A Case for Family-Style Wild Game Meals

By Michael Cravens

I love to make fancy, or at least fancy to me, wild game dishes. Wild game is the perfect centerpiece to a fancy meal. For the hunter, it’s an expression of his or her reverence for the animal and all the hard work that was put into bringing it home. For the non-hunter, it makes for an interesting and unique dining experience. The enjoyment I get from attempting to create a nice dish doesn’t necessarily stem from a deep love of cooking, it’s really just an extension of the hunt for me. I love the scouting, the chase, the processing; why wouldn’t I love the preparation of the final dish?

Unfortunately, though, I don’t always have the time to get all fancy. I have a family. Both my wife and I work full time. We have two young children and super high-energy pup who all require a great deal of attention. Combine this with my insatiable desire to spend every available hour in the field chasing fish and wildlife. It’s amazing that I ever have the time to whip up something fancy.

This is where simple, family-style cooking comes into play. I take a great deal of pride in the fact that almost all the meat my family consumes is from a wild, healthy, and truly renewable resource. Of course, this requires a couple big game species like deer, elk, or bear to be harvested every year, but we also utilize small game and birds: squirrels, rabbits, dove, quail, waterfowl, fish, and even the occasional set of frog legs all end up on our dinner table.

When searching for wild game recipes, most of what you’ll find are beautiful dishes that take a lot of time and a great deal of effort to recreate. I, for one, think this is great. When a hunter takes to the field and kills an animal for the dinner table, shouldn’t he or she treat that animal with the reverence it deserves and make something nice with it? I think so, but there are also times, e.g. school nights, when you just need to get dinner on the table and a hungry family fed. With these nights in mind, I present you with some of the standard wild game meals my family utilizes on a regular basis.

When I cook, I like to cook big, and I aim for leftovers. It maximizes my time and efforts, so to speak. One of the more versatile ways I do this is by braising a large roast. Shoulders, shanks, necks, individual muscles from large animals or even larger small game like jackrabbits all work well here. Let’s use a shoulder roast from an elk for this example. I’ll brown the roast, then braise it in either a Dutch oven or a slow cooker until the meat is falling-off-the-bone tender. Sometimes, in the last hour of cooking, I’ll throw in some root vegetables like carrots and potatoes and make it a simple but complete meal.

With a large roast like this, there will always be leftovers. I will usually shred this meat up and use it for all sorts of meals throughout the rest of the week. One way is to make a pot of mashed potatoes and serve the shredded meat on top, Shepherd's pie style, with a side of peas. This is even better when you make a gravy with the leftover braising liquid. Another way, and a favorite in my household, is to mix that leftover shredded meat with green chiles and serve it up on tacos. To be fair, we probably have taco nights a lot more than your average family, but I’m certain you will, too, if you give this a try.

One of the more convenient big meals you can make is venison stew. What I really love about stew is that I can get up in the morning, chop some veggies, brown some cubed meat, and throw it all in a slow cooker before I go to work. That evening, when I return home, dinner is done and ready to serve up. I like to stop on the way home and pick up a fresh loaf of crusty bread to go with it.

A personal favorite of mine is a pot of Cajun beans. Most will know what I’m talking about when I mention those colorful bags of dry beans labeled thirteen bean soup at the supermarket. I like to use a large pot to cook two bags of these in. I scrap the seasoning packets and add lots of onion, garlic and either Tony’s or Old Bay Cajun seasoning. When the beans are almost done, I’ll add a couple cans of diced tomatoes and a bunch of browned ground venison or bear. This makes a lot of beans and a portion will usually end up in the freezer for use on a later date.

While there’s not a whole heck of a lot to say about it, I can’t leave out chili. Whether you use ground or cubed meat, you like it hot or mild, thick or thin, chili is an American classic that everyone loves. It’s easy to make in large batches, it freezes well, and it’s delicious as leftover chili and cheese omelets in the morning.

Another family favorite: fried catfish. My kids and I love to fish for catfish in our local ponds. Sometimes, we manage to bring a stringer of them home. I realize that fish might not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of simple meals for a weeknight, but I urge you to reconsider. Three or four modestly-sized fileted catfish, cut into nuggets, then fried can make for quite a large meal, especially when you pair it with cornbread and collard greens. Everyone knows that fish is a dish that is best served fresh, but a leftover fried catfish po’ boy sandwich is nothing to turn your nose up at for lunch the next day, either.

I’ll end with one of the most common meals in our home. It’s not large and there’s never leftovers, but it certainly doesn’t get any easier. After a long day at work, my wife and I love to sit together on the patio while the kids play in the yard, open a couple of beers, and talk about our day while venison steaks and veggies sizzle on the grill. A simple meal of grilled steaks and veggies is not only easy, it’s also healthy and delicious.

I believe it’s important that hunters and anglers strive to make the most of the animals they bring home to their kitchens. One of the best ways to do this is through the time, care, effort it takes to create a fancy dish that you can share with others. With that said, there’s certainly nothing wrong with utilizing the wild game in your freezer to simply feed the family. While the list of possibilities is endless, I hope my examples here get you thinking about and coming up with your own recipes to make the most of wild game in your everyday life. For more wild game recipes, fancy or otherwise, be sure to check out the Hunt to Eat YouTube Channel.