Putting wild game on the menu

Most of our favourite comfort food is born in the recipes that mom made for us when we were kids – but as our palettes mature and we learn to cook on our own, we venture away from mom’s recipes and build our own comfort food repertoire. For me that means wild game, or in Dutch simply ‘wild’. This article explores where you can buy wild game in Haarlem and gives tips on how to cook it.

The air is crisp, the leaves have dropped and winter is just around the corner. It’s that special time of year when wild game is beginning to show up in butcher shops and on the menu in local restaurants. For such a small country with a non-existent hunting culture, it turns out that the Netherlands is a great place to enjoy this delicious natural bounty of the forest.

A bleak culinary beginning

I can tell you exactly what I had for dinner on 22 August 1975. Not because that date was a particularly memorable day in my life, but because 22 August 1975 was a Friday. And my mother made hamburgers on Fridays. Every Friday. Every week. Every month. Every year. On Thursdays, I ate spaghetti and meatballs, garlic toast and an iceberg salad swimming in factory-produced Thousand Island dressing. Each day of the week had its meal – Monday was meatloaf, Tuesday was macaroni and cheese – you get the idea. Even Sunday followed this rule, except that on Sundays there was chance for a surprise because the meal was the more generic frozen TV dinners. The ‘flavour’ of the frozen dinner depended upon the coupons my mom had clipped from the newspaper the previous Sunday. It might be sliced chicken loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy accompanied by mixed vegetables (corn and peas). Or it could be sliced beef loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy accompanied by mixed vegetables (green beans and carrots). Maybe if we were really lucky, it would be a frozen pot pie! It didn’t matter what was inside the pot pie because they all tasted exactly the same. You never really knew what you had until you flipped the pie out of the foil and onto your plate and then jabbed your fork through the crust to let the inner goop ooze out onto your plate. We would eat these frozen delights on TV trays set up in the living room and watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Walt Disney. It was childhood bliss.

My parents were products of the 1940s and ’50s when the culinary landscape in America was very bleak. My mom ‘knew how’ to cook six or seven basic meals and that was enough to get her through. I’m sure she wouldn’t be upset with me putting ‘knew how’ in quotes – she did not enjoy cooking, but she was a great mom who would do anything for her kids. So, when we moved to the countryside a few years later and my brother and I starting bringing home squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, and deer during the fall hunting season, she added in a ‘wild night’ to the menu rotation. We only had a few wild nights each fall, but every one of them was a truly awful experience. Even my mom’s meatloaf was dry and bland, so you can imagine what she did to a piece of venison – but we all just smiled, drowned it with fried onions and butter, added a generous dusting of garlic salt, and ate it anyway because mom had made it for us…with love.

Coming of age in the kitchen

Nowadays, it’s me who loves to cook and I am very adventurous and experimental in the kitchen. It took me more than 20 years (and one professional chef’s class) to overcome the trauma of those early childhood wild game meals, but with the proper cooking techniques, I now know that venison can be soft and velvety. Rabbit can be rich and succulent. And boar is the king of the wild game table, unmatched by anything else in versatility, texture and flavour. It remains my favourite.

I have no idea what the culinary landscape of the Netherlands was back in the 1970s, but I can guess that wild game was part of the fall seasonal menu. That tradition continues today and, in Haarlem, we are very lucky to have many great restaurants that feature wild game on their menus this season.

In a normal year, I would have been happy to support those restaurants and write about each of the dine-out options in our beautiful city, but 2020 is as far from ‘normal’ as you can get. With restaurants still closed (as of this writing), I thought that I’d give you a few tips on where to buy wild game, how to cook it, and some of my favourite recipes for you to make at home. Don’t be intimidated! I can say with complete confidence that you are already a much better cook than my mother ever was, and I know that she would agree with me!

Where to buy wild game

Many of the local butcher shops throughout Haarlem will carry some wild game at this time of year. It’s relatively easy to find deer and wild boar. As one example, I live in North Haarlem, so Domburg Wildpaleis on Generaal Cronjestraat is close to home and where I go for some of the basic wild game options.

The absolute best for a wide range of wild game, accompanying sauces, herbs and spices is just a short bike ride over to Bloemendaal. At Wals Poelier you can find just about anything this time of year, from whole wild rabbit for Maltese Stew to wild goose for your traditional Christmas dinner. They will help you pair it up with the right sauces and give you tips for preparing it. If you want to try your hand at cooking wild game, this is the place to go. They will also take special orders. In the tradition of my childhood, I host a ‘wild night’ party every year with a houseful of guests, a 4-kilo boar roast and wild goose pate ordered from Wals Poelier.

Let’s cook!

Okay! You’ve taken the plunge and bought yourself a beautiful piece of fresh wild game sourced from the forests of Northern France. Now what? First, find yourself a good recipe. I’ve put a few of my favourites below, but you can find many good recipes online – just be sure that the recipe you select is focused on the game and gives you tips on how to cook the meat. Avoid the foo-foo, trying-to-impress complex ones with 32-hour marinades or basting in duck fat. It’s all show and absolutely not necessary for flavour.

The biggest rule with any wild game is that it is lean…very lean! This means that it will cook extremely fast – you have been warned!

Overcooking any piece of meat will result a dry, flavourless meal. But when you overcook wild game, it takes on the quality of rawhide and all of the strong ‘gamey’ flavours concentrate exponentially into what’s left on the plate. It can happen very, very quickly and it can taste very, very bad. The difference between a fantastic meal and an inedible hockey puck is less than 5 minutes. Remember, that without the fat of normal farm raised animals, wild game will continue to cook even after you take it off the heat, so if you are pan frying, take it off the heat before you would a normal piece of farm raised meat. And then let it rest so that the meat can reabsorb as much moisture as possible.

If you start with the meat at room temperature, you’ll get a nice, evenly cooked, tender and delicious piece of wild game.

Stews and roasts are the easiest way to get started because they usually involve adding a liquid (wine, broth, etc.) to the pot, which helps to keep moisture in the meat and the concentration of the wild flavour well-dispersed throughout the dish. For this type of meal, you can slow cook on a low heat just like you do with other traditional meats.

Some favourite recipes

Venison steak
Venison is the easiest wild game to find locally, so let’s start here with a very simple recipe. I just tried this one last week for the first time and can tell you that it’s very easy to make and definitely a winner! I substituted a wild berry jam in the sauce which was awesome! View recipe

Rabbit stew
Ah, Malta! We had a great trip to the island of Gozo – the northern and smaller island, which was far less touristic. It was full of hiking and swimming and nature and great local restaurants where I discovered the national dish – rabbit stew. This particular recipe is a variation on the traditional Stuffat Tal-Fenek. We first tried this variation at a local restaurant in Xlendi, and to me the addition of olives really makes the dish. It’s definitely worth the effort! View recipe

Roasted boar
Boar really is the king of wild game! My favourite way to prepare wild boar is to buy a neck roast and cook it ‘low and slow’ until it’s falling apart – no knife required. There are two tricks to this technique:

1. Sear the boar in a skillet before roasting. This will give you a beautiful colour and also a delicious crispy edge that holds the herbs and marinade. It also provides some texture to the otherwise soft and juicy meat.
2. Cook the boar at low temperature for a longer time to break down the fibres and get all of the flavours you’ve added into the meat.

I don’t really have a ‘go-to’ recipe for boar since I have been cooking it for so long. It’s all instinct for me now. The recipe below is pretty close to how I like it, especially because it has all the right herbs and spices. However, as I mention in technique #2 above, I would lower the heat to around 180 degrees Celsius and cook it longer to reach that desired internal temperature. There are many guides on the internet to give you an indication of how long this will take based upon the size of the roast. Oh yeah, and I would definitely replace the water for a deep, hearty red wine. 😊 View recipe

Enjoy and eet smaakelijk!

I love discovering new places to buy wild game and recipes to cook it up. Please leave your favourites in the comments section. Great restaurants serving wild game are also very much appreciated… let’s hope they are able to open again soon!

Sear the boar in a skillet before roasting to get a beautiful colour and delicious crispy edge that holds the herbs and marinade