In an exclusive interview, one of the nation's foremost wild game chefs shares some secrets and tips for preparing delicious meals.
If you watch Sportsman Channel, you may be familiar with wild game chef Scott Leysath. Best known as the "Sporting Chef", Scott is one of the most renowned experts for preparing fish and game. Why are his recipes so wildly popular? He specializes in the "Short Attention Span" cooking style that is "fast, easy, delicious and very entertaining"--making the art of preparing wild game and fish more amenable to a wider audience.
Scott is currently the host of "The Sporting Chef" and "Dead Meat" television programs on Sportsman Channel. Prior to launching his own TV show, he worked both sides of the camera on HGTV's "Home Grown Cooking with Paul James" for four years. He also co-hosted the HuntFishCook cooking show for six years.
Since 2007, Chef Leysath has served as the Cooking Editor of Ducks Unlimited Magazine and heads the DU Culinary Council. You can find Scott's recipes at the Ducks Unlimited website (ducks.org) and at SportingChef.com. He is an active hunter and angler who takes up residency in Northern California. He boasts over 30 years in the restaurant business.
Scott was kind enough to speak with us, and here's what he had to say:
Wide Open Spaces: What is one tool or cooking method hunters today should try?
Scott Layseth: Smoking or smoke cooking. Many people are intimidated by cooking with smoke, but it's really not too complicated. With fish, you simply brine it, and smoke it at around 185 to 200 degrees until it's still moist in the center and smoky brown on the outside. You can easily control how smoky you want any meat or fish by simply adding more or less wood or wood chips.
WOS: You supposedly have a famous recipe or method for cooking ducks - can you share it to our readers?
SL: I cook my duck in parts. I prefer that the breasts are medium-rare, but medium-rare legs and thighs are barely edible. I cook the breasts "fast and hot" with high heat and they're done in just a few minutes per side. The legs are best cooked "low and slow" with lower heat and a few hours of cooking until they almost fall off the bone.
I also do not ever cook a duck without first submerging it in a simple saltwater brine for several hours. The brine exchanges any blood and other fluids with a mild solution. It mellows out the flavor without disguising it or covering it up.
WOS: What should hunters tell their butcher when dropping off their big game animal? And how do you know if you've found a good butcher shop?
SL: Please, do not hack the loins into butterflied portions. Whoever decided that perfectly good loins shouldn't be left as-is and properly wrapped should be punished. The most common excuse I hear for doing so is that it makes the undersized steaks more uniform and they cook more evenly. I'd prefer to have the option to do whatever I want with one of the more prized part of an antlered game animal. I might want to roast a whole backstrap, or stuff it, or cut it into medallions. Once it's been butterflied, your options are greatly limited. The best processors remove as much of the visible silver skin as possible prior to wrapping. Deer steaks should be free of anything that's not just muscle. I do understand that this takes time and time is money. If you're on a limited budget and still want to use a processor, have them break down the animal into parts and take the time to further clean them up at home by removing any additional sinew and silver skin.
For me, the best processors will take the time to trim hindquarter roasts into sinew-free portions. The meat will be vacuum-packed, not wrapped in butcher paper and specific muscle groups won't be labeled with a generic "STEAK" sticker. If it's a sirloin, I want to know it's a sirloin.
WOS: On your "Sporting Chef" show on Sportsman Channel, you tend to eat your meat and fish rare to medium rare - why is that? Is this your preferred method of cooking?
SL: It should be noted that I mentioned that my last meal on Earth included three uncooked items. Overcooking the better cuts of game is, to me, one of the reasons why so many people don't care for the taste of game. Unless you're Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods", the word "gamey" doesn't mean delicious. I do understand that folks who have been brought up on more- cooked meats and fish aren't too keen on trying a piece of venison that is cooked to medium-rare, about 130 - 135 degrees. They tell me that it's "bloody" and they make a face that looks like I'm asking them to eat a bowl of raw snake heads. To make my point, I'll often cook a duck breast or deer steak medium-rare and then cover it up with a dark sauce that disguises just how it has been cooked. People will ask, "How did you get it so tender? My deer is tough and gamey." Many people who try and make game meats less gamey by cooking it longer actually make it more pronounced in flavor, and not in a good way. How you eat your own fish and game, or anything, is your own business. I much prefer tender meat and moist fish that has been just-cooked and not overcooked.
WOS: Summer is just around the corner. What is one great tip for backyard cooking Wide Open Spaces readers should implement into their cooking routines?
SL: When grilling, make sure that the grates are clean, hot and well-oiled to keep meat and fish from sticking. And don't mess with it. When it's ready to flip, it will be marked by the hot grates and it will flip easily. If it's stuck, leave it alone until it is charred and ready to flip.
WOS: What wine is best paired with venison of any form? How about for duck or pheasant?
SL: I highly recommend drinking the wine you like with the fish and game you like. Although a proper pairing of wine with game will balance the meal, if you don't like red wine, you shouldn't feel like you have to drink it with venison or suffer the wrath of wine snobs.
OK, a peppery Lodi, California Zinfandel like Michael David Winery's "Earthquake" with a well-seasoned grilled deer steak. Petite Sirah with duck and a Pinot Noir with the pheasant. Personally, I just don't drink much white wine.
WOS: What would you want to be served for your last meal on Earth? And why?
SL: Raw oysters, homegrown tomatoes and a combo sashimi platter (no rice). When the oysters are fresh, cool and just the right amount of briny, there's no fuss or sauce required. Of course, a little mignonette or a squeeze of lemon juice only enhances the flavor. Sweet, ripe summertime homegrown cannot be purchased in a grocery store, at least not any I've been to. Some stores offer "heirloom" tomatoes, but they're still picked too soon and the
flavor, although better than something that's been picked green, just isn't homegrown.
I do have to qualify the sashimi. It has to be really good raw fish, not some of the tired, formerly frozen stuff from an all-you-can eat sashimi joint. Life's too short to eat bad fish.
There is so much to takeaway from Scott Leysath's cooking tips. We hope this interview inspired you to get more creative in the kitchen while preparing and cooking wild game. To learn more about Scott, follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Check out his website here.