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Making improvements on cooking wild game

"Because there is little to no fat with a duck or goose breast, overcooking it by just a few minutes can ruin it," said master wild game chef Scott Leysath. 

My ribs were protruding after sampling duck, goose, venison and fish prepared by wild game chef Scott Leysath at the annual Alabama Waterfowl Association sponsor banquet a few years ago.

It has been a while, but the memory of those easily prepared and delicious bites of wild game still linger.

Leysath lives in Sacramento and is an avid angler and hunter, pursuing waterfowl and upland game with a passion. That love extends into the kitchen, where he has built a successful business as one of the country's top wild game chefs and co-owner of Silver Sage Caterers.

Eating Leysath's creations is great fun, but watching him prepare them may be just as entertaining. I've always enjoyed cooking, and, like many hunters, preparing the wild game I've killed or been given helps fulfill one of the reasons I hunt.

"I like to keep things simple, use the freshest ingredients I can get and never overcook anything," Leysath said.

"The title of my next book may be 'Don't Overcook It!' because that's what too many people do. That's probably the single biggest mistake people make. Wild game doesn't have a lot of fat, so it dries out quickly."

Wild game chefs must learn to balance the desire to experiment with spices and marinades without eliminating the hearty flavor of venison, waterfowl or the delicate taste of pheasant, grouse or quail.

Too much spice or marinade and the meat becomes an unwelcome extension of the kitchen spice rack. Too little, combined with improper cooking, and the meat very well could be something no one would want to eat again.

Louisiana chef Reece Williams believes in using marinades inside a serving of wild game, as well as on the outside.

Williams and his late father, Edgar, opened their restaurant in the small town of Clinton in 1977 and began using large syringes to inject their venison, waterfowl and other game dishes with homemade sauces.

They eventually sold the award-winning restaurant, but their injection method led to the founding of Cajun Injector, a complete line of marinades and injection tools for large and small game.

"We wanted to try something different and began using the injector to put the marinades in the venison roasts and whole ducks we were preparing," Williams said. "Everyone loved it and it just took off from there.

"The key is to work the needle under the skin or into the meat and inject a little marinade as you work it back out. The flavors cook inside and outside of the meat."

Like Leysath, Williams is big on using the freshest herbs, spices and ingredients he can get. He also experiments with different flavors for his marinades, which include rosemary garlic, Cajun butter, Creole garlic, roasted garlic and herb, lemon garlic and honey bacon.

Leysath is keen on preparing waterfowl, one of his favorite things to hunt given the ample opportunities in the Pacific Flyway. But properly preparing the lean, dry meat of ducks or geese takes trial and error.

While filming a television show at the AWA sponsor event, Leysath prepared two trays of duck breasts to show the difference just a few minutes can make.

One tray was removed at the appropriate time, with the meat tender and juicy. The second was left in the oven for two or three more minutes, which resulted in tough, chewy meat no one wanted.

"Watch your cooking time carefully and take out any dish when it's ready, not a moment later," Leysath advised.

"Because there is little to no fat with a duck or goose breast, overcooking it by just a few minutes can ruin it."

Direct from the master chef to you

Some suggestions from Leysath on preparing wild game:

  • Big game animals should be carefully field dressed, prepared, labeled and refrigerated or frozen as soon as possible to ensure good flavor.

    Meat should be trimmed of all visible fat, silver skin, gristle and bone from steaks, chops and roasts. The thin silver skin on the outside of a cut of meat is tough. Carefully slice it away with a sharp knife. The little bit of meat you lose will be worth a more delectable dish later on.

  • Marinades are a favorite way of preparing antlered wild game, such as elk or deer. One of Leysath's favorites includes low-sodium soy sauce, white wine, vegetable or olive oil, sesame oil, minced fresh or pickled ginger and garlic. But he avoids marinating for a long time because the acidic nature of some marinades may toughen the meat.

  • Leysath recommends medium-rare doneness for antlered game; anything beyond that usually toughens and does so quickly. He said internal temperatures should be 120 to 130 degrees (rare) and up to 140 degrees (medium-rare). Also, any bear or wild pig meat should be cooked to at least 150 degrees as a precaution against trichinosis.

  • Beyond medium-rare, antlered game will quickly toughen. If your guests usually cringe at the sight of rare meat, carve the meat out of sight and cover it with a rich, ruby red wine sauce.

  • Small game such as squirrel, rabbit, raccoon or opossum may be substituted for chicken in most dishes that call for a yard bird as the main ingredient. Younger, tender game animals are better than older ones.

    Rubber gloves should be used to significantly reduce exposure to tularemia, a disease carried by infected rabbits. Thoroughly cook rabbits, as freezing will not kill the disease.

  • Prepare ducks in parts to prevent overcooking; breasts done just right — medium-rare, tender and juicy — will result in tough thighs and legs. Use the thighs and legs for appetizers.

    Save the carcass if you breast the ducks and use it for making stocks. Freeze the carcass separately. After making the stock with it and vegetables, strain carefully and then freeze the stock in an ice tray in order to use a few cubes at a time when needed.

    One other thing to remember, Leysath said, is to know when to toss out bad meat or fish.

    "Use your nose," he advised. "If something stinks, throw it away. Don't try to cover up something with a marinade or sauce. It smells bad for a reason, and your nose should be a guide."