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.