One of the things that’s constant in the South is the concept of living from the land through hunting and fishing. Very few of us who grew up here, or whose families are native, didn’t learn both skills as children, and that includes girls. I was 5 or 6 when I learned how to shoot and was fishing even younger, albeit with Dad or a grandfather to bait the hook for me.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, this probably isn’t the column for you – rest assured, there are plenty coming, but this one is going to look at hunting, and how one pretty dedicated Southern chef and hunter is making game work, especially now, as we shift between seasons for ducks, wild turkeys, geese and so on.
Regardless of how you feel about it, it’s a way of life around here – and frankly, with all the discussion going on about the problems caused by factory farming and the issues of everything from hormones to sanitation to the treatment of caged chickens, I have not one iota of regret about eating a cleanly, swiftly killed wild bird instead of an industrially farmed one that came wrapped in plastic from the mega-mart.
For urban dwellers in many parts of the country, that’s not an option, but for many of us, it’s pretty normal. It’s not a political thing – I can see very little difference on either side of the voting divide with regard to hunting – though the rationales may be a little different. The majority of us here hunt, bird hunting in particular is huge, and as a result, families I know tend to keep their bird dogs as house pets (I have more Gordon setter stories than you want to read).
As Thanksgiving approaches, and hunting season is upon us (varying as to what’s in season depending on what part of the South you’re in), it seemed like a good idea to check in with someone who’s cooking up wild game to serve with the change of the year. The person to consult in this case, aside from, you know, my dad, who’s always got some wild turkey breast frying up for Thanksgiving, is Jesse Morris. The Dallas resident and creator/owner/president of Killer Chefs took some time to answer my questions about cooking up some game birds as part of your Thanksgiving feast.
Morris was born and raised in Oklahoma, learned to shoot with his grandfather, and started working in restaurants young. If you’re interested in recipes, or in the best ways to cook up your own catch, visit him and his buddies at KillerChefs.com
What got you started hunting? My grandfather was an outdoorsman. He would sit with me in the backyard with a Crosman 2200 magnum air rifle and we would shoot paper plates. (I still have that gun but it’s broken – one day I would love to have someone rebuild it and put some nice wood stocks on it.) I was a big turkey hunter until my first duck hunt then I was hooked.
At what point did the interest in hunting start to include cooking? My first love wasn’t hunting, it was fishing. We had a pond out in back of our house, and after school I would make a bee line to go fishing. My mother was a school teacher and would get home late, so I’d catch some perch and clean and cook them – it was that or Fruit Loops.
Do you have any professional chef training or did you come by all this on your own? I started cooking around high school and moved to Dallas where I worked in my first restaurant. So no, I never went to culinary school.
Obviously, I’m asking about your background, so tell me anything else you want readers to know. I grew up on an old dirt road in Oklahoma, and I had all the land to run around on. That’s where I learned to fish and shoot a gun. When I came home afterwards, my mother always had a good meal to cook up. KillerChefs is dedicated to everyone else who wants to hunt up a good meal for themselves.
Given a choice, what’s your favorite game meat to work with and favorite methods of preparation – you a grill man or a gas range or what? I love working with duck, and rabbit is probably one of my favorite game meats to work with. Growing up in the lowlands of Oklahoma pecan trees are thick, so I love cooking on pecan wood – it works great for game meat flavors.
From my husband – when you go after small game, are you trying hard to hit it in the head, or do you have a method for removing shot (memories from bird hunting as a kid with grandfather)? As fast as those suckers fly, I just try to make a clean shot. I think as good as modern shot loads are and as fast as the FPS (feet per second) is, lots of shot ends up outside of the meat.
Ok – let’s say it, there are a lot of people who duck hunt that just don’t like duck. What’s your secret to preparing it and serving it? I make eating duck a process: First thing is to get the core temp down on the birds, next is to take care to clean them well. I take the meat and put it in a heavy salt water brine and into the refrigerator for 24 hours. The next day gets fresh water, then repeat salt, then fresh – so the whole process takes four days all together. Then I marinate for 24-48 hours (find the recipe for the marinade here) and usually grill to a perfect medium rare.
Following on that, what are the major differences you see in preparing duck, goose and small game birds like quail or pheasant? With goose I will dry age the meat in the refrigerator to help tenderize it, and I slice very thin. Quail and pheasant work great on the grill or for roasting.
What do most people get wrong when they cook game birds? One word: overcook
From my dad – so, when you’ve got a wild turkey, do you cook only the breast or the rest of the meat as well? If you’re cooking the rest of the meat, how do you tenderize it? What’s the best way to cook it? (For the record, my dad marinates it overnight in buttermilk, then fries it in a cornmeal batter – breast only. It’s delish). That’s a great way to cook the breast, but all the rest works too – just grab a Dutch oven and cook it low and slow till it’s tender.
Let’s talk brining – I assume that most game birds require it as much as a farm raised Thanksgiving turkey, am I right here? See the question above about duck, and yes brining is a great thing.
What do you find most people are ignorant about when it comes to eating game birds? That they are greasy – that’s the one thing I always hear that’s wrong. When people think of duck, they thing of duck confit that’s cooked in its own fat and is typically a little greasy – but wild duck is lean most of the season. By the way, duck cooked in its own fat is a good thing.
Tell me what you expect to see on your Thanksgiving table this year? Hopefully something I didn’t cook – ha ha! – I like to be cooked for sometimes.
Gotta have the obligatory dog question – who’s your hunting companion? Do you typically favor labs, retrievers, setters? Give us your take on what you require in a hunting dog. I’ve got a great black Lab named Cash. He’s a fireball and one of the toughest dogs I’ve ever owned – he’s a pure athlete. A good dog has to have drive, concentration and obedience to work in the field.