January 10, 2011
A Six Pack with Steven Rinella, Host of “The Wild Within”
By David Draper
In our new Six Pack series, I sit down with interesting people to ask them six questions about hunting, fishing, eating, and just plain living well. This is the first interview in the series.
Steven Rinella just may be the coolest man alive. In addition to his work in Field & Stream, Rinella has written two books—American Buffalo and The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine—the latter of which recounts the author’s 45- course meal following recipes from the 1903 cookbook Le Guide Culinaire. He’s also traveled the world, usually in search of a great meal.
His meditations on Argentine beef should be required reading for anyone who thinks they know a thing or two about grilling steaks. Now, Rinella stars in his own show, "The Wild Within," which debuted last night on The Travel Channel and is described as “the story of one man’s unique and powerful connection to the food he provides for his family and friends.” Like Rinella’s writing, the show is entertaining and offers an unapologetic view of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Wild Chef: In American Buffalo, you mention Dale Guthrie getting the opportunity to cook and eat a piece of Ice Age buffalo meat that was unearthed near Fairbanks. It’s hard to top that as coolest meal ever, but do you have anything that comes close?
Steven Rinella: One of the greatest meals I ever had was in the mountains outside of Nha Trang, Vietnam. I was riding up there on motorbikes with my brother Danny and my wife, Katie. We came across a collection of huts surrounded by small patches of corn and sugar cane. A farmer and his family lived there—they had a very modest existence, with a floor of bare earth and an outdoor wood-fired hearth for cooking. The man was in the middle of the cooking some sort of marsupial that looked like a cross between a squirrel and a opossum. Through endless hand gestures and drawings and work with a Vietnamese-English dictionary, I was able to deduce that the man had gone out hunting the night before and had killed this critter with an air gun. He seared all the hair off in a fire, and then roasted the thing whole for awhile before he quartered it and grilled it with a sauce of lime juice and peppers that he was growing in his own yard. We sat down to share that animal together. It was an amazing meal—just a perfect meat. Like roast pork combined with grilled squirrel. Then we shared a few swigs of rice wine. I have a lot of friends whose fathers served during the Vietnam War, and some of these guys were pretty uneasy with my travels there. But when I tell these guys about that day, they seem to feel a little better knowing that it’s now a place where two hunter—one Vietnamese, one American—can sit down to a meal of wild game together.
WC: Most folks are content with cooking and eating the more common wild game— venison steaks and roast duck. What is it that drives you to go so far as raising your own squab or stuffing an antelope bladder?
SR: Curiosity, plain and simple. I’ve yet to meet a type of wild game that I didn’t like, so I’m constantly expanding my boundaries and my palette. What’s more, experimentation with the more unorthodox game meats makes you a more adept chef when it comes to conventional grub. By that I mean I’ve learned a lot about preparing rabbit meat by cooking, say, porcupine meat. Which, by the way, is excellent roasted whole with olives and cherry tomatoes.
WC: I see you recommend Coming Into The Country by John McPhee as an Alaskan primer. I find that interesting in that American Buffalo reminded me a lot of McPhee’s The Founding Fish. Are there any other similar books that you would recommend to the food-obsessed outdoorsman?
SR: Yes, I’d absolutely recommend Jim Harrison’s collection of hunting and food essays called Just Before Dark. It’s sublime. Not only is he a master writer, but he has a lot of wonderful insights into food and the wild. The man is a national treasure—and I’d bet he’s eaten more game birds than just about anyone.
WC: With "The Wild Within," you’re going to put hunting in front of a mainstream audience, which typically doesn’t have a positive mindset towards hunters. Do you feel any pressure to put a good spin on hunting?
SR: I wouldn’t say I feel “pressure” to put a good spin on hunting, because I don’t think it’s in need of a lot of doctoring up. But I do feel a strong desire to portray hunting in a realistic way that resonates with mainstream hunters—those that hunt for reasons of cultural continuity, family, adventure, and food. It’s more important for me to present them with a recognizable version of hunting than it is for me to cater to anti-hunters. I hope that people who are uneasy with hunting do watch and enjoy this show, but they should know that they’ll be getting a gritty and visceral look into hunting and gathering when they do. My goal is not to sanitize, but to illustrate.
WC: What kind of advice would you give a hunter who wants to push his boundaries a bit in the kitchen and get away from pouring a can of cream of mushroom soup over everything?
SR: Don’t be afraid to branch out from conventional wild game cooking books. Some of my best game dishes come from making adaptations of recipes that are meant for beef, lamb, or pork. All meats have their own idiosyncrasies, but it’s not always necessary to draw too fine a line between them. Once you experiment with mix-matching different meats with different recipes, you’ll get a feel for how to handle just about any preparation that is meant for store-bought meats.
WC: What’s your favorite wild game recipe?
SR: This recipe for rabbit (or squirrel) hasenpfeffer has been floating around in my family for a long time. The name translates to “peppered hare,” and many people know it from the evil German king-type guy from cartoons who’s always demanding that the dish be prepared for him from the flesh of Bugs Bunny. My mother says this particular recipe originally came to my grandmother from the print on a box of frozen rabbit, but we’ve always used it for wild cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares. Nowadays, I most commonly use this dish when preparing squirrels. Start with the animal skinned and cut into five pieces (4 legs and the back.) You want 2 to 3 pounds of meat. Soak it for two or three days in a brine of:
- 1 1/2 cup water
- 1 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1 tsp. whole cloves
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 2 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. sugar
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 1/8 tsp. ground allspice
After the brining period, drain the meat and save the brine. Then pat the meat dry and dust it in flour. Fry the pieces in hot oil until they are nicely browned. Then add the onions and fry them a bit. Then pour in the brine, enough to cover the meat, and let it simmer on a low flame for 2 to 3 hours, until the meat is fork-tender. Remove the meat and thicken the gravy in the pan with crushed gingersnap cookies. Then pour the gravy over the meat. Serve hot with mashed potatoes.
You’ll be happy you made this dish. It’s top shelf.