Moooove over beef

RENO, Nev. — Hunters never really leave hunting camp. Whether it's the experiences and stories, the friendships or the trophies, something's always there to remind them of their home away from home, tucked deep in the woods, where their passion for all things wild are flamed every fall.

The notion of a return visit to bask in the warm glow of a wood fire can sometimes feel like the difference between sanity and burnout in today's on-the-go society.

But while most of the treasures a hunter takes home — memories and images; stories and wall mounts — are personal in nature, one of the richest rewards of any successful hunting camp, meat, can and should be shared with family and friends. The quest for the planet's purest protein, the primary objective for any hunt, is one of the greatest souvenirs a conservationist can bring back from days spent afield.

Like the culmination of all successful hunting camps, it's time to relish the spoils of time spent among the elk, deer, pronghorn, sheep, moose, caribou, turkey, pheasant, quail, rabbit, squirrel — and all other game animals — whose cunning and culinary qualities have kept hunters coming back for eons.

With the curtain drawn on a different kind of hunting camp — the 2010 Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Elk Camp, the organization's annual convention which wrapped its four-day run in Reno on Sunday — Chef John McGannon gives some sage advice to hunters looking for the tastiest ways of reliving the hunt.

Spreading the wealth that is game meat — especially those who don't hunt — has long been seen as an easy and non-confrontational way of introducing the merits of ethical hunting.

The subsequent discussions bring to the forefront hunters' roles as conservationists and the role selective harvest plays in ensuring the survival and wellbeing of many species.

Healthy, delicious and a fond reminder of days spent high in the mountains or hunkered down in a ground blind, learning to maximize the palatability of game meat isn't difficult. By learning why people complain that every piece of venison they ever ate "tasted gamey" or why watching your kin gnaw on backstrap conjures up images of a lab puppy chewing its way through a pair of combat boots, hunters not only discover ways to tempt the taste buds, but also to play a part in preserving the hunting heritage for future generations.

"Creating wonderful-tasting game meat is a process — 'the journey' I call it," said McGannon, a Pacifica, Calif.,-based chef and owner of WildEats Enterprises, which markets gourmet seasonings and rubs designed specifically with game preparation in mind. "It begins with marksmanship and continues on to field hygiene, avoiding cross contamination and having temperature awareness."

McGannon also stresses the importance of dry aging to hunters and the culinary curious. Dry aging, the process of removing capillary blood from game meat, results in tender, flavorful dishes without the "gamey" overtones so often cited by people who proclaim a dislike for venison and other wild fare.

McGannon advises hunters to freeze their game meat in as large of pieces as they can, leaving intact the silverskin and other things normally removed before consumption. When it's time to cook, McGannon said, hunters should avoid the temptation to accelerate the defrosting process.

Instead, he said, the meat should be washed and placed on a rack, over a pan, and allowed to defrost slowly in a refrigerator with a temperature less than 40F. Depending on the size and type of meat, this can take anywhere from two days to two weeks — but the end results are worth the wait.

"Everyone has a spare refrigerator in their house that they use to keep beer in or something, down in the basement or out in the garage," McGannon said. "More dry aging time is better, to a certain degree, but there is a certain point where it becomes too much.

"Most importantly, though, is to make sure that the blood and other liquids that leave the meat as it dry ages are not allowed to come into contact with the meat — that's why you should dry age on a rack and allow the blood to run into a catch pan."

McGannon expounds further on the subject of game meat preparation and cuisine in his columns for Bugle Magazine, the official publication for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, as well as in his company's Web site and in the many speaking engagements he does at sport shows around the country.

However, he gives these quick pointers — and a couple of bread-soppin-good recipes — to give a jump start to hunters who might be wondering what they're going to do with all the game meat in their freezer from last fall.

• Sirloin butt, top sirloin and top round make nice cuts for steaks. These cuts should be cooked quickly over high heat to a rare temperature.

• Bottom round, eye round and heel take a longer time to break down. These cuts should be cooked slowly and don't make good candidates for steaks and chops.

"Each of the muscle groups has its own appropriate set of cooking techniques," McGannon said. "But the process of turning your harvest into proper table fare is like a chain; if any link of the chain is broken, it will never turn out the way you want — no matter how good the recipe."

Chili-Spiked Venison Meatloaf with Roasted Sweet Potatoes

4 lbs. ground elk or venison drained of excess blood
6 eggs
1½ cups dried bread crumbs
½ cup ketchup
1½ cups onions, finely diced
½ cup celery, finely diced
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
4 tbsp. Wildeats San Francisco Pepper Rub (or substitute with your own rub)
salt and pepper to taste

Chili Glaze

3 tbsp. virgin olive oil
½ cup ketchup
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
3 tbsp. ground chili powder

Sweet Potatoes
6 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 
1½-inch cubes
2 tbsp. olive oil (or 2 tbsp. melted butter)
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients for the loaf and form. Place into sprayed or foil-lined roasting pan. Blend the ingredients for the glaze and baste top of the loaf. Toss the peeled potatoes with olive oil and seasonings. Arrange them around the loaf. Place into a 335 degree oven for 80-90 minutes or until 160 degree internal temperature. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before cutting. The combination of the full-flavored meat with the mild spicy flavor of the glaze and the sweetness of the potatoes makes for a great meal. Serves 8 to 10.

Elk Meatballs with Roasted Tomato & Bell Pepper Sauce

Elk Meatballs
3 lbs. ground elk (defrosted and placed in a colander overnight to drain out excess blood)
1 medium onion, diced fine
1 tsp freshly minced garlic
1 tbsp butter
6 oz. ketchup
4 eggs
½ cup grated Reggiano or Grana padano parmesan
½ dried bread crumbs
2 tbsp Lemon Garlic & Sage Rub or 1 tbsp fresh sage
1 tbsp fresh oregano or marjoram
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
zest of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Pure Olive oil for frying

Sauté the onions and garlic in the butter until translucent, remove them from heat and cool. In a large bowl blend all the rest of the ingredients, add the cooled onion mixture and blend until smooth.

For Hors D'oeuvres make small balls, about the size of a quarter — for entrees about twice that size. (Tip: when rolling meatballs have a cup of cold water nearby so you can dip your hands into the water. This will help the balls hold together and create a nice smooth surface on the meatballs)

Roll all the mixture into balls. Take a frying pan and fill it with enough pure olive oil to go to the tops of the meatballs. Heat the oil and place enough meatballs to cover the bottom of your pan. Turn the meatballs as the fry so they are evenly cooked to a golden brown. Continue until all the mixture is finished. Hold to finish in the Tomato Bell Pepper Sauce.

Roasted Tomato & Bell Pepper Sauce

10 medium-sized "summer ripe" tomatoes
3 red or yellow bell peppers
3 cans V8 or other tomato juice
2 oz. pure olive oil
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 large onion, cut into very small dice
Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and core the stem end of your tomatoes. On the bottom side of the tomato cut a small "x". Now cut the tomato in half going across the tomato, from side to side. The "x" will allow you to easily remove the skin once you roast the tomato and cutting it across will expose all the seeds which you will be able to squeeze out when its done roasting.

Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper and arrange them on a parchment lined sheet pan, cut side down, and place them into a 375°F for about 30-45 minutes (depending on the ripeness and size). When the tomato has roasted long enough you will be able to peel the skin right off. After you peel all the skin gently squeeze out the tomato halves to remove the seeds.

While your tomatoes are roasting take your bell peppers and place them over an open flame. This can be a barbeque grill, campfire or even the burners on your stove. Char them all around until they are evenly blistered. When they are charred place them into a brown paper bag and let them sit for 30 minutes or so.

This will help the separate the skin from the flesh of the pepper. Remove the peppers from the bag and sprinkle them with course salt like Kosher or sea salt. This will help you get a grip on the skin and make peeling much easier. Peel all the peppers, cut them in half and remove all the seeds and cut them into small ¼ inch dice.

In a pot large enough to hold all the meatballs heat up some of the olive oil and add the garlic. Sauté the garlic to develop its flavor, then add the onions. Sauté garlic and onion for a bit and add the diced bell peppers and course chopped roasted tomatoes. Add the tomato juice and slowly bring to a simmer. Add the meatballs, gently making sure all the meatballs are submerged in the sauce and allow them to simmer for about 45 minutes. Clean any oil or scum that forms on the top of the sauce. You can partially cover the sauce so it doesn't reduce too much.

If you're serving them right away you should let them sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. I actually like to make the meatballs a day ahead and reheat them when I need them. Multiple combinations of flavor will develop after they have the chance to mature. This is true with any items that are braised in a sauce. These meatballs also store very well (in the sauce) in the freezer for up to a years.