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Cooking with Game

For most of us, the only wild animals in our kitchens are children. Sure, an occasional leg of lamb or a buffalo burger may sneak into our ovens or onto our grills, but cooking game is usually something we leave to restaurant chefs. But, tasty, healthy, wild game is becoming easier to track down both on menus and in stores. From home on the range to home on your range, it's time to overcome the fear of preparing exotic meats.

Any animals that are hunted for food are considered game. From antelope (a perennial favorite) to squirrel, boar and partridge, these healthy meats are delicious and easy to prepare, as long as you remember that they're lean and cook quickly. "Game meat is often overcooked since it's so lean. If you overcook it, you might as well eat shoe leather," says Bruce Emerson, owner of Cherry Street Meats in Medford. With less fat and cholesterol than farm-raised animals, these meats have less marbling. Tender beef can get as many as 60 percent of its calories from fat while big game meats get, at most, 15 percent of their calories from fat.

"One of the biggest benefits of eating wild animals is that they're leaner," says Christy Morrell, a registered dietician in Medford. "They eat grasses their whole lives which have Omega-3 fatty acids in them." These beneficial fatty acids come from chlorophyll in the plant material they eat. So not only are these leaner animals, but their fats are more beneficial.

Many local grocers stock buffalo and veal. Tim Geyer, meat cutter at Ashland's Market of Choice carries natural buffalo and says, "We can order just about anything from duck to quail." Boneless duck breasts run around $8 a pound but the whole birds are cheaper.

Elk, venison and buffalo are available from The Full Circle Ranch in Williams. What's the difference between bison and buffalo? Not a thing, they're the same beasts.

When choosing game, Emerson says to use your nose. "The first time you smell game, you'll notice it's got a different odor. Some people think there's something wrong with it since it smells gamey." Remember that wild meats are more intensely flavored than domestically raised animals. Still unsure? Then talk to your butcher, he'll know where the bison roamed or where the duck flew as well as preparation tips.

Do duck and goose taste the same? "There's no comparison. Goose, especially the White-fronted goose, has a sweet flavor and meaty texture," says Emerson. Rabbit tastes like chicken, and is often prepared in similar fashion. Sam Maggi, former chef at The Black Sheep in Ashland also cooks it like chicken. "Rabbit is easy to cook since it goes with lots of things. I like to herb it up," he says, "with bay leaves, parsley, thyme and rosemary or even ginger and juniper berries." After marinating, he'll roast and then stew it after roasting by adding peas, carrots and chicken stock. After you've taken the meat, he adds, the bones make a wonderful rich stock.

Gabino Remegio, current chef at The Black Sheep says that there are lots of recipes for cooking game. Duck breasts pan-fried with raspberry sauce or balsamic blackberry sauces are favorites. To tenderize and bring out the flavors of game meats, marinate them overnight and up to 24 hours in simple mixtures including: tomato juice or undiluted tomato soup, fruit juices (like pineapple, citrus, apple or cranberry) or even bottled salad dressings. "It's easy to grill a buffalo steak and serve it with a whiskey onion sauce," he says. Preheat your oven or grill before cooking and cook at a high temperature to seal in the juices. For the tenderest steaks, make sure to let your meat rest before serving and be sure to cut the meat across the grain.

Game meats, highly flavored and low in fat, are a healthy way to expand your dinner repertoire. Easy marinades, herbal rubs and berry sauces enhance their rich flavors. So, why not go a little wild in your kitchen. Are you game?