Without making a partisan political statement, I think it’s fair to say that in a lot of ways America is greater than it’s ever been. Consider cooking. Thanks to the proliferation of top-shelf cooking books and magazines, and recipes for everything available instantly on the internet, and the local foods movement, people on real-world budgets have access to cooking techniques and fresh, local ingredients the likes of which have probably never been seen.
Perhaps the best example of this relates to the cooking of wild game. When I was really young and my grandfather’s generation was in charge of game meat, a typical meal might include hobo bread and overcooked venison steaks that tasted like vinegar and leather. Bear tasted sort of like the smell on the inside of a refrigerator and carbonized bacon. Now, to be fair, there may have been a gender divide here – I suspect these men were a little rough in the kitchen because their wives did the heavy lifting, and as we’re becoming a more equitable society men have improved their cooking skills, but regardless, the point is that game dinners these days are 578 times better than they used to be. Today most sporting magazines contain sophisticated recipes. Hunting supply stores stock not just guns and ammo but also meat grinders and slicers. Most hunters I know put a great deal of care and skill into processing and cooking what they kill.
Because there’s so much good information out there, it can be hard for a new cookbook to generate much buzz – why plunk down $30 when you can just Google “venison recipes?” I didn’t have a great answer to that question until Hank Shaw’s Buck, Buck, Moose showed up in our pile of review copies. Simply put, this book is the best venison cookbook I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anything that even comes close to it.
Shaw is a former commercial fisherman, restaurant cook, and reporter – if you were going to write a recipe for the perfect wild game cookbook author, these would be three good ingredients to start with. Buck, Buck, Moose is his third cookbook and the red-meat follow up to (you guessed it) Duck, Duck, Goose. All the books are extensions of the content Shaw provides on his fabulous website: Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (honest-food.net). If you want to get a sense of what he’s offering, start there. You could look at the $30 you’ll send him for this book as a thank you gift for the free recipes he publishes online. But this tome is no coffee cup or tote bag. It’s beautifully produced with exquisite photographs. More substantially, it provides the processing and cooking techniques that are the bedrock of a successful meal. As those of you who cook a lot know, the secret to great meals is in using fresh, high-quality ingredients and good techniques. That’s all covered here.
If you’re a food geek who’s well versed in cookbooks, think of Shaw’s style as April Bloomfield meets Chris Kimball, which is to say that the recipes are both eclectic (there’s a whole section on “wobbly bits,” where you can learn how to cook marrow, brains, stomach, kidneys, tongue) and practical. Save for a few outliers, most recipes call for simple ingredients that are easy to procure, even while they’re being used to create dishes that pay homage to dozens of countries and culture. The weirdest ingredient in the Vietnamese Shaking Venison is oyster sauce, readily available at Hannaford’s. You can make the Ukrainian borscht, and osso buco, and venison confit with stuff from your garden and what’s on a basic spice rack.
There are lots of simple recipes in this book – basic pot roasts, ribs, jerkies, pan sauces – plus stuff that will challenge the most ambitious want-to-be chef, like the whole section on charcuterie. If you like to hunt deer and you like to cook, buy this book.