Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hunting Wild Boar

I’m not much of an outdoorsman. Most people know this about me. A stroll on the beach or a short hike on a trail is the extent of it in my book. The human race moved from huts to solid structure buildings centuries ago and I moved right in with them. Add air conditioning and I see no need to be in a tent. With this in mind, it is quite surprising that when Lisa mentioned that I should go hog hunting with her dad, I was immediately interested. Lisa is constantly looking for things to keep her newly retired father busy. In sharp contrast to me, Smitty, as he likes to be called, is a Bass Pro Shop kinda guy. He grew up on a farm, loves to hunt and can fix anything. Even with our differences in interest, I really enjoy spending time with him. So a little internet searching and I found a hunting guide down in Okeechobee that guarantees a kill. Game on. We were off.

2 ½ hrs from my front door in civilization, we pulled up to the meeting place a little before noon. It was a store on a lonely road on Lake Okeechobee that also functioned as a little restaurant, bait shop and feed store. Saying I was out of my element is a slight understatement. I pulled my little hatchback into the lot next to the trucks and swamp buggies and headed in. I found the guide service owner, Ron, sitting in a booth on his cell phone booking other hunters for future adventure. I was shocked that he had cell phone reception out here. I did not. Allowing him to finishing his call, I then introduced myself and forked over the remaining balance due (cash only). Ron then jumped back on his magic flip phone and called his “boys”. After tossing down some hot boiled peanuts, I saw a once blue pick-up truck pull in and its 3 occupants emerged. It was a scene from Deliverance. A few salutations later and we were following the truck down the road to get the dogs and the shotgun. What was I thinking? Once the requisite animals and hardware were recovered, we again drove a short distance to a dirt turnoff. In the few hundred yards from the main road until we stopped, I began wondering how much of my credit card limits could be reached before my dead body was found. Still we pressed on. Once one of the guys handed me the shotgun, I felt more at ease. I took a few shots at a tree to make sure I had the right aim. Amazingly, I was dead on.

The dogs and 2 of the guys went in one direction and Smitty and I jumped in the pick-up truck with the other guide and went the other. The plan was to circle back to them and let the dogs do their job. Just a short 10 or 15 minutes passed before the walkie-talkie went off saying the dogs had a hit. 5 minutes after that and I was chasing the dogs through dry lake bed, shotgun in hand. I found the dogs chasing a pretty good sized boar. They were in and out of the thickets and I didn’t really have a good line of sight at first. In short order, however, the animal got into the clear but the dogs were circling her. I didn’t want to shoot a dog. Suddenly, from about 30 yards away, I had a great silhouette. With one dog in front and one dog behind and after checking to be sure all humans were clear, I aimed and shot. She never took another step. She dropped instantly. I did it. I officially shot dinner for the first time in my life (and most likely the last).

I was relieved to get back to the main road a short time later. Once again I was following our guides with my trophy clearly visible in the bed of the truck ahead of me. We were headed back to the house where my hog would be prepared to look more like something found in the grocery store. As the animal was cleaned it became clear as to why the hog dropped quickly. Call it luck, but my shot entered the left shoulder and traversed both lungs and its heart. The mangled slug ended up in the right shoulder just under the skin. I liked the humane nature of this. During the quartering process, I asked some questions of the young men who made my hunt a success. I wondered how they were able to guarantee a hog to every hunter. The answer was surprising. Apparently, there are a lot of hogs. So many, in fact, that there is no license required to hunt them. Wild hogs have 2 litters a year and since they are not indigenous, they are nuisance animals that destroy local agriculture. Next, I asked about people just being a bad shot. How do you guarantee a hog then? I got another surprising answer. If the hunter misses, then the guides tackle the hog by hand. They hold it down, count to 3 then jump away as the poor shot pulls the trigger at point blank range. That’s even lees sporting than my concierge hunt. Still, it serves a purpose. These guys get to make a living (albeit humble), the wild boar population is kept in check and I get to take home 80 lbs of meat.

Our entire experience took less than 2 hours and we were headed home with 2 full coolers loaded. Since that day several weeks ago, I have made lots of boar recipes:

Horseradish crusted tenderloin with a champagne, mustard, thyme sauce.

Slow roasted wild boar ham that yielded several great dishes like this ham steak with peppered brown gravy and sunny side up egg.

So what does wild boar taste like? Well, that’s a tough one. Like lamb or duck, it has its own signature. I don’t really like the word gamey because it implies unpalatable to me but there’s the slight hint of wild animal that you find in venison combined with a much more substantial pork flavor. With very little fat, the heartiness of the meat is present in every bite. In a word, it is delicious. That being said, slow cooking is the key. Only the tenderloin can be eaten from a sauté. The connective tissue in the meat has got to be broken down in low heat over a long time. This technique makes for perfectly tender, succulent boar meat.

I’m going to share a recipe but I realize that most people won’t be able to get the same meat. Still, pork shoulder would be a great substitute and you’ll be making your own sausage meat if you give it a go. You do need a food processor or meat grinder though. I prefer the food processor so that I can grind the coriander and fennel seeds before adding the meat. I basically made a sausage and let it rest overnight so the flavors would combine then I used it as the base for an amazing but fairly basic ragout. I used a few strips of bacon just to give the meat the small amount of fat it was missing. I then whipped out the pasta maker and made some robust, wide tagliatelle. The velvety pasta was the perfect vessel to stand up to the rich, spicy tomato and boar ragout. I’m posting this recipe because this is one of the top 4 or 5 dishes I’ve ever made. It got rave reviews from everyone I shared it with. If I had a restaurant, I’d order boar meat and feature this dish. It was just that delectable and aside from hand making the sausage and pasta, it was pretty simple as well.

Tagliatelle with Wild Boar Sausage Ragout

For the sausage

2 lbs wild boar shoulder, cubed (substitute pork shoulder if you must)
1 tbsp whole coriander seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
4 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

In the food processor start by adding the coriander and fennel seeds. Once processed, add everything but the meat and again blend. Then add the boar or pork. Depending on the size of the food processor, this may need to be done in batches. I let the food processor run a good minute for each batch. This helps to make sure the meat is ground as fine as possible and prevents any chewy bits. Transfer to storage container and place in the refrigerator overnight.

The ragout

1 tbsp olive oil (not extra virgin)
4 strips of bacon
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, sliced or minced
Boar sausage from above
3 oz tomato paste
32 oz beef broth (only use as much as needed while reducing)
28 oz can of whole San Marzano tomatoes (better flavor but any can of tomatoes can be substituted)
8-10 large sprigs of thyme
1 tsp chili flakes (for some heat, optional)
Salt and pepper to taste (season in layers as you add the ingredients)

In a large pot over medium heat add the oil and bacon. Cook the bacon until it just begins to render its fat and add the onions and garlic. Sauté until onions are translucent and fragrant. About 1 minute. Add the boar and stir together. Brown the meat and break up into the smallest pieces possible with a wooden spoon. This takes about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook another 2-3 minutes stirring constantly. You can use a few tablespoons of broth at a time if it becomes too dry and sticks to the pot. Add the tomatoes, thyme and chili flakes. Stir together. Turn the heat up and bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer. Let simmer for 3 hrs checking frequently and add ½ cup of the broth at a time as needed as it reduces. The amount will vary based on how hot your stove is. The final consistency should be that of a thick stew or chili. Check for seasoning after reducing.

For the pasta

If you have the ability to make fresh pasta, this is the time for that. If not, a pound of linguini will do just fine. Follow the directions on the box. Do not overcook.

Put it all together on a large serving platter if you’re having guests. Freshly grate some parmesan cheese over the top and serve.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Florida Strawberry Festival a Must

Tampa Bay has little claim to fame. Yes, I love the community and I love living here but you don’t see us featured too often in the national media for anything. When I open issues of the cooking or travel magazines that I subscribe to, I long to see some local flavor but it’s just not there. One annual event, though, leads the nation into spring and shows off a vibrant agricultural gem that dots the landscape just east of greater Tampa Bay. The Florida Strawberry Festival is in Plant City; a little community not nearly prepared for the heavy traffic it receives for 2 weeks every March. I’ve been going on and off to this fair since I was a little boy but it wasn’t until I began travelling extensively that I realized what a unique prize we had here.

In the US, Strawberries are available year round. California provides most of the nation’s berries but Florida is second and produces 100% of the strawberries consumed in the South during the winter months. The biggest impact on Strawberry production is the weather. They like rain and sunshine in a harmonious balance and don’t care much for freezing temperatures. Every year our local news runs stories of how the growers are dealing with days that fall below freezing by coating the berries with ice from sprinklers mounted in the fields. This prevents the berry from falling below 32 degrees no matter how cold the outside air becomes. Complaints from growers about stunted crops don’t seem to have too much of an impact on the availability of brilliant, plump and sweet fruit when the March festival arrives.

I must admit, I’m generally not much of a “fair” person. People that know me will tell you, I like my concrete. Therefore, the whole agriculture scene is beyond me. Contests where cows and pigs are judged do not hold my interest. Unless you tell me bacon tastes better from a prize hog, I could care less. I’ve also always assumed that “fair” beauty queens were judged on numerous criteria including, but not limited to, a tooth count. Prejudices aside and as long as I stay at least a hundred yards from tents that house the yet-to-be-dead livestock, I think the Strawberry Festival in Plant City is an amazing way to spend a day.

This fair is huge. I’m sure there are bigger but the midway isn’t just a strip in the center on the event. It wraps completely around the fairgrounds with more rides than Disney World. All involve a central theme of spinning in one direction or another and faster than humans should spin. I would imagine we could make a dent in the federal budget by simply sending pilots and astronauts to the fair for a few rides rather than building expensive centrifuges. Dotted along these nauseating, child-loving paths is the real reason I love the Strawberry Festival: the food. Booths and trailers fill the air with aromas that are as compelling to me as sirens to a sailor. Year after year, the boundaries of what can be fried or grilled are pushed anew. My only regret is that the portions, while not huge, are too big to try as many things as I’d like. Fried Wisconsin Cheddar nuggets, hand coated Chicken-on-a-stick, chocolate dipped bacon and, of course, the strawberry shortcake is all I could make room for in the 6 hours we were there. I really wanted to try the battered and deep fried Twinkie but I couldn’t bring myself to spend the money on something I knew I could only take one bite of because my stomach was already full. While there are plenty of grilled options that are slightly more calorie-friendly, to the best of my knowledge you won’t find a healthy-tree-hugging-organic-renewable option. This is a salad-free zone and, for one, I am glad.

The quintessential Strawberry Festival experience must end with the famous Strawberry Shortcake. While the line wraps around the outside of the exhibit hall, it moves quickly. We make our way to the back where the gentleman holding the sign that says “back of the line” tells us that, while long, we’ll be building our own strawberry shortcakes in about 10 minutes. Experiencing serious Déjà vu, this line and method of building your own dessert is exactly the same as it was when my parents first brought me to the Strawberry Festival as a little boy (with one exception –it was free then. Now it’s $3.50).

Not completely understanding the efficiency of this concept, we purchase our ticket for the shortcake then take 3 steps where we deposit out ticket for the shortcake. Seems like a step could be omitted but either way we were at the front. I ladle fresh cut strawberries and their accompanying sweet juice onto the cake and dollop on the fresh whipped cream (a constant stream of fresh whipped cream pours from the kitchen where 4 industrial mixers work non-stop to keep up with the demand).

At the end of the line, one of the country-clad strawberry maidens tops my creation with a final fresh berry.

Another thing you may or may not know about me is that I’m generally not a dessert person but I’d wait in a much longer line for a much longer time to enjoy this treat. The entire day, the entire distance from my home, the entire sunburn on my skin covered head was worth this moment. The strawberries, even in their own sweet juices, are so fresh that they still have a perfect texture. The Pound Cake soaks up the flavor like an exquisite sponge while the whipped cream is just sublime.

My kids had a spectacular day as did I, but for very different reasons. While they rode and spun, got nauseous and recovered, smiled and shot toward the sky –I stood next to the ride nibbling on many of the delicious offerings. Someday, I hope to go back with my kid’s kids and watch them smile as did mine. That, and the food, make a day like this precious.