every single one of the eight courses draws inspiration from what’s grown on the farm. This is real, hardcore farm to table dining, embracing all the challenges and rewards that come with it.

While my time at Eigensinn was exhausting — averaging 80-90 hour work weeks, seven days a week, for five months is hard! — it was also transformative and inspiring.

The menu’s at Eigensinn and Haisai, as with any true farm to table, shift with seasonal availability. I will say, in earnest, that there are ingredients here that have been entirely redefined for me because the quality is so exceptional. The first time I ate ______ (insert any of the following: carrots, beets, eggs, radishes, several lettuce varieties) grown at Eigensinn Farm, it was like the first time I had ever tasted it.

I believe that there’s something special in food that’s been grown and cooked with real love. I tasted it when my Grandmother cooked for me as a young boy, and I taste it in everything that comes from the farm. There’s an ethereal ingredient here that is unique to the land, and the people who care for it. It’s beautiful.

To eat at Eigensinn is to learn the existential truth that we have a duty to uphold the relationship between man and planet, and when we do, we are rewarded with beautiful and delicious things.

I wrapped up my time at Eigensinn on October 1st. What’s next? I’m still figuring that out, but I know where my heart is, and I know I’m one step closer to where it belongs.

 

Note: A very special thank you to my wife, Amanda, who put up with me being away from home every weekend for five months. I could not have done it without her love, support and encouragement. Thank you!

 

Brewery Visit: The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, CA)

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Based out of Berkeley, California, The Rare Barrel is an exclusively-sour beer brewery at the forefront of the sour beer renaissance (currently the hottest trend in craft beer). In a pool of heavyweight breweries– think de Garde, Jolly Pumpkin, Lost Abbey, Almanac, Jester King, Wicked Weed — The Rare Barrel is, arguably, the best in the world right now at what they do.

Sour beer is complex, expensive and still largely misunderstood by the majority of beer drinkers. While almost always fermented with tart fruits, it is, in fact, the unique bacteria strains and barrel aging process that give sour beer their unique tart and funky taste. If you’ve never tried one, the best description is like drinking a cross between white wine and lemonade, with varying degrees of tartness. Sour beer is on the opposite spectrum of the bitter hop-bomb IPAs that have dominated the craft beer landscape over the five years. In that respect, they are refreshing, in more ways than one.

Situated in an industrial neighborhood, The Rare Barrel’s facility looks more like a warehouse than a brewery. It’s 20+ foot ceilings are stacked to the brim with rows of barrel racks, each filled with beers that need time (some, several years) to mature. Each barrel is like a fingerprint, imparting it’s own unique flavor profile to the batch as it ferments.

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And there really is a search for that rare barrel amongst their collection. Each year, beer sommeliers and enthusiasts alike sample from each of the barrels in the warehouse, until they’ve come to a consensus on the best batch. That barrel is deemed the Rare Barrel.

I’ve visited The Rare Barrel a half dozen times, and each time they have an array of blends on tap, several bottles for purchase and a delicious sourdough grilled cheese to pair with your beer (and pair you should!). Unlike most other breweries today, The Rare Barrel does not offer growler fills to the general public. Given the rarity of what they’re producing, they simply can’t keep up with demand. If you want a growler filled, you need to be one of the lucky few who lands a membership in their Ambassador of Sour club. If I l lived in NoCal, no doubt, I’d want to join that club!

Tip: Finding The Rare Barrel’s bottles outside of the brewery is legendarily difficult. On my last trip, I was led to a local grocery store down the block from the brewery called Berkeley Bowl West. Here, you’ll find several bottles that you can’t get in the brewery, along with bottles from many other fantastic breweries. The grocery store is also a great spot for hard to find cheeses and delicious ethnic treats.

 

Recipe: Roasted Tomato & Leek Soup

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Most people think of soup as a winter staple, but tomatoes and leeks are at their prime in the late summer, and they are the star of this dish. This soup is bright and acidic, and pairs wonderfully with complimentary sour and/or fruit-based beers.

What you’ll need:

  • Tomatoes (any variety, as fresh off the vine as possible)
  • Leeks
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Oregano (preferably fresh)
  • Thyme (preferably fresh)
  • Olive oil
  • A sour or fruit based beer (low IBU)
  1. Quarter the tomatoes; cut the leeks in half; remove garlic cloves from skin and cut in half
  2. Mix all vegetables in a large bowl with olive oil, and go light on the salt and pepper
  3. Mix in a small handfull of fresh thyme and oregano. Leave the stems on, we’re going to be blending the soup later.
  4. Pour just a few ounces of the beer and thoroughly mix all ingredients
  5. In a covered pot, bake at 350 degrees F for one hour (Note: The visual brightness of this soup is as important as the taste. It’s imperative you don’t color the vegetables)
  6. Remove from the oven and gently pour the content into a blenderBlend on high, ensuring the solids break down
  7. Pour the contents through a fine sieve, agitating to remove the liquid into a pot below
  8. Discard the remaining solids, and what you’re left with is a beautiful bright colored liquid
  9. Whisk a generous tablespoon of butter into the liquid, and bring to a boil if you find the consistency is too thin
  10. Lastly, season with salt and pepper for taste

I like to serve this soup with sourdough croutons (simply, day-old sourdough, salt, pepper, butter) because I find the sourdough plays well with the soup and the tart beer pairing. Other good options are Mexican crema (firm sour cream) or pickled radish.

Beer Pairing: Bellwoods Jelly King or Burdock’s ORIA Black Currant

 

Recipe: Cherry & Shallot Stuffing

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I got the inspiration for this recipe while on a recent trip to Michigan (Traverse City, MI is the cherry capital of the US), where I saw cherries being used in all kinds of sweet and savoury sauces, salsas and chutneys.

You can use this dish as a salsa or, like I did, as a stuffing for chicken, quail, pheasant or any game bird. Cherry’s pair fantastic with strong, dark beer; even in the middle of summer, don’t be afraid to pull a barrel aged stout or Belgian quad out of the cellar to compliment this dish.

  • Fresh red cherries
  • Shallots
  • Fresh thyme
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • Olive oil
  • White wine vinegar
  1. Pit the cherries and slice them roughly. Remember, there’s beauty in asymmetry!
  2. Slice shallots and garlic
  3. Apply generous amount of fresh thyme leaves and olive oil
  4. Combine ingredients and finish with a pinch of salt and just a few drops of white wine vinegar
  5. Allow to marinate room temperature for 15 minutes before use

Beer Pairing: Trappistes Rochefort 8

Brewery Visit: Great Lakes Brewery (Etobicoke, ON)

Situated in Toronto’s up-and-coming Etobicoke borough, Great Lakes Brewery (GLB) has won the best brewery in Canada award twice (2013, 2014) and has established itself as craft brewing force in Ontario. It’s flagship beers — Canuck Pale Ale and Pompous Ass English Pale Ale — can be found in LCBO’s across the province, and were part of the first beers to hit Loblaw’s shelves this year when Ontario finally passed a bill allowing for beer to be sold in grocery stores.

As a craft beer fan, you’ve got to love what GLB has done with it’s Project X and Tank Ten series lines. Project X is a members-only program that allows GLB fans to a monthly tasting of GLB’s experimental beers. These beers are also sold out of the brewery’s bottle shop in very limited amounts, and they sell out quickly. Among 2015’s most memorable Project X brews includes Harry Porter and the Cherry Hoarder, GLB’s Harry Porter infused with cherries.

GLB also uses it’s Project X program as a test pilot for experimental beers. If a Project X brew has rave reviews, they may move it to the Tank Ten series, casting a wider production net. These beers are seasonal and may, on occasion, be available outside of the brewery’s bottle shop. In my opinion, Tank Ten is where GLB produces some of their best beers. Standout’s include Thrust! An IPA (possibly the best Canadian IPA on the market), Karma Citra, Audrey Hopburn and Octopus Wants to Fight.

The brewery is unassuming, on a small side street sandwiched between the Gardiner and the Queensway. Though they do have a small taproom, most of the best beers in their offering can be snatched up in the bottle shop. The staff is always super cool, and because GLB does a lot of tap takeover’s across the GTA, they become familiar faces on the Toronto beer scene.

Lastly, and worth mention, is GLB’s Blonde Lager. In my opinion, it’s very underrated, and one of the most refreshing beers in the Toronto beer market. If I’m out fishing, or headed to the cottage, this is one of my go-to brews.

Notable Brews

Blonde, Harry Porter and the Cherry Hoarder, Thrust! An IPA, Life Sentence IIPA, Imperial Bout Imperial Stout

Brewery Visit: Bellwoods Brewery (Toronto, ON)

 

Nestled on one of the hippest blocks in downtown Toronto, Bellwoods Brewery isn’t just one of the most innovative breweries in the city, it’s widely considered to be among the best in the world!

As a cellar keeper and collector of aged beer, Bellwoods is often my go-to local brewery for Brett-laced sours, boozy stouts and porters that only improve with time. Their barrel program is among the best in Canada, and constant releases drive fans to their bottle shop (which is open until 11PM everyday, by the way) on a regular basis.

Don’t let their big, barrel-aged releases overshadow the rest of the Bellwoods beer catalogue, though. They produce some solid IPA’s and session ales, too. Witchshark, Boogie Monster and Roman Candle are all regularly available and respectable IPAs.

Aside from consistently innovative and fantastic beer, Bellwood’s also has some of the most creative and visually appealing label art in the business. Most of the labels can be purchased in poster-form in the bottle shop, and all are man-cave worthy. Notable labels include Witchshark , Farmageddon and 3 Minutes to Midnight.

Perhaps the only downside to Bellwoods is the brew pub. Being located in the heart of Toronto’s hipster-ville, the small bar area is always full and I personally find the crowd pretentious. If you manage to get a spot, though, the bottle list always has some old gems from the Bellwoods vault. The food is not bad at all, but you should note that you’re in the heart of Ossington/Dundas West and food choices near the bar are varied and fantastic.

**Note: Bellwoods has recently announced plans to open two new locations in Toronto! The location on Hafis Road will be dedicated to production and storage with a bottle shop; the location on Dupont Street will be a brew pub and event space (events are not managed by Bellwoods). To read more about the progress, follow their blog here. 

www.bellwoodsbrewery.com