Wild-game stews make cold days a little warmer

By Keith Sutton Published February 9, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Keith Sutton/Contributing Photographer

Spicy Cajun gumbo is a type of stew often made with wild game. Duck is the main ingredient in this delicious gumbo that is flavored with andouille sausage.

For centuries, a pot filled with stew simmering over a fire was one of the most practical ways to cook and share a meal. Today, easy-to-prepare stews speak directly to our busy lives. These delicious, one-pot meals never go out of style.

Stews are made with vegetables, meat, poultry and/or seafood cooked in a broth or sauce. All sorts of wild game can be used in a stew’s preparation, but stewing most often is used for tenderizing older small-game animals or tough big-game cuts. You can simmer stew in a pot on the stovetop, over a campfire or in a slow cooker, or bake the stew in a casserole.

For stovetop and campfire cooking, I use a cast-iron Dutch oven, which distributes heat evenly and allows the stew to simmer properly. This is the quickest way to make a stew, requiring only an hour or so of cooking time if you use already-tender cuts of meat such as tenderloin or young game animals. If you have time and are attentive, stovetop cooking can also be used to tame tough cuts of gamy meat. Stir the stew often to prevent sticking, and be sure it always simmers, never boils. Higher heat from boiling toughens meat instead of tenderizing it. Ideally, stew should just bubble slightly while cooking, and cooking should continue until meat is fall-apart tender.

Stews are also well-suited for oven cooking in a casserole dish, clay pot or Dutch oven. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. At this temperature, it is easy to keep the stew simmering below a boil so the meat doesn’t toughen. The stew is done when the meat is tender and well cooked.

Whether cooking on the stove or in it, do not cover the cooking vessel tightly, or do not cover it at all. If sealed tightly in a pot, the liquid will quickly reach the boiling point and overcook the meat. If you use a lid to prevent spills, leave a small gap so steam can escape. The liquid will then simmer properly and produce more-tender meat.

The exception to the tight-lid rule is when using a slow cooker. This is my favorite method for preparing stew, as the food can cook all day without attention and be ready to serve when a hungry crew gets home. Brown the meat, add it to the slow cooker with the other ingredients, stir, cover, and cook on medium heat for 5 hours or on low heat for 8 hours.

Browning the meat is an important first step in stew preparation. You may be tempted just to throw the game pieces into the pot and start stewing. This removes one preparation step and reduces the number of pans to clean. However, the chemical process that takes place when meat is browned in a bit of oil enriches the flavor of the dish. Browning also produces “fond,” those delicious, crusty bits of browned meat in the bottom of the pan. Deglaze the pan by adding a little water, wine or broth, and you have even more good stuff to add to your stew.

Many stews had their origins in Southern kitchens and included game in the ingredients. Gumbo, for example, is a hearty, spicy stew that originated in Cajun Louisiana, where duck and goose were commonly used ingredients. Rabbit or squirrel was called for in the original Brunswick stew from Virginia and the Carolinas. Other regional stews included whatever game was brought home from the hunt, including deer, opossum, squirrel and/or game birds.

The fact is, you can prepare scrumptious stews using any game meat. These recipes will help.

Brunswick Stew

Ingredients:

4 squirrels, cut in serving pieces

3 quarts water

1/4 cup diced bacon

2 teaspoons black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup pearl onions

2 cups peeled, whole tomatoes

2 cups diced potatoes

1 cup lima beans

2 cups whole-kernel corn

Directions:

Place squirrel and water in a large cooking pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 2 hours or until the meat is tender, skimming the surface occasionally. Remove the meat, allow to cool, and separate from the bones. Transfer the meat back to the liquid in the pot. Add remaining ingredients except corn. Stir well. Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Add corn, and heat an additional 10 minutes. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Grandma’s Rabbit Stew

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 rabbits, cut in serving pieces

5 cups water

2 cups coarsely shredded cabbage

2 cups whole-kernel corn

1 cup chopped onion

2/3 cup chopped green onions

1 cup diced potatoes

1/2 cup sliced carrots

1/2 cup chopped canned tomatoes

1/4 cup green beans

1/4 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup tomato sauce

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/4 cup uncooked rice

1 clove garlic, minced

Directions:

Combine salt, black pepper and cayenne, and season rabbit pieces. Brown in vegetable oil heated in a large stew pot. Add remaining ingredients; stir well. Bring to a boil; then reduce heat and simmer 2 hours or until rabbit and vegetables are tender. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Quick and Easy Skillet Stew

Ingredients:

2 pounds thinly sliced venison tenderloin

1 cup Italian salad dressing

1 box Spanish-rice-style Rice-A-Roni

2 cups diced fresh tomatoes

1 (10-ounce) can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies

Directions:

Mix venison and Italian dressing in a glass dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Drain the venison, and brown in a skillet (an electric skillet can be used), stirring frequently. While the meat browns, prepare the box of Rice-A-Roni in a second skillet. Follow the instructions on the box, but substitute 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes for canned tomatoes, and add the can of diced tomatoes and green chilies. When the Rice-A-Roni is ready to simmer, add the browned venison. Simmer for 20 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

Duck Gumbo With Andouille Sausage

Ingredients:

Boneless breast fillets from 6 ducks, cubed

1 pound andouille sausage, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup flour

1 1/2 cups chopped green bell pepper

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 pound sliced okra

4 quarts water

2 tablespoons salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

2 teaspoons thyme

5 bay leaves

Cooked long- or medium-grain white rice

Directions:

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat vegetable oil, add duck meat and sausage, and brown. Remove browned meat to a bowl and reserve.

Make a roux by sprinkling the flour into the hot oil a little at a time, stirring constantly until all flour is incorporated. Stir constantly over medium heat until the roux is caramel brown in color. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic and okra. Cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1/2 cup water and all seasonings except filé powder. Mix thoroughly, then gradually add remaining water and reserved meat pieces, still stirring. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 2 hours. Serve in bowls over cooked rice. Serves 12 to 16.

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