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Tag Archive | "Wild Turkeys"

Thanksgiving and wild game go together


Gourmet Gone Wild executive chef Dan Nelson begins to pluck feathers from a wild turkey. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Gourmet Gone Wild executive chef Dan Nelson begins to pluck feathers from a wild turkey. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A wild turkey is shown in fall in Michigan. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A wild turkey is shown in fall in Michigan. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Reports of the first Thanksgiving dinner indicate that the Pilgrims and indigenous peoples certainly feasted on venison and wild fowl, but whether that fowl was wild turkey is a matter of conjecture.

Though wild turkeys were known to exist in the area and have been mentioned as hunters’ quarry in other accounts of early American life, it is just as likely the fowl at that celebratory feast were ducks, geese, swans and/or the now extinct passenger pigeons.

In any case, wild game was certainly at the center of the first Thanksgiving.

Though domesticated turkey has assumed the role of main course in the intervening years, wild game – often venison – is on the menu at many homes during Thanksgiving – and why not? Thanksgiving occurs during deer hunting season.

Wild game offers challenges for cooks. For the most part, it has less fat than domesticated meat and the fat is located differently in the body. Cooks must refine their techniques to get the most out of wild game.

That’s the view of Dan Nelson, a restaurant chef, who also serves as the main man in the kitchen at Gourmet Gone Wild events in Michigan.

Gourmet Gone Wild is an outreach program sponsored by several entities, including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The program highlights to young professionals and families, in urban to suburban environments, the health benefits of eating wild game, while also emphasizing its connection to environmental stewardship, sustainability and conservation.

Nelson, a 35-year-old lifelong sportsman/cook, says overcooking is the biggest mistake most beginners make when tackling game.

“Wild game is not as fatty as domesticated meat and most of the fat that’s stored in wild game is in quick-access areas,” said Nelson, who puts on a dozen Gourmet Gone Wild events each year. “The intermuscular fat we see in beef and pork is fat that is long-term storage. Quick-access fat is just below the skin and the centerline—close to the backbone and within the gut. Those are all fats that game animals can turn to on a daily basis as a constant energy source.

“In processing, you remove most of that fat from the game itself. That means you either have to put fat back into it or cook it in ways that accommodate that lack of fat.”

Nelson said he prefers to accommodate and that means serving most wild game rare.

“Every degree of temperature you add to the muscle causes muscle fibers to constrict,” Nelson said. “When a steak hits the grill you see the steak constrict – the muscle fibers pull in reaction to the heat. That’s why a hamburger gets smaller when you cook it.

“All that constriction drives fluid out of the meat. That’s why I have a very accurate meat thermometer. I don’t like to go a degree past where I need to go. If I’m looking to cook something rare or mid-rare, I know the exact temperature I want to go to.”

Although rare is the option for dark meats, wild turkey – which has both white and dark meat – offers a different complexity.

“Wild turkey is something that should be cooked more well-done because of the possible pathogens that are found in poultry,” Nelson said. “That only changes the temperature, but it doesn’t change the fact that you don’t want to go over the temperature you’re aiming for.”

What is that temperature?

For white meat, shoot for 165 degrees, for dark meat, 180 degrees, Nelson said. You want to cook the dark meat (i.e., the drumsticks) longer because the meat is tougher.

“Wild turkey is extremely difficult to roast,” Nelson said. “To make use of the skin, you have to pluck it very thoroughly and clean it very thoroughly. And with toms, that readily accessible fat is in the sponge and it’s not delicious at all.

“Wild turkey lends itself to being cooked in pieces. You can cook the legs and the wings/breast separately. And I would cook the breast separate from everything else – it’s helpful to have them in the same pan so you have the juices to make gravy, but have them cut up in such a way as you can remove pieces as they reach ideal temperature. You want to bake it in a way in which you’re starting the dark meat first. Don’t overcook it.”

Another key to wild turkey is to slice it thin, across the grain, Nelson said.

“Wild turkey breast is extremely low in fat and has extremely long grain to it. There’s just no fat to keep your mouth moist while chewing,” Nelson said. “Eliminating the length of chew is the most crucial part of having delicious wild turkey breast.”

Cooks preparing waterfowl should either cook in a manner that preserves moisture or add fat.

“There’s no better fat than goose or dabbling ducks,” Nelson said. “That’s liquid gold. Way too many hunters are breasting their birds and not taking advantage of the rest of it.

“Besides a lot of valuable meat on the carcass, there’s a lot of extremely valuable fat on the carcass. Either marinate with it or add it to stock. And if you’re sauteing, that would be the fat you would use in the pan.”

Any game should “rest” after it’s out of the oven before it’s served, Nelson said.

“Every piece of meat you cook you should rest for about as long as it took you to cook it,” Nelson said. “If there is still built up heat and you didn’t let it rest, that tension that is in there is going to squeeze all the moisture out. Make a little tin foil hut and let it sit there – the top of the oven is going to be warm because you’ve had your oven on.”

That’s especially true for venison, Nelson said.

“If you’re eating something that has venison fat in it, it coagulates as soon as you put it in your mouth,” he said. “It’s not that it tastes terrible, it’s just that it coats your mouth. After it’s sliced, hit it with some heat to raise the temperature of the fat. Take a platter of meat, pop it in a high-temperature oven for a couple of minutes to warm the fat up, and warm the serving platter up to hold the heat.

“And serve a good red wine with it,” he said. “That’ll cut the fat out of your mouth right away, too. The bolder, the more tannic your red wines, the better they are at cutting the fat.”

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Wild Turkeys


 

 

The family was seated and enjoying a turkey dinner. Extended family brought additional side dishes and desserts. Traditional family gatherings are special events. My Cub Scout leader cut turkey shaped pieces of flat wood for our pack to paint and decorate for our mothers. That flat wood turkey given to my mother still survives even though she does not. The turkey decoration is now in my possession along with a coloring of a turkey with fantail made from the outline of my 3rd grade hand.

The holiday season annually began at Thanksgiving by going to my cousin’s for dinner and watching The Wizard of Oz on a TV that got a full three channels. We gave thanks for family members no longer with us that lived happy, sad, joyous, and humorous lives. Those lives continue in our memories. I hope the tradition continues in my absence. Maybe someone will tell the story of a 21-turkey parade at Ody Brook.

It was Thanksgiving Day two years ago. We were eating when a turkey walked through the yard. My brother said it must know it is safe because we already have turkey on the table. Then another appeared followed by more. Like the Count from Sesame Street, we each counted until 18 ventured from the woods, across the drive, behind the landscape mound, reappeared at the other end and disappeared into the tall weeds and shrub thicket. Three more brought up the rear to finish the parade.

Our conversation shifted to wild turkeys. I told of a neighbor farmer that complained turkeys were eating his newly planted crops in the spring. The investigating DNR biologist told him it was not turkeys but deer. The farmer did not believe him because he often saw turkeys in the field feeding. The DNR biologist said deer feed at night and returned to his truck get a rifle. He shot a turkey, cut it open, examined the crop and stomach and showed the farmer it was insects and not young crop plants.

We all make assumptions that are logical and rational but are not supported by scientific evidence. We tend to believe what parents, grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends tell us. I was trained as a scientist to require supporting evidence before making a conclusion. Like all, I make assumptions that scientists call hypotheses. These are just a first step in science reasoning and we need to study nature niches to gather evidence to learn if our assumptions (hypotheses) are correct.

How much turkey information is myth, fairytale, fact, or correct? Facts as we know them are often incorrect and get corrected was we gather more evidence. Wild turkeys were a staple food of Native Americans and numbers were not excessive due to harvest. Native American populations plummeted with the advent of small pox and other diseases introduced by European settlers. Turkey populations exploded with fewer Indians and collapsed again when market hunting eliminated them from most nature niches.

None survived in Michigan but fortunately some survived in the deep swamps of the southeast US. Environmental conservationists introduced laws to manage hunting practices. Turkeys were reintroduced to Michigan and today a healthy turkey population fluctuates between 100,000 and 200,000. Enjoy watching or hunting turkeys that filled the void vacated when turkeys were extirpated without thought for our children’s generations.

With younger generations that are following mine, we ate Thanksgiving dinner watching wild turkeys. I have satisfaction having been a part of the DNR release of Wild Turkeys back into the Rogue River State Game Area surrounding the Howard Christensen Nature Center about 1988. They thrive in the forest with scattered farm fields. Turkeys feed on grain left after fall harvest, acorns and other forest food. Some natural predators kill adult turkeys but humans remain their primarily predator. Skunks, raccoons, and foxes prey heavily on eggs. The presence of coyotes helps keep these predators in check.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net or Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

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