LONDON, Ont. - When Canadian chefs participate in international culinary competitions, they often feature wild game — maybe elk, bison, caribou or moose — foods that aren't staples in most homes here but are recognized worldwide as Canadian delicacies.
This is no surprise to Jeff Morrison of Ottawa, an avid outdoorsman and author of the just-released "Canadian Wild Game Cookbook."
"Wild game as table fare is about as wildly Canadian as it gets and there's a certain natural quality that represents this country beautifully," he says.
His latest cookbook, published by Company's Coming Publishing Ltd., covers all the wild game mentioned, plus venison (white-tailed deer), pronghorn, wild boar, bear, rabbit, beaver, muskrat, waterfowl (Canada goose and duck), upland fowl (grouse, pheasant, woodcock, wild turkey and quail) and frog. He has hunted most of them and has enjoyed dining on all of them. The book also includes suggestions and recipes for side dishes, marinades, sauces and desserts.
Morrison grew up eating wild game in the Laurentians of Quebec and developed an appreciation for cooking and experimenting with wild game recipes at his uncle's restaurant, Alfred's Beefeater Steakhouse, near Mont-Tremblant.
But he recognizes most people don't hunt or trap food for supper and though all the meats featured in his book are classified as "wild" game, in fact all are raised commercially across Canada. In most provinces, these farmed meats are the only kind shoppers will find being sold in supermarkets, specialty shops and by online vendors.
"Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are the only two provinces where hunted wild game can actually make it to a restaurant or supermarket," Morrison says. "It's illegal in the rest of Canada. So the game meat you find in the other provinces is farm-raised."
However, Quebec has started a pilot project allowing 10 restaurants in Montreal to serve hunted wild game and the hope, says Morrison, is that once officials are assured it is properly regulated, hunted wild game may be approved for menus in other parts of the province.
"Whether it's hunted or farm-raised, it's still essentially the same product," he says. "It's just a matter of how the product is acquired."
Even the farmed game animals "are not raised in these pens. They're raised more in a natural setting, to represent their natural environment, so there's no real difference." But the harvesting, aging and processing are all done to government standards, a reassurance for consumers who may be wary of the "wild" part or concerned about conservation.
Despite this, some people "just can't seem to get past the stigma of game meats," Morrison admits, also conceding there is a certain gamey quality to the meat, what he prefers to call a "more full-bodied flavour, with a slightly more pungent odour." It is stronger in some than others, with venison probably the strongest and waterfowl somewhat stronger than land fowl, but not that different than farmed counterparts.
Moose and elk, on the other hand, are quite mild, he says, and muskrat and beaver "are both delicious." Beaver, he says, is reminiscent of lamb.
The unique flavour and texture are two things about wild game that appeal to Morrison, who has degrees in both environmental management and fish and wildlife biology. But the biggest advantage of game meat is that "it's more organic, low in fat and low in cholesterol."
These health benefits also mean it is a little more difficult to cook.
The key is "low and slow," Morrison says — low cooking temperature and a slow cooking period to prevent the meat from getting dry. It also is important to use marinades, frequent basting or bacon wrapping to keep the meat as moist as possible.
Steaks and roasts would be "typically served medium to medium-rare ... keeping a bit of pinkness in the centre."
With wild boar, like other kinds of pork, "you have to be a little more vigilant, keeping in mind that you still don't want to overcook."
Most experts agree cooking pork to 70 C (160 F) or medium is safe and will keep it juicy and tender. Ground pork and sausages should be cooked to well done.
Morrison's book contains several slow cooker and stew recipes, another way to ensure the meat will stay moist and tender.
"I am a huge fan of stews (and) I believe that wild game stew, regardless of the game meat featured in it, is a traditionally Canadian dish."
But his favourite recipe in the book is a moose roast. "Really any of the moose dishes. Moose any way at all is my favourite. Moose is the king of the Canadian forest, in more than one way. It's such a great protein; it's the best."
He suggests those with no experience cooking wild game should start with "something simple, and a little more subtle — like quail or ruffed grouse, where you have a smaller amount of protein to work with. It's very mild. Most people enjoy it and there's several ways you can cook it. Either that or go with the moose roast. It's going to appeal to more people because it's milder tasting, less gamey."
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.