When cleaning a mess of fish or going through DIY deer processing, stop and think about what you’re throwing out; you could be trashing some of the best parts and missing out on some epic game and fish recipes.
By Jenny Nguyen
I grew up in a household that did not waste food. Being Vietnamese, we were not shy about eating animal parts that may seemed weird to the typical American palate: Feet, offal, ears, bone, and cartilage—we used them all. To tell the truth, I didn’t see a boneless, skinless fish fillet until I was an adult; fish just doesn’t come that way at the Asian market.
My mom usually bought meats whole, bone-in and all, and our family of four made sure to pick every morsel off the carcass as possible. Today, I approach wild game and hunting with the same philosophy.
Here’s a list of wild game and fish parts you shouldn’t throw out. Do it to respect your harvest, expand your palate and sharpen your skills in the kitchen.
Wild Fowl Legs and Thighs
Whether it’s wild turkey, mallards or pheasants, the biggest mistake I often see hunters do is throw out the legs. While tougher than the breasts, the legs and thighs on a bird are flavorful, more interesting in texture, and by throwing them out, you’re wasting more meat than you realize.
The legs of larger ducks and geese are delicious roasted in the oven or seared as they are—I like to keep the skin on. Because these animals mostly use their wings and breast muscles for flight, their legs are fairly tender with little treatment. Cook them medium to medium-rare or you can also confit them—a French style of cooking that calls for slow cooking meat in fat.
On the other hand, the active legs and thighs of a wild turkey or pheasant tend to be tough, which requires moist, slow cooking. Wild turkey legs and thighs are large and surprisingly meaty if you take the time to cut them out, while skinny pheasant legs are best dropped into a bag, frozen and saved to cook all at once later. The only downside to pheasant and turkey legs is all the pin bones, but that’s hardly a good reason to deter you from utilizing perfectly good meat.
Don’t let these parts intimidate you in the kitchen. Turkey and pheasant legs may take time to cook, but getting them tender is quite simple. If you have a Dutch oven or slow cooker, all these parts need is a bit of time and moisture. Stick them in a pot, submerge them with broth, water or beer and your favorite seasonings, and then let them slow cook until tender.
If you have a pressure cooker, you’ll get them deliciously tender in no time. Once cooked, debone the meat, making sure to remove all pin bones. This tender meat can now be used in many recipes: soup, stew, shredded for tacos, casseroles, pies, stir fry, etc.
I also really enjoy ground wild turkey meat. They make the most delicious burgers and meatballs. Simply debone the meat, cut it into chunks, and then feed it through a grinder after chilling.
For small birds such as teal, doves, quail and partridge, I recommend plucking. These birds are easy to pluck and serving them whole will give you a better presentation and reduce waste. They are all tasty roasted, pan seared or grilled whole.
Cook with Bones
Wild game bones are underrated. Often meat is deboned and the carcass is thrown away. Sure, the coyotes need to eat, but I try to squeeze out as much flavor as I can from the animals we hunt.
You can simmer carcass bones of any animal to make stock. It’s better than having to add chicken or beef broth to your recipes. To make your own stock, submerge the bones in cold water along with a halved onion, bay leaf, carrot, celery and whole peppercorns. Bring to a simmer and cover for 3 to 4 hours. After, strain the stock and discard solids. Use this liquid the same way you would canned stock.
If there is meat on the bones that you’d like to use, such as on turkey or pheasant legs, fish out the meat when it’s just is tender enough to pull from the bones. Remove the meat and set it aside, and then replace the bones into the stock to continue simmering. This way, the meat does not overcook and become mushy.
I’ve never come across a deer that had ribs meaty enough to keep, but I know some people who have done so with delicious results. Ribs on a wild boar also can be tasty. I suggest braising the ribs of wild game animals first before smoking or grilling.
Finally, one of my favorite bone-in cuts on a four-legged animal is the shank. Beef, deer, elk, moose, antelope—it’s all good slow cooked. And when cross cutting shanks and cooking osso buco style, the bone marrow is awesome; it tastes like meaty butter.
Offal Organ Meats
I loved eating chicken livers, hearts and gizzards when I was a child. Naturally, I enjoy them from game animals as well. That rich, iron taste is one I crave; liver is my favorite offal. Buttery and smooth, it’s a special bite; after all, each animal only has one, and the fattier the better.
While the gizzard (only present in birds) is the chewiest organ of the three, the heart has a nice meaty texture that falls somewhere in between. Prepared correctly, it will taste much like steak, especially a heart from a deer or elk.
Never overcook these parts on an animal. Cook them to medium rare to maintain color, texture and delicate taste. Cook them too long and they will turn grey and taste like spoiled pennies.
Don’t forget about gizzards in geese. If you shoot only a few birds, chop up these “wobbly bits” and hide them in your favorite recipes for another layer of flavor: meat pasta sauces, Thanksgiving stuffing or gravy. I’m willing to bet picky eaters won’t notice.
On a big game animal, you’ll have more liver than you know what to do with. And the heart, if intact, can serve quite a few people. Slice, sear and serve the heart or liver at medium rare. The liver also can be made into a nice paté mousse to be spread onto French bread and served with cheese and wine.
One important thing to remember: If you plan to use these parts, get them cleaned, frozen or prepared as soon as possible after the animal is on the ground. These blood-rich organs oxidize quickly, losing their beautiful rusty red-brown color and taste soon after the animal’s death.
These days, I eat and prepare mostly freshwater fish, and I don’t do anything too special with them. Often, I like to prepare them bone-in and skin-on. This is beneficial for smaller fish such as bluegill, trout and crappie, especially if you’d like to grill them, which would be much too rigorous for small, delicate fillets. Not only does cooking fish whole help to keep the flesh moist, you’ll also be able to pick every bit of fish possible off the bone. It reminds me of the way I grew up eating fish.
For larger ocean fish, such as salmon, you may use the head and tails to make seafood stock. Also, don’t forget the succulent meat from the cheeks and collars.