Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cooking tips

With Christmas approaching, folks who were fortunate enough to put venison in their freezers will be looking to put some of it on the table, either on Christmas Day or sometime over the holidays.

One of my favorites is venison meat pie. But, there's also venison stew, which we had the other day. Or, even grilled venison steaks. Yes, I know it's pretty cold to be outdoors standing over the grill, but I have done it and will do so again. We have some 30-degree days coming up and that's plenty warm enough to go out and fire up the grill.

So, this is a good time to offer some tips for getting the most out of your venison. One of the most common complaints I get is that the meat tastes too gamey. Another is that it's too tough. I have solutions to both of these problems.

The first will take a little extra time, but it's well worth it. No matter who butchers your deer, there will be silver skin, fat and gristle on the meat. The gamey flavor resides here, so take it all off. It may seem like a time-consuming task, but you won't believe the difference it will make in the taste of your venison. Without this stuff, the meat tastes very mild and even has a little sweetness. I use a fillet knife to do the job. The rule of thumb is this: If it's not red, cut it off.

To prevent toughness, there are two options -- slow cooking in a crock pot or using a meat tenderizer. I bought one a couple of years ago that is fantastic. It is spring loaded and has 48 small blades that pierce the meat. I go over each piece of meat three times, then cook it. The end result is a piece of meat so tender you can cut it with a butter knife.

Here's one last tip: Do NOT overcook your venison. The rule for me is to have it either pink or red in the middle. Also, it usually requires less time on the grill than beef. If you see juice running out of your steaks after you take them off the grill and put them on a platter, you're in business.

Bon appetit and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Coming up short

I had a lengthy conversation with my friend, Al, last night about deer hunting. He and his hunting party went down to southeastern Minnesota to take part in the B season, which ran from Nov. 22-30.

They have done well there the past couple of seasons and I was anticipating a good report again this year. But, it ended up being a tough hunt for them. They had some deer sightings, but missed on every shot. That leaves empty freezers this winter, except for a small amount of venison left over from last year.

I felt bad for them. No one enjoys the taste of venison more than Al and his family. In fact, they have a Christmas Day tradition of a venison meal. They'll have some venison, but will have to add beef to feed everyone.

Fortunately, it was a good year of deer hunting for my family, so I offered Al some of the venison in my freezer. He quickly accepted, with the exchange to take place this weekend. I'm happy to help out. Truth is, we have plenty of venison in our freezer, to the point of having too much. So, I have a good reason to share.

Of course, I'm hoping that Al and his group will have a better year next year. However, Al is not sure his dad will join him. They had a longer walk than usual to their hunting spots -- about a mile -- and the trek took a lot out of him. They hunted on public land and their usual short cut across private land to their spot was cut off when the landowner decided this year not to let them cross.

This is a very unfortunate situation, but is symptomatic of a deeper problem of deteriorating relations between landowners and hunters leading to the elimination of access to private land. Frankly, I think a lot of the blame falls on hunters. I have seen and heard of many examples in recent years of hunters abusing their privileges and being jerks to both other hunters and even landowners. I don't blame landowners for getting fed up with all of the hassles of letting people onto their land.

Yet, I wish there was a way to resolve Al's access issue so that his dad can hunt. Being able to hunt with your dad is a fabulous experience and I continue to enjoy that luxury with my own father, who is now 87 and says he wants to hunt wild turkeys in Wisconsin with me again this year. For now, I will be content to help put a little venison on Al's table.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The hunt is over

For most hunters, myself included, the hunting season has drawn to a close. I walk away very satisfied with the fall of 2008. It was memorable, not just for me, but for my children as well.

One of the highlights was shooting my first fall turkey ever. Actually, I almost got two. I have been trying for several years to bag an autumn bird, but something always seemed to go wrong. Then, this year, I tried a new strategy and succeeded in just two hours in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, I took a shot at a bird and missed.

The Minnesota bird came less than a week after my son, Andy, shot his first deer ever, a whitetail doe during Wisconsin's youth deer hunting weekend. Then, I shot a buck in Minnesota and my son, Joe, added a doe to the harvest. Finally, Joe and Andy each shot bucks in Montana.

As a reflected on these hunts, I came across an article in Field and Stream talking about the declining number of hunters and what's causing it. A number of factors were examined, then a heavy finger pointed at parents who are deciding not to take their kids out hunting.

I'm happy -- and a little relieved -- that this is not the case with me. In fact, I have thoroughly enjoyed the five falls in which I have hunted with my two oldest boys. It was an adjustment, at first, from hunting just by myself or with other adults. But, the rewards have been great, especially when the boys have been fortunate enough to get something. Of course, that's not all there is to hunting, but it is thrilling to be there when they see an animal and take a shot. And, I have experienced the added thrill of taking their picture when it's over.

It's a joy I wish more dads could experience. And, yet, I acknowledge that it can be very difficult to take a child out into the field if you have done little or no hunting yourself. Frankly, there are lots of activities that are easier to help your kids do than hunting.

Still, it is worthwhile when you make the effort. Kids are losing their connection with the outdoors and this a great way to reestablish that link. Plus, passing on the tradition to our youth will help ensure the future of hunting. The number of people opposed to hunting is growing, plus the amount of land available to hunters is shrinking. We should not sit idly by and let those trends continue.

I have taken steps to try and put the future of this great sport into the hands of my children. My No. 3 son, William, is 10 and on the cusp of his first hunt. The Minnesota DNR has created more opportunities for kids his age to get out into the field. Turkey hunting is now legal for kids of all ages and the state has created the chance for 10- and 11-year-olds to deer hunt. I may start him out next year with a fall turkey hunt. That strikes me as a great way to begin.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sausage day

Today marks an annual tradition -- bringing in fresh, venison sausage to my coworkers at The Catholic Spirit. Yesterday, I picked up a batch of summer sausage from Stasny's Food Market right here in St. Paul. I had dropped off a deer for processing back in November and I always order Stasny's delicious summer sausage.

I feel a little strange driving around St. Paul with a deer in my trailer, but I wouldn't take it anywhere else. The heart of St. Paul might seem like an unusual place to find a deer processor, but the folks at Stasny's have been doing it for a long time and it shows.

I really like the taste of the summer sausage I get there, and I also like sharing it with others. In fact, I will be giving more of it away to landowners who have given me and my sons permission to hunt on their properties. That's an annual tradition, too. I'm very grateful for the privilege of having good places to hunt and it's nice to give the landowners a small token of appreciation.

In this day and age, finding land on which to hunt is getting harder and harder. I sure hope my children will be able to continue our tradition of hunting. For now, we'll keep enjoying the sausage, plus all of the other venison now taking up space in our freezer.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Returning from Big Sky country

We got back from our trip to Great Falls, Mont. very early yesterday morning -- 5 a.m. to be exact. It got interesting in western North Dakota when we encountered some snow and slush, making for some tense driving. But, God answered our prayers for protection and brought us safely home.

I did some elk and deer hunting with my two oldest boys, Joe and Andy, and their Grandpa Bob Guditis, his daughter, Jessica Gray, and her husband, Jerry. The results will be revealed in my monthly outdoors column in The Catholic Spirit in an upcoming issue. For now, I'd like to highlight one important aspect of the hunt.

It has to do with being prepared for the hunting conditions out west. Thanks to my friend, Steve Huettl, we had the right clothing. He works for a hunting clothing company called Gamehide and he was able to get us jackets, bibs, caps, neck gaiters and gloves at a significantly discounted price. He shipped them to us just a few days before we left and even shipped another jacket when Joe needed a bigger size.

Everything worked great and kept us warm and comfortable, even when it got cold and windy. The weather can vary greatly out west in the mountains, and we experienced that in our five days of hunting. It got to 60 degrees the first day, then dropped into the teens later in the week. The clothing worked through it all. I was confident it would do the job because Steve told me he uses the same stuff himself. It's Gamehide's top of the line and it showed. Many thanks to Steve!

A second important part of being prepared is to have rifles that shoot accurately. Bob is a civil engineer who understands technical things like bullet trajectories very well. He sights in every rifle he uses and we had a very important sight-in session at the gun range before the hunt. Unlike many hunters, he zeroes his rifles in at about 250-275 yards. He knows that shots that long -- and longer -- are common out west. Although the bullets will hit two or three inches high at 100 and 200 yards, a hunter can take longer shots without having to aim high on an animal.

All I will say for now is I'm very glad we took the time to sight in our rifles. Stay tuned to my upcoming column for a detailed story of our hunt!