By Joel Thurtell
What I’ve learned about playing the French horn is that you can’t warm up too much.
The more you play those scales, up and down, the more limber the lip and the better the ensuing performance.
Same could, I suspect, be said about cooking bear.
The more I prepare myself for the task of cooking this — to me — exotic meat, the better the chance that the experience of eating it will be good.
Not everyone thinks this will be a culinary delight.
My Canadian friends tell me bears are “trash.”
They liken them to pigs.
Now, I have nothing against pigs. In the days when we lived on a farm, we used to raise pigs.
I’ll write about that some day, but right now, I’m thinking about bear. I was thinking a lot about bear this past summer while I stayed at our summer cottage in McGregor Bay, Ontario, where more than 40 cottages were broken into by hungry or just plain curious bears sniffing out the humans’ goodies.
Last summer in the Bay, four “nuisance” bears were shot.
By law, we are not allowed to consume the meat of bears shot in so-called self-defense, so those four bears were left to the vultures.
What a waste.
My Canadian neighbors tell me bear meat is not worth the bother of cooking.
They were given a big hunk of bear flesh by an American hunter who shot a bear in our neck of the Bay.
I offered to swap some conventional meat — beef or chicken — for their bear, but they wouldn’t hear of it.
They donated their big chunk of bear to me.
Now I’m trying to figure out how to cook it.
I mentioned in an earlier column how a friend served a dish I took for beef stroganoff, only mentioning after we’d eaten that it was wild goose.
Well, I think when I finally pull that hunk of bruin out of the freezer, stroganoff will be the recipe du jour.
One thing is sure: I’ve learned from a posting by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that I will cook my bear meat for a long time.
Maybe the reason my Canadian friends likened bear to pig is that like the pig, bears carry trichinosis, a nasty parasite that I don’t want to get or pass on to my guests.
Maybe another reason people don’t like bear is that they don’t know how to cook it.
In addition to cooking it a long time to kill parasites, the meat should be treated as a delicacy, not as a run-of-the-mill piece of supermarket meat.
I would not, therefore, waste my piece of bear on this stroganoff recipe from cooks.com:
1 lb. cubed bear meat
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 pkg. brown gravy mix
1 pkg. French onion
Cook bear meat until well done; drain excess fat in frying pan. Mix all ingredients with bear meat and bring to a boil, simmer for 30 minutes. Serve over rice or noodles.
My beef with these instructions is with the use of canned soup. Ever check the list of ingredients on a can of soup? Why let a Campbell’s factory determine the flavor of the food you prepare?
For that matter, why waste good bear grease on a commercial gravy mix?
Bear is a delicacy. It deserves royal treatment.
Time was when I made beef stroganoff with ground beef and, yes, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.
I got complaints from my younger son, Abe. He hated stroganoff.
I started shopping for better cuts of meat. No more ground beef. I used top round or even sirloin steak.
And I stopped using canned soup.
I substituted red wine.
Good red wine.
I don’t cook with wine I wouldn’t drink with a meal.
I prefer a decent French wine, say a Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône.
Then there is the onion. I like lots of onion. I used to use onion sparingly. Nowadays, I use an entire large white or yellow onion. I slice it at right angles to the rings in roughly 1/8-inch tranches. Then I chop the tranches into halves and sometimes quarters. I fry the onion in a pan on the stove top in melted butter.
Notice that I don’t specify amounts. That’s because how much wine, onion and other ingredients I use depends a lot on such variables as the size of the meal I’m cooking and, more important, my mood at the time of cooking. How much of any element I install is a function of the way I feel at the moment.
Artists talk of “installations.”
Cooking is an art.
Why not think of “installing” ingredients?
Garlic is not an option.
It is a pure necessity.
So we’ll slice at least two big cloves of garlic for our bear stroganoff.
I use very little or no salt in cooking.
If people want salt, they can use the shaker at the table.
Some people have an aversion to salt. Others can’t tolerate it for health reasons. Others love huge doses of salt. How is the chef to know? Let them administer their salt themselves.
I plan to cut the bear meat into roughly 1-inch cubes. I’ll brown the cubes in butter while the onions are being softened and browned in a separate pan.
Now, here is a thought: Fresh mushrooms. Yes, I think I’ll also fry a large batch of sliced fresh mushrooms in butter and the same wine I will use to cook the meat.
Now, I have a choice: I could combine all ingredients into a crock pot and let the whole thing simmer for several hours.
Toward the end, I could add lots of chopped fresh parsley or basil. Or both.
Alternatively, I could put the ingredients together in my new deep fry pan, cover it, and let it simmer on the stove top for a long time.
Whether I use the crock pot or the stove top, I should make sure there is plenty of liquid so the meat doesn’t dry out.
By “liquid,” I mean wine.
I ran this proto-recipe past my older son, Adam.
“Sounds good. How about bacon?”
Okay, good idea: There will be bacon, too.
I’m not planning on cooking my bear until the Christmas holidays, when both sons will be home for a visit.
Between now and then, my recipe could change.
I’ll report on the actual culinary event after it happens.
Oh yes, and maybe at the end, I’ll stir in a big helping of sour cream.
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