Bird Hunting photo

It’s been a few months since we had a Six Pack Q&A, and I think it’s time to revisit the series. Today, I caught up with Hank Shaw, wild-game chef and author of the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. I truly believe Shaw is riding the leading edge of not only cooking wild game, but also foraging for wild eats from the land and sea. I’m a regular visitor to his site, where I’m always finding new inspiration for my cooking, even if I’ve never heard of half the ingredients he’s using. Shaw has a new book out called Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. He took time out of his busy book tour to answer six questions about how and where he finds his inspiration.

FS: Your blog attracts a wide range of readers, from hunters looking for new ways to prepare game to people who have never picked up a gun, but are looking for a meaningful connection to their food. What do you attribute this diversity to and how do you keep them coming back?

Shaw: I think I’ve been fortunate enough to attract a diversity of readers partly because I consider myself a cook who hunts, not a hunter who cooks. It is a subtle difference, but it’s there: I spend my time outdoors in search of nature’s bounty, and while I love the thrill of the hunt or a strike on a line as much as anyone, I’ll happily shoot a fat doe camped out on an alfalfa field over an eight-point buck; the doe will be better eating. Non-hunters appreciate that outlook, and statistics show that the vast majority of Americans support hunting for the table. And you know what? I think most of the hunters out there agree with me: They hunt to fill the freezer, and if they get a nice buck, that’s great, but it’s not the highest priority. That connection, from the field to the table, binds us all, hunters and non-hunters alike.

There’s also another thing I think is going on: I came to hunting late in life, so I understand that hunting can seem weird and alien to an outsider. I address that in every hunting story I tell, and it helps non-hunters wrap their minds around the pursuit. What’s more, I’ve found that this approach has inspired lots of non-hunters, mostly foodies, to take get their hunter education certificate and learn to hunt themselves. That is deeply gratifying.

What keeps them coming back? I stay busy. I am always experimenting with new cooking techniques–sous vide is my current favorite–and new ingredients. The number of edible wild plants out there to explore is virtually endless.

FS: In your new book, you mention learning to fish and forage at a very early age, basically from the time you could walk. Yet you didn’t start hunting until you were much older. Do you see hunting as a natural progression from the food values your parents taught you? And why did it take so long before you picked up a gun?

Shaw: It took me so long because I did not hang out with hunters. I never met a hunter until I was in college. I did not become friends with anyone who hunted until I was a newspaper reporter in Virginia–I was 27 years old then. Hunters need to understand that millions of Americans have no clue what hunting is all about. The level of simple, honest ignorance about the pursuit is staggering. That needs to change.

I see hunting as a possible progression from foraging and fishing, but not a given. It is a big jump, emotionally and mechanically. For starters, you need to take hunter education and learn to shoot. That is a huge hurdle to the would-be hunter. People do it all the time as adults, but it is a hell of a lot harder than buying a one-day fishing license and going out with a guide. The skills you need to know as a hunter are staggering compared to those you need as an angler.

On a deeper level, hunting is bloody and intimate in a way that fishing never will be. We hunt animals that are, for the most part, warm-blooded. I will never, ever forget the visceral reaction I had when I shot my first animal, a squirrel in Minnesota. It was warm. That stopped me in my tracks. I will never say that I’ve “harvested” an animal–I killed it, plain and simple. But you know something? I shot three squirrels that first day, so I accepted what I was doing and moved on. If you eat, animals die. Even if you are a vegetarian. It is a cold, hard fact of life. Hunters face that on a personal level every time we bring down an animal. We accept it. Not everyone can.

FS: Some, if not many, of your recipes might be construed as advanced, both in terms of technique and ingredients. What’s your advice for someone who wants to expand their skills in the kitchen, yet doesn’t know a sous vide from sous-chef?

Shaw: I think the recipes in Hunt, Gather, Cook are far more approachable than some of the ones on my blog. I will, on occasion, create a dish that is unquestionably difficult: I am pushing the boundaries of wild game cooking. But those recipes don’t appear in the book, and that’s by design. So I’d say start with the book, and move on to some of the more tricky recipes on the website.

As for getting started, let’s see… Sharp knives. A dull knife is a lazy servant. Sharp knives are the key to fine cooking. Take a knife skills class if you don’t already know how to cut fine dice or mince properly. Most towns have basic cooking classes available.

Also, learn temperature control. Most foods cooked in water or broth are far better cooked beneath a boil: foods at the boiling point lose most of their texture and moisture. Try cooking a venison stew where you never, ever let the stew boil. You will be shocked at the difference in flavor. Conversely, let your saute pan get ripping hot when you sear tender cuts like a venison medallion. Home cooks fear high heat. This is a bad thing. Take doves, for example: Whole, plucked doves are best grilled, but let your grill top 500 degrees before you put the birds in. They will cook in 3-5 minutes, and you will get a crispy skin. They are beautiful this way, but it’s impossible to do in a home oven. You need that higher heat.

FS: Your love of sausage and other preserved meats knows no bounds. You’ve even gone as far as using a goose neck as a sausage casing. What is it about charcuterie that fascinates you so much?

Shaw: Charcuterie is jazz. In jazz, artists play endlessly with the old standards. There are 1,000 versions of Thelonious Monk’s “Around Midnight.” Sausage is like that. You have boundaries, rules you need to follow. But your ability for expression is limitless within those boundaries. Spices, herbs, ratios of meat to fat, choice of meats, width of a link, length of curing time, temperature and humidity of the cure, etc. etc. The end result is a product that your friends will immediately recognize, but that is intimately bound to your personality.

FS: What is an avid reader of your blog going to find surprising about the new book, or are you aiming for a different audience?

An avid reader of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook will be very surprised: About 80 percent of Hunt, Gather, Cook is new material. I did that specifically because I want my long-time readers to get something new, something special. Yes, some of the topics are the same as the blog, but I cover them in more depth, and with more background than I do on the website.

Specifically, there are way more tips and tricks on how to hunt and fish for the various animals I pursue than I’ve ever put in the blog, and I have an entire section on making homemade wines from local fruits and flowers–wines you will be proud to serve any wine snob you may know. I’ve never written this information anywhere on the blog.

FS: Can you please provide us with a recipe that defines Hank Shaw?

Shaw: I call this recipe, Sharptail Grouse, Prairie Flavors. It embodies what I want to do with game: Showcase the animal’s natural flavor on a plate filled with other flavors that would be familiar to that animal. The great chef Marco Pierre White once said that nature is the artist; the chef is only the technician. What he meant by that, and what I try to do in all my most serious dishes, is to match the animal with its surroundings and its diet–in this case, sharptail grouse with flavors familiar to North Dakota, where I hunted the birds.

Sharptail Grouse, Prairie Flavors

To make this dish exactly as I did, you will need a vacuum-sealer and a sous vide machine–two items that are totally worth it to own if you are a wild game cook, but which are not cheap. Don’t give up if you don’t have these, though, as I provide alternate directions below.

Now, the substitutions:
• If you don’t have or like sharptail grouse, use skinless duck breast, squab breast, or dove breasts. You could even use whitetail venison and still be within the spirit of the dish.
• If you can’t find smoked salt, skip it.
• You can use apricot or apple jelly in place of rose hip jelly
• Use cider vinegar if you can’t find malt vinegar
• Use wheat berries, rye berries, barley or brown rice if you can’t find farro
• Skip the flowers if you want, but you can use bean and pea flowers from your garden. Without a sous vide machine, just saute the grouse breast medium-rare. You might not get the same pretty color, but it will still taste fine.
Serves 4.

2 sharptail grouse or duck breasts, or breasts from 4 squab
1 tablespoon smoked salt
2 tablespoons sunflower oil or other neutral oil
Rose Hip Sauce
4 tablespoons rose hip or apricot jelly
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups farro, barley, wheat or rye berries
1 quart beef or game stock
1 teaspoon smoked salt
1 teaspoon regular salt
2 tablespoons sunflower oil or other neutral oil
4 green onions or wild onions, white parts and green parts chopped separately
3/4 cup shelled, roasted sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon malt vinegar
Onion, pea, bean or vetch flowers to garnish

– Roll the grouse in the sunflower oil and sprinkle with smoked salt. Seal in a vacuum bag and cook sous vide at 138 degrees for 30 minutes. If you are not cooking the grouse sous vide, don’t cook it until after the farro is done.
– To make the sauce, melt the jelly in a small pot over medium heat, then whisk the vinegar and salt in. Turn off the heat.
– Boil the stock, add both salts then the farro. Simmer gently until tender, about 30-40 minutes. Drain and set aside.
– In a large frying pan, heat the sunflower oil over medium-high heat and saute the white parts of the green onions for 1 minute, stirring often. Add the cooked farro and sunflower seeds. Toss to combine. Add salt to taste. Turn off the heat and cook your grouse if you are not cooking it sous vide.
– To finish the grouse, remove it from the vacuum bag and let it rest a couple minutes. Slice it thin. Do the same if you’ve cooked the grouse in a pan. Boil the rose hip sauce, then turn off the heat and pour it over the grouse slices. Toss well. To finish the farro, warm it through, then toss in the green parts of the onions and some malt vinegar. Serve with the grouse slices.