A sizzling steak on the grill is a great way to soak in the flavors of summer. Make it a local venison steak and you’ll be joining many Vermonters who enjoy food from our own fields and forests.
“Just add some salt and pepper, maybe some sautéed onions on the side,” says Dylan Smith, a lifetime hunter and fisherman who works with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
Local chef, recipe developer, and lifelong hunter Fred MacKenzie, of Barre Town, agrees with Smith’s approach, though he says he would add some wild mushrooms, too. Hunting is a family tradition that he grew up with, watching his father, grandfather, and uncles hunt deer and turkey.
“My entire life, my father overcooked venison,” says MacKenzie. “It’s one of those proteins you have to be delicate with.” Many people, says the chef, don’t know to match the cooking technique with the cut of meat. “A shank should be braised, a filet is seared quick on the grill,” he explains.
Knowing how to cook venison is worth the effort, says MacKenzie, because the flavor has more depth than grass-fed beef, for example. When deer are grazing, they’re eating wild food like herbs and acorns, and those food sources carry through into the flavor of the meat. Plus, he adds, wild game is healthier. “It’s a better quality of protein, and I’m very picky about the quality of food I put on the table for my family,” he says.
When it comes to cooking wild game, Smith says a lot of people find it intimidating. “They say, ‘I caught a fish or shot a deer, now what do I do with it?’”
Sharing this know-how is the goal of a new partnership between the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and Rooted in Vermont, a program of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network. This July and August, the duo will be offering a “Field to Fork” wild food cooking series to help more Vermonters learn what game foods are available around them and how to make them into a delicious meal.
Three hands-on seminars will take place July 30 at the Barre Fish and Game Club, Aug. 7 at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, and Aug. 14 at City Market’s South End campus in Burlington. Each seminar will feature experts in preparing wild game, like Smith, who will help participants learn the basics of preparing and cooking fish, bear and deer. There will also be time to enjoy the tasty creations made during the seminar.
Bear sausage is likely to be one recipe that seminar participants will learn, says Smith. “We’ll show the process of how you can break it down, grind it, we’ll add some pork in to add fat, and add some flavor.” The class will go on to make meatballs out of the bear sausage and top it off with red sauce for an example of a great local meal.
Many hunters enjoy eating their catch because it saves them money and helps provide high quality food for their families. It’s also a traditional and long-standing source of local food. In both the 2017 and 2018 Vermonter polls, conducted annually by the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont, about one-quarter of Vermonters said they hunted to eat and about one-third said they fished to eat.
Connecting with hunters and fisherman, and making the connection between these traditional sources of food and the statewide local food movement, is an important way to draw more people into the conversation, says Shane Rogers, with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a nonprofit that coordinates the Farm to Plate Network.
“Often, when we’re talking about local food, we don’t always associate hunting and fishing,” Rogers says. “It’s a shame, because it’s an important source of fresh, local food.” Many people enjoy knowing their farmer or pulling food out of their own garden, and hunting and fishing is an extension of that, he explains.
Nicole Meier, information and education specialist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, shares a similar sentiment. “Hunting provides many of the same personal and landscape benefits” as sourcing food from local farms, she says. “We want interested Vermonters to identify their own local food opportunities and understand that delicious, nutritious food can be found in our forests, fields, and waters.”