The Hunger Game

We invited some friends over for New Year’s Eve dinner, and I was setting forth to procure something celebratory when I bumped into my neighbor getting his mail. “Hey, I’ve got something for you,” he said. We had given them assorted homemade things (ketchup, salsa, jelly, etc.) and he wanted to reciprocate, so he led me to his freezer, from which he pulled out neatly wrapped and labeled white paper packets of frozen venison and bear meat. He had had an excellent hunting season, unlike the previous year when he got nothing. And thus was my search for exotic vittles complete before I even got in the car.

I have cooked plenty of venison, but have never eaten bear before. I figured, since it looks very much like venison—a dark purple, with almost no fat post-butchering—that I would cook it the same way: rare. I also had some excellent grass-fed beef, so I figured that a trio of meats, each with its own sauce, would make for a suitably festive meal.

I left the meats out on the counter to partially defrost while I prepped other things: kale slow-cooked with duck prosciutto, smoked pork stock, and cider vinegar, and a gratin of thinly mandolined and alternated sweet potato, butternut squash, and two kinds of potato lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, 5-spice, and dribbles of heavy cream, then topped with some grated cheddar and a bit more cream. I also caramelized some leeks and then braised them in sherry vinegar, and made a compound butter with parsley, pickled wild garlic, and sherry vinegar.

The semi-frozen meat all got salted and then seared hard until it was lovely and crusted on the outside while still being a rich and vivd red within.

The venison got a spoon of crabapple glaze flavored with black pepper and star anise, the bear steaks got a pat of the compound butter, and the beef got a grating of frozen lardo while it was piping hot out of the pan. I spooned a broken red wine pan sauce around the plate to get every last it of flavor out of the skillet, and we tucked in.

Bear is good: deep, slightly gamy, with a rich animal complexity. The butter helped, since it was very lean. Everything played very well together, especially the leeks, which are possibly my favorite winter vegetable of all, and braising them with vinegar is probably the best way to cook them. Taking the extra time to mandoline the roots into thin slices is always worth it, since it makes for a much more elegant cross-section. To do justice to the deer and bear, I really should have gone deep into the sorts of things they eat in the wild, but there’s not much to be found under the snow right now. I may save the rest until spring so I can use grown and foraged flavors to make a more place-specific dish. But this was a fine way to send  2012 on its way; the best part of all was teasing our friends’ daughter, who was freaked out about eating bear, and refused it—and the venison too, for good measure—with a long series of Winnie-the-Pooh, Yogi, Smokey, Paddington, and similar jokes.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookGoogle+Pin on Pinterestshare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponEmail to someone



  1. January 7

    I like the plate, too.

    FWIW you can encourage your friends’ daughter to (re?)read the 1st of the Little House books: Pa surprised a bear with a pig in its arms, shot both, came home with both and Mary called dibs on a drumstick of the bear. She was about 6 at the time. I had always been curious what it tasted like; thanks for clarifying. And happy new year too.

    • Peter
      January 16

      I’ll tell her.

  2. January 8

    That sounds like a pretty amazing trade to me–although I suppose it depends on the popularity of hunting where you are. I’ve had the opportunity to cook home-shot venison, which was amazing, but never bear. Maybe I’ll get a chance one day…

    • Peter
      January 16

      We’re at the edge of the wilderness, so there’s plenty to hunt. I’m happy with the trade as well…

  3. January 8

    I am partial to leeks as well, and those look amazing. Braised in cider vinegar you say? Do you grow your own? I’ve never attempted it. Am I being a wuss? Everything else looks great too, the meats are obvious, but that gratin is calling to me particularly, after the leeks.

    This sounds bad, but I love it when friends/neighbors give me meat.

    • Peter
      January 16

      Leeks are super easy. Grow them.

  4. Anna Dibble
    January 8

    Peter – Has trichinosis somehow been eliminated from bear meat. When I was a kid in Peru, VT a whole family died in Weston after eating rare bear meat! I’ve always heard one has to cook the hell out of it.

    • Peter
      January 16

      So far so good; see below.

  5. January 9

    Looks delicious. I’m wondering if I can find all the ingredients for here at our place… hmmp… Anyway, I’m gonna improvise my own ingredients just to have this hunger game… hope you can visit mine too. Filipino Food

  6. snailears
    January 9

    Trichinosis is a real threat with bear meat (and to a lesser degree venison). Cooking the meat to at least 157 degrees F internal temperature will kill the parasites. Freezing is also a way to nutralize the trichani – but be advised most home freezer units do not operate at temps low enough to assure safety. Therefore, it is best not to eat bear meat cooked rare.

    I reserve my bear meat to make wonderful and deeply flavored stews. The long cooking elimimates any worry about trichinosis and tenderizes the meat perfactly

    • Peter
      January 16

      The guy who butchered and packed it has a commercial freezer.

  7. Carla B.
    January 10

    Hmmm…I’ve tried bear meat before, albeit cooked very differently. A hunter I know gave us a big chunk of shoulder meat, and research led me to believe that the sauerbraten approach was best for gamey meats like bear. I’ve made good sauerbraten before, with beef. Quite frankly, I had a hard time tolerating the smell in the house while the bear cooked, and it tasted only slightly better than it smelled. Paddington/Yogi/Smokey/Winnie is safe from me.

    • Peter
      January 16

      I didn’t notice any unusual smell, vut it’s a meat that can dry out really easily so I probably will stew the rest of it.

  8. January 10

    I have yet to eat bear. Considering I spend a good chunk of my weekends in the Sussex NJ area where the bear hunt is a controversial, but popular event, it’s surprising I haven’t gotten my hands on any. I’m a little weirded by how it would taste. Not too much of what I eat has a diet quite like a bear’s.

    I’ve made only one attempt to cook venison. Since I know no one who hunts, I had to pay through the nose for a slab from D’Artagnan. I was a bit disappointed in the flavor. Looking at how rare your meats are, I realize it was way overcooked. Live and learn.

    • Peter
      January 16

      Venison really wants to be rare, unless you’re making stew or chili.

  9. Christine
    January 11

    My brother-in-law used to go bow and arrow, deer hunting in N. Wisconsin. He’d sit up on a platform in a tree quietly waiting. He didn’t get a lot but he liked the challenge. He’d even overnight packages of venison to us in CA. That was the best. Miss it. Glad you enjoyed your holiday feast, looks great!

  10. EL
    January 12

    I suspect that the flavor of bear depends on what it eats. For instance, if it eats a lot of fruit (such as huckleberries) and veggies and less meat the taste would be different than if it eats a lot of meat and less fruit and veggies. I suspect in places where bears live on salmon, they possibly taste a bit fishy, but as I haven’t had bear, this is mere supposition. So if anyone knows, I would be interested.

    I have had venison and elk and prefer to braise them or stir fry them. If I every get bear, I’ll probably do the same with some wild mushrooms and huckleberries or apples.

    I am still waiting to try bighorn which has a season out here (I live in Montana).

    • Peter
      January 16

      Yep, no salmon out here, so they eat trout and berries as far as I can tell.

  11. EL
    January 12

    I forgot. I grew leeks this year. They are wonderful and fairly easy to grow (I grew them in trenches and filled them in. To allow winter harvest, I simply raked leaves over them (about 8 — 12″ and then it snowed. It has been extremely cold out here, but all I have to do to get at my leeks is to go out with a shovel and dig. The ground is absolutely soft underneath the snow and leaves.

    You do have to be somewhat careful when you dig because once you disturb the leaf/snow layer, the ground will freeze, so you want to make sure that you do get all the leeks where you dig. If you get too many, you can simply chop and freeze them or you can put them in a plastic bag with a little water in it in a cool room. They keep nicely that way.

    There are a couple of things that I didn’t like much — they need fertilizing (lots of fertilizing) and they didn’t get large (but I’m going to try another variety this year and from seed). Otherwise, the taste is incredibly rich and I used the young leeks in the summer instead of green onions.

    • Peter
      January 16

      I still have a bunch in the ground myself.

Comments are closed.