The dog is on point. Your hands are at the ready, wrapped around a carefully chosen shotgun—chosen because of how perfect it feels resting in your palms and pushed against your cheek. Something about THAT gun makes burning powder and dropping birds feel different—natural. As twilight calls you to the campfire, you know those birds are going to taste amazing because you took them with man’s best friend and with your favorite gun.
That’s what it’s like when I create and prepare wild game dishes in my kitchen. There are certain favorite tools that feel special to me. That make my food taste better. That help me cook love into a dish better than others.
Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Wooden Cutting Boards
There’s a fair amount debate around the use of wood cutting boards. The argument is that they act as sponges for bacteria and odor. And while the reasoning seems sound, wood is still always my first choice. Mind you, it’s not based in microbiology. Rather, it comes from my farm-girl upbringing and conventional wisdom. Wood grips food and cushions forceful chops.
When I’m done with a board, I always wash it with hot, soapy water, and use a conditioner like Boos Block board conditioner or food-grade mineral oil. To me, a cutting board develops personality and a patina, just like a great cast iron pan. They are warm and inviting. “Come, lay upon me handsome slab of elk!”
Plastic boards pose a different risk: slippage of the knife, the board, or the food on the board. Knicks to my digits never seem to come on wood, but I have had a few when using plastic. Commercial kitchens still use wood right next to stainless steel. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, and I know which style I’ll continue to choose.
Boos Blocks, live edge cherry slab I picked up from a lumber mill, assorted small boards for specific tasks.
2. Good Cutlery
Sharp knives that fit my hands and perform specific tasks flawlessly are critical mass. Over the years I’ve had opportunity to try lots of cutlery, but I keep coming back to a few quality knives because of the contour of their handles, balance, and ability to hold an edge. My boning knife finesses meat from birds or big game with ease. Cutco has been in my family for years. My dad was a big hunter. He also was a door-to-door Cutco salesman in his early 20s. Mom, now 81, still has some of those original knives. The ones I have are more recent versions, but the familiar contour of the handles still feels like shaking hands with a dear friend.
And then there are those vintage knives. One I have was a baling knife. We used it to cut twine off the hay bales when feeding the Black Angus cattle we raised when I was little. I’ve since put a new edge on it and keep it for halving big heads of cabbage, fennel bulbs, melons, onions on steroids, and plenty of other large produce.
Zwilling JA Henkels Pro Boner, Zwilling JA Henkels Pro 7″ Hollow Edge Rocking Santoku, Zwilling 6-Inch utility knife, Cutco 4-Inch paring knife, Cutco vegetable knife, and a couple antiques.
3. Enameled Cast Iron Skillets and Dutch Ovens
Love your cookware and it will love you back. Never has that rung more true than when it comes to cast iron. I do have a love affair with enameled cast-iron, and for the most part I’m an equal opportunity kind of cook when it comes to brand, although I do seem to like the design and function of a few over others. Cast iron can get Hellfire hot and hold the heat. This is why game meats that need a hard, crusty, high-heat sear are a first choice. Aluminum just can’t do that. The double-glazed enamel makes cast iron rustproof and easy to clean. The heft also adds to durability and stability (and makes an effective meat mallet in a pinch). And of course, cast iron can go from open fire and coals to the grill, the stovetop, the oven, and, finally, to the dinner table.
I’m partial to the cast iron manufactured in France and the USA, partly because they are heritage brands that have been at it long before the China-manufactured “come-lately’s” in the outdoor culinary market.
Those are my top three essentials, but these following items make my Honorable Mentions list:
—A 30-year-old Chaudiere stock pot by made by Paderno in Canada for all “dem bones, dem bones” and homemade cheese curds.
—Set of 6 stainless steel stackable mixing bowls with rubber-dipped bottoms for mixing, mashing, beating, stirring, whipping, rising, chilling, and straining all while staying put on the counter top.
—Bradley digital 4-rack smoker: because some days all you want to get a nose-full of fat, oozing meat that’s smoking low and slow over wood.