Story by Dave Eckert | @eatsanddrinkswithdave
Photos courtesy of Affare
I love game. Duck, pheasant, venison, rabbit-you name it. This is my time of year, for never is game so plentiful in our woods and on our tables, both at home and in area restaurants. I’m not a hunter, but I know plenty. I sought out one of the best, James Worley, the most adept hunter and fisherman I have crossed paths with, to offer insights into the secret to harvesting and cooking wild game. I first asked Worley what he loves about hunting. “For me, it’s about connecting with nature and your food. When I harvest something, whether it’s duck, my personal favorite, or venison, or squirrel, I know where that food came from and how it’s been handled. It’s really being attached to the land and your food source,” Worley shared. “November and December are the big hunting months locally. All the seasons are open. Pretty much every free minute I have is spent in the woods or the marsh.”
Worley, a Kansas City native, has been hunting since he was a child. “My grandfather took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. I started hunting squirrels when I was just knee-high to a grasshopper. I graduated to larger and different game. Ducks are my primary thing now,” Worley said. Another of Worley’s areas of expertise is squirrel hunting. “I was raised on squirrel and dumplings along with fried squirrel with cornbread and gravy for breakfast,” Worley recalled. “I’ve always said that if I were on death row that my last meal would be fried squirrel, cornbread, and gravy, with two eggs on top.”
Worley and some fellow game enthusiasts routinely enter an annual squirrel cooking contest in Northwest Arkansas. The squirrel cook-off was cancelled this year due to Covid-19, but that hasn’t stopped Worley from bagging some squirrels. “People talk about food security. The only game that hasn’t been severely impacted by hunting and development is the squirrel. They’re adaptable and renewable, and they taste good,” Worley told me. Worley says you can get about a cup of dark meat out of an average squirrel. And, no, he says, they don’t taste like chicken. “It’s more like dark meat turkey, like thigh meat from a turkey. Cleaned properly, it’s a very lean, very mild, meat that you can prepare it anyway you would prepare turkey or chicken,” Worley stated. I, for one, would try squirrel harvested and processed by Worley. Otherwise, I think I’ll remain blissfully ignorant.
Along with the fact that squirrels are “good eatin”, Worley also wanted to dispel the myth that wild game is “gamey.” He says that only happens if it is improperly handled. “The key is getting the game butchered and refrigerated right away. Also, I like to age the game for at least a few days before butchering it. Chef Martin Heuser, a friend of mine and a fellow hunter, will age his deer for three weeks or more wrapped in the refrigerator, which keeps it cool and dry,” Worley shared.
How did he know that a visit with Heuser was next on my agenda? I stopped by his terrific Modern German restaurant Affare a few days after visiting with hunting buddy Worley for a chef’s perspective on cooking and serving game. “I grew up eating wild game. My parents didn’t hunt, but they had lots of friends who did, so we always had venison and wild boar,” Heuser recalled. “I got into hunting when I lived and worked in Calgary, Alberta and had access to bison and venison, both of which I love.”
Heuser told me how much he enjoys aging his wild game as Worley had mentioned. He says it helps break the meat down, while, at the same time, intensifying the flavors. Of course, Heuser can’t serve his 21-day aged venison that he shot at Affare. But he can, and does, serve farm-raised venison he sources from New Zealand. “They have plenty of land, so they can really raise the animals properly. I like using both primary and secondary cuts of meat, pretty much everything from the nose to the hoofs and tail,” Heuser commented.
Like, Worley, Heuser enjoys getting out into the woods and connecting with nature and his food. He says he’s teaching his teenage son to hunt, so the tradition will be carried on for another generation. “Hunting is an important part of my life. I enjoy spending time with my son, observing nature. I hope to do it for a long time to come,” Heuser said.
Laura Comer enjoys the challenges of cooking with game. Comer, the Executive Chef of The Dining Experience at The Kauffman Center, has crafted a series of six carry-out menus during the Covid-19 pandemic that will culminate with a New Year’s Eve menu available for pickup on December 30th. Comer’s meals focus on special selections for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. The kick-off menu featured pumpkin soup, pan-roasted pheasant, and an apple tart. “Duck is my favorite protein, but pheasant is a close second. I get these wonderful breasts that I sous vide then pan-sear and top with a decadent Madeira-wild mushroom reduction sauce!” Comer exclaimed. Let me tell you, I had the pheasant dish. It was fantastic!
In addition to the three course menus, Comer is offering holiday cookie decorating kits starting in early December. To see the menus along with pickup dates and times, visit kauffmancenter.org. To order, call (816) 994-7208. All pickups are contactless and available at The Kauffman Center’s south drop-off drive. There is a minimum of two meals per order. Game on, indeed!