Holiday Cooking with Steven Rinella

Some simple tips and advice from the host of MeatEater on how to prepare an amazing holiday dinner with wild game.

Q: Even people who cook wild game a lot get intimidated when it comes to cooking for the holidays. What’s the best way for folks to become more comfortable with holiday wild game cooking?

A: Holiday meals are special, and there isn’t anything more special than serving food with a story behind it to your family and friends. So, right off the bat, wild game is a perfect fit for the holidays. People get hung up by trying to fit everything into the traditional holiday dishes. Think beyond the standards. There are all kinds of ways to incorporate wild game into holiday meals. Backstraps and big roasts are great, but appetizers are an excellent way to make a little bit of wild game feed a whole mess of people. Venison liver mousse, for example, has that fancy type of feel, is perfect spread on crackers or good bread, goes a long way, and is absolutely delicious. It’s not just about the turkey dinner.

Q: What about turkey? Does wild turkey work for the traditional Thanksgiving meal?

A: Sure it does, but roasting a whole wild turkey is tricky. If you don’t do it right, it can end up dry and leathery. Before you roast it, you have to really smear the entire bird—every inch—with butter and take the time to baste it with butter every 20 minutes as it roasts. That’s the key to keeping it moist. That and not overcooking it. It’s done when the internal temperature at the thickest part of the thigh is 160 degrees.

Q: What other ways do you cook wild turkey?

A: I love turkey schnitzel. It’s a dish I make often with wild turkey, and everyone who tries it loves it. I don’t think people make enough schnitzel. Fried things are good. I make halibut schnitzel. Society has made people feel sheepish about frying things, like it’s somehow not fancy enough. But fried fish is delicious. It’s about as good as it gets.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake people make when cooking wild game?

A: Easy—overcooking cooking it. Wild game does not have the fat content of domestic meat, so unless you’re braising it or some other similar preparation, venison, waterfowl, and upland birds should be served medium rare. The simplest way to make sure you don’t overcook your meat is to get a good digital meat thermometer and use it. You may think you can tell by look or feel but knowing the internal temperature of the meat is the way to go. 

Q: Where should people find holiday recipes for wild game?

A: Well, I have to mention my own MeatEater Fish and Game Cookbook, of course, but I would encourage people not to be afraid to adapt other recipes for use with wild game. Some of my favorite wild game dishes were inspired by old Jacques Pépin recipes. What matters is that you think about the cut first. Is this a venison neck roast, a tough cut like a beef chuck roast? Yes, so it should be braised, and you can adapt most pot roast recipes for this piece of meat. A backstrap is a loin, so any beef loin recipe works. Cut-based cooking also means thinking about the animal: Is this big old buck or younger deer? Focus on the ingredients and the cut, and you can take inspiration from endless number of recipes or dishes that you’ve eaten.

Q: Cooking for the holidays is often an all-hands-on-deck affair. Any tips for getting kids involved?

A: Kids love to cook, man. They love a task, and love to feel like they’re doing something grown up, like cooking. Cooking can also be messy, which is great for kids. They get to make a mess on purpose. Don’t overthink this. Just throw them in there, mixing things, chopping stuff. Explain as you go and make it fun. When a kid feels like they cooked the meal, especially if it’s fish or wild game that they killed or caught, I promise you they’ll be as proud as you are.

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