Q & A with Scott Leysath, The Sporting Chef
1. What would you want to be served for your last meal on Earth? And why?
Raw oysters, homegrown tomatoes, and a combo sashimi platter (no rice). When the oysters are fresh, cool, and just the right amount of briny, there is no fuss or sauce required. Of course, a little mignonette or a squeeze of lemon juice only enhances the flavor. Sweet, ripe, summertime, and homegrown cannot be purchased in a grocery store. At least not any I’ve been to. Some stores offer “heirloom” tomatoes, but they’re still picked too soon and the flavor, although better than something that’s been picked green, just isn’t homegrown.
I do have to qualify the sashimi. It has to be really good raw fish, not some of the tired, formerly frozen stuff from an all-you-can-eat sashimi joint. Life’s too short to eat bad fish.
2. What is one tool or method hunters today should try?
Smoking or smoke cooking. Many people are intimidated by cooking with smoke, but it’s really not too complicated. With fish, you simply brine it and smoke it at around 185 to 200 degrees until it’s still moist in the center and smoky brown on the outside. You can easily control how smoky you want any meat or fish by simply adding more or less wood or wood chips.
3. You’ve said many times, “If the venison tastes gamey, don’t blame the chef.” Can you expand on that and how to avoid this?
When I say “venison”, some folks make the same face they make when they realize that the milk has gone bad. At some point in their lives, someone served them some mishandled deer meat, and it left a bad taste in their mouths, literally. If your antlered game has been properly field dressed, processed, and packaged for the freezer, it doesn’t taste livery, muttony, or gamey. Tougher cuts require slow, moist cooking to turn sinewy meat into pot roast tender. Primal cuts should be trimmed of anything that’s not muscle and not cooked beyond medium rare, or about 135 degrees. I understand that some folks just can’t imagine biting into a tender and delicious back strap medallion unless it has been cooked “all the way” (overcooked). I only ask that they take 10 seconds out of the rest of their lives and give medium rare a try.
4. What are you thoughts on marinades when it comes to chefs trying to hide that gamey flavor?
One of the recipes that people share with me most often involves soaking a strip of game meat, usually waterfowl or antlered game, in a powerful marinade for a day or more. Then, it’s wrapped with cream cheese, jalapeno pepper, and bacon. They tell me, “It’s so good, it doesn’t even taste like duck,” which, to me, is not a victory. I want my duck or deer to taste like duck or deer. Others use marinades to cover up mishandled game that might have an unpleasant aroma. Look, if the meat stinks, don’t eat it. There’s a reason why it doesn’t smell good and you shouldn’t try and bury the smell with marinade.
A marinade should enhance, not mask, the taste of game. Something as simple as a combination of olive oil, red wine, garlic, and herbs will add additional flavor to a properly cooked venison steak.
5. What wine is best paired with venison of any form? How about duck or pheasant?
I highly recommend drinking the wine you like with the fish and game you like. Although a proper pairing of wine with game will balance the meal, if you don’t like red wine, you shouldn’t feel like you have to drink it with venison or suffer the wrath of wine snobs.
OK, a peppery Lodi, California Zinfandel like Michael David Winery’s “Earthquake” with a well-seasoned grilled deer steak. Petite Sirah with duck and a Pinot Noir with the pheasant. I do drink a dry white wine with light-fleshed and flaky fish, but I’m OK with a lighter red as well.