Each year when I see the turkey “Grand Slams” on TV, I pine for the experience, but I am a small game hunter to the bone. Being an optimist I figured I could create my own slam, right? On that note I figured that since I hunted rabbits a lot I had a good starting point. So this year I set out to get a Rabbit Grand Slam, I was going to hunt all four legal rabbit/hare species in Idaho – black-tailed jackrabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, Cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares. I managed ¾, not bad for a first attempt!To be clear, rabbits are not hares and hares are not rabbits but all belong to the Leporidae family. Hare meat, like the black tailed Jackrabbit and the white-tailed jackrabbit, is darker and much more flavorful than the chicken-y cotton tail rabbit meat. Snowshoes are hares as well, but often are less red and closer to the rabbit than hare.
Normally the meat is ranked, at least in my family, 1. cottontail rabbit, 2. snowshoe hare, 3. white-tailed jackrabbit, 3. black-tailed jackrabbit. Mind you this is not scientific but in terms of edibility it kind of makes sense.
Cottontails due the least amount of running, eat green veggies, and are a white meat species. They are almost bound to taste better. Snowshoes eat softer grasses and also tend to run very little, making the meat all the more tender. White-tailed and black-tailed jacks are a near tie on eating; I think my family enjoys white-tailed jacks more simply because of the novelty. Both black and white tend to eat sage brush and hard barks, not a culinary friendly diet.
Each of these species has its own habitat making an attempt at a grand slam all the more fun. Snowshoes are located in northern pine forests and often lurk in the darkest and thickest brush possible. I actually shot mine this year because it looked like snow had fallen inside a stump, but the cover was too thick for snow to reach that location. He stood out well on the brown undercover, his pure white body a beacon to me. On snow I would have never seen him.
Black-tailed jackrabbits are more the classic sagebrush dwellers. With just a little cover, a little water and plenty of open spaces jackrabbits can thrive. I often hunt them on the BLM private property boundaries near fields. They like the extra food and the fence lines often provide a good shooting lane.
White-tailed jackrabbits are a lot more elusive often being forced to high altitude ranges, by the more aggressive black-tailed jackrabbits, with sage brush. Most often I only see them in the headlights of my truck on my way mule deer hunting. These hares can get quite large and their dirty white coat in the winter had me convinced that I had discovered an isolated population of snowshoe hares one year. I was wrong.
Cottontails are my nostalgia rabbit. I’ve hunted them since I can remember, mostly at the brahma bull ranch I grew up next to. We were not allowed guns on the ranch when I was kids so we had to use wrist rockets and our bows. They lived under farm equipment, in the blackberry patches, the trash pile and in the old ditch slag. It was quite a feat to come home with a rabbit that you killed with a rock and rubber band, I’ll never forget it. I did not shoot a cottontail rabbit this past fall, much to my dismay.
This fall I actively hunted rabbits, making special trips in search for each. I found it an inexpensive way to add a little game to my hunting, add some tension and uncertainty. For a bonus I would routinely run into quail, chukar, huns and grouse. It was terrible and SUCH a burden to have to hunt those while after my rabbits. Next year I will be challenging myself to a Rabbit Grand Slam again, if for nothing else than to see some cool country and eat some amazing animals.
If you decide to do the Rabbit Grand Slam in your area your will certainly need a recipe or two. It never hurts to have a classic recipe at the ready. The classics are classic for a reason – they are typically awesome. Caesar Salad, Fettuccini Alfredo, Kentucky BBQ Ribs, Stairway to Heaven – all classics and all are wonderful. In the culinary world some wild game dishes have “classic” status associated with them. One clear example is Lapin a la Moutarde – or Rabbit with Mustard sauce.
The quick and easy of the recipe is to simmer rabbit until tender in white wine, then add cream, mustard and herbs. The combination is heavenly. But, as hunters, we are not often blessed with the most tender rabbit right out of a fancy French market. More often than not, at least for me, I don’t even shoot rabbits. Most often I shoot hares, a completely different species. To use a hare for a classic rabbit dish is close to heresy BUT we can do this, together.
First things first you must brine a hare for this type of cooking. Unless you stick a jackrabbit in a crock pot for 4-6 hours you are not going to get moist and tender meat. That said you can brine hare meat and fool everyone in 2 hours. Brining artificially overhydrates meat thus making it moist when cooked/overcooked.
Second thing – you must debone the hare leg. In the classic rabbit dish the thigh bone is left in. if this is done with a hare, it takes longer to cook. So, debone the leg, stuff it with thyme and mustard and tie it closed. It works great, see the pictures attached.
The Brine –
A brine is a salty water mix that adds flavor and moisture to meat. For hares, specifically my frequent query the black tailed jackrabbit, I brine for at least 24 hours.
1 quart hot water (4 cups)
1/3 cup salt
¼ cup brown sugar
1 clove garlic, smashes
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
10 pepper corns
Stir all ingredients into the hot water. Make sure the water is as hot as your faucet can produce, or maybe even boil the water.
Let brine cool to room temp. Add cut up rabbit to brine and place all in the refrigerator, making sure to cover all the meat with brine. Let set for 24 hours.
See here for directions on how to properly cut up a rabbit/hare.
Deboning the hare leg
2 ea hare back legs
1 sprig thyme
1 tablespoon mustard
The big back legs of a wild hare are daunting. They are a working muscle and are NOT tender cuts of meat. So, what does a hunter do with them?
After removing them from the body flip them so that the inside of the thigh is facing up. You will notice a line that follows the leg bone. Starting at the ball joint cut along this line until you reach the “knee” joint. Then work the tip of the knife under the leg bone working it free of the thigh.
When the done is removed from inside the thigh it will still be connected to the knee joint. At this point I use blunt force and twist the bone until I hear a crack of cartilage, then I will cut the connective ligaments and tendons and pull off the inside thigh bone.
Spread open the leg meat and place one sprig of thyme in each leg. Then spread half the mustard in each leg. Tie each leg closed.
Legs are now ready for the recipe.
Rabbit with Mustard Sauce
1 hare or rabbit cut up and brined
Salt and pepper
½ cup AP flour
2 tablespoons Butter or Olive Oil
½ small red onion, small diced
1 cup white wine (something good, drink the remainder during dinner)
½ cup heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 ea thyme sprigs (1.5 teaspoon dried)
Pat the brined rabbit dry with paper towels. Season them with salt and pepper. Roll the cuts in the flour and reserve on a dry plate.
In a medium sauté pan with a lid heat ½ the butter or oil. When hot, but not yet browning, add two or three of the rabbit or hare sections to brown. Cook on each side 2-3 minutes until a golden crust has formed, flip. When browned on both sides remove back to plate. Add remaining oil and brown the remaining rabbit sections.
When all the rabbit is brown add the onion to the pan. Let cook for 3 minutes then add all the rabbit/hare sections back to the pan and pour in the cup of white wine. Lower heat to a simmer and cover pan with a tight fitting lid. Let simmer for one hour, check the moisture level every 10 minutes or so and add more water if needed. After one hour check meat to see if it is fall off the bone tender. If the rabbit or hare is more than a year old, it will probably take more time.
Continue to add water and check tenderness until the meat is sufficiently tender. This should take no more than two hours.
When the meat is tender, remove it to a clean dry plate. Turn heat up to medium high and boil the remaining wine mix. Add the cream, mustard and thyme. Reduce heat to a simmer and reduce the mixture to a gravy consistency. This should only take 3-4 minutes. Taste the sauce, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.
When the sauce tastes good add the rabbit legs back to the pan, turn off the heat and cover with the lid. Let sit for 3 minutes. Remove legs to a platter and pour sauce over the top, garnish with fresh thyme sprigs.
For some reason my neighbors thought it would be a good idea to let me borrow one of their 90cc dirt bikes one archery season when I was in high school. They also thought it would be a good idea to let me stay in their “cabin” near Stanley Idaho. I must have had someone fooled but I took advantage of the situation.
Me and the 1960’s era dirt bike with my bow strapped to the front found more goat trails and nearly inaccessible areas than my legs ever would have. The problem, I was a young hunter, was all the noise I was making. The concept that wild animals did not wait around to see what the loud noise coming down the trail was didn’t occur to me. After all, the grouse still hung around.
And man would I see a lot of those birds. Families of 5-6 running then fluttering up into a pine tree at eye level. I had never shot one so I just left them alone. Back at the cabin that night I looked up these seemingly slow birds in the upland regulations. I could shoot two and the season had opened the same day as my archery tag. Sweet.
The next morning I found the birds fifty yards from were they had been the night before. They seemed way to calm as I approached them, arrow on the nock.
The first one that I shot was with a blunt. Bad idea. The treed grouse was only about 20 feet away when I gave it hell out of my 55# compound. The blunt went clear through the breast of the bird and both came crumbling out of the tree. I tried saving as much of the bird as I could but the breast meat was essentially ruined.
The next grouse I shot was with a broad head, out of a tree again. I am fairly sure that an archeologist will find an arrow is stuck in a tree in the SawtoothNational Forest that has my name on it. The bird, luckily, came sliding off the shaft of the arrow and tumbled to the ground. Yet again most of the breast meat was ruined.
Limited out on grouse I went back to thinking a deer would be standing in the road just around the next corner, to no avail.
Back at the cabin I boiled up the remainder of the meat and had a nice snack. I vowed that I would figure out a non-wasteful manner of harvesting these birds with my bow. That…or just come back up with the dog and shotgun.
Tips for grouse hunting
With a bow I have found that a good judo point works great on grounded and treed grouse. I carry a judo point on my bow during archery season that I mark a special color, easier to identify. I would hate to have a judo point on the knock when sneaking on a buck.
Good six shot is normally more than enough for a grouse. But sometimes they flush fast after some pressure. At that point I switch to a size four “long shot” on my 16 gauge. These seem to give me an extra 10 yards or so of range and that comes in handy putting birds down.
Turkey season is a great time to do some grouse “scouting”. In the spring the mating call of a grouse is a distinctive low tuned thumping noise. The males pick a location, often a fallen log, and make that there home base. They hang near this log all year round. If you hear the thumping in the spring remember the location, or better yet mark it as a waypoint on your GPS. The bird should be within a few hundred yards of where you heard him in the spring.
Young grouse are just flat stupid; they are called “fool hens” for a reason. These birds make awesome “practice” for young bow hunters. I would carry my bow behind my father all season just for a shot on a young grouse. In grouse prone areas I have even made self bows and arrows and hunted the birds for more sport. Nothing says “mountain man” like coming out of the woods with a grouse and a self made bow.
Flocks of Sage Hen tend to frequent the same areas year after year. They stay in “stands” and when you know a flocks location keep it a secret. I have hunted the same bowl in OwyheeCounty for 4 years in a row. Limiting out by 8am most days.
Know your different types of grouse. Some areas have sharp-tail and sage hen, but only sharp-tail is open season. Shooting the first chicken that takes off can lead to some tense moments if the wrong type of bird is on the ground.
Know the coverage that holds birds. In tree lined areas I tend to hunt the ridgelines with the buck brush. In heavy cover I tend to hunt the logging roads. Your area is different so take notes from year to year about what type of area holds birds and what does not.
Tips for cooking Grouse –
A grouse, aside from a sage hen, is just about the closest wild-game animal to a chicken that I can think of. As such, I treat the bird as if it was a chicken. First, I will decapitate and then pluck the bird. Then I will disembowel, saving the heart and liver for a fireside snack. A big grouse will then surprisingly resemble a skinny legged chicken.
Since the meat on a grouse is white it will need to be cooked until it is well done or 165 degrees. This will kill just about any bug or parasite that the fool hen might have.
When cooking a grouse, just like a chicken, the recipes for the breast are always the easy ones to come up with. Chicken Parmesan, chicken alfredo, chicken piccatta are all great classic ways to eat the bird. The one problem with those recipes – what the heck do you do with the rest of the grouse.
One cool thing that I like to do is separate the “tenderloin” off of the breast meat and then use it as stuffing for the thigh meat. First I breast the bird out just like I would normally. On the bottom side of the bird will be a little finger of meat that is no longer attached to the breast. This is the “tender” or the “strip” that has accompanied countless kids meals for the past 100 years. Remove the tender and set it aside.
Then, I take the legs and separate them out at the thigh/knee joint. With the tip of a sharp knife I will then remove the equivalent of the femur bone from the thigh meat. Folding the tender onto itself I then will place the meat back where the femur had come from. Using the skin and a thin slice of Prosciutto (cured Italian pork leg) I then wrap the whole package, placing it seam side down to allow the natural moisture to form a seal.
These little thigh/tender bundles are great for grilling. Bacon will also work as a substitute for the Prosciutto but it will often over power the flavor of the grouse.
Peaches and Cream Grouse Bundles, Serves 2
4 ea Prosciutto grouse bundles (see above)
1 ea almost ripe peach
1 shallot, fine diced
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and pepper
Heat grill to medium high. Bring a small sauce pot of water to a boil, just big enough to hold the peach. Cut an X on the bottom of the peach and, with a pair of tongs, submerge it into the boiling water and count to 20. Carefully remove peach and run under cold tap water for one minute. The skin should come right off. Core the peach and slice thinly.
Grill the grouse bundles until the juices start to run clear, about 3 minutes on each side.
Heat butter in a medium sized sauté pan on medium high. When butter is melted and clear add the shallots and sauté them until just tuning brown. Add the peaches and the honey to the pan. Let cook for a few moments until the peaches begin to brown.
Add the cream and reduce the heat to low. Let simmer for 2-3 minutes or until the cream gets thicker. Taste the sauce and then season with salt and pepper as needed.
You can serve the grouse bundles whole or sliced, both presentations look good. Serve with mashed potatoes. Dip the bundles in the peaches and cream sauce and enjoy a classic!
The French classic of pepper corn steak, updated for a Northwestern flare. The sweetness of the apples and the apple juice are what makes this dish. It calms the pepper down in your mouth but still lets the flavors have a nice bite. Using a local apple, something firm like a Fuji, works great.
6-8 4oz Venison Steaks, Sirloin Makes a great choice
3 Tablespoons Cracked Black Pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2ea Fuji or Granny Smith Apples, peeled, cored and sliced into ¼ inch wedges
1 tablespoon Flour
¼ cup apple juice (brandy or bourbon works great here too)
½ cup milk
1 sprig rosemary (optional)
Turn oven on to “warm” and place a plate inside. Heat large heavy bottomed pan on medium. Pour the cracked peppercorns onto a small plate. Firmly press each of the steaks into the cracked peppercorns, just one side. Lightly season both sides with salt.
Pour oil into pan, it should be on the verge of smoking hot. Place the steaks in the pan peppercorn side down and let brown for 2-3 minutes. The steaks should be a nice golden browned before flipping.
Flip and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Remove promptly from heat if blood starts to show on the top of the pepper crusted section, this will mean that they are about medium. Place steaks on the plate in the oven to keep warm.
In the bottom of the pan should be a bunch of brown goodies stuck to the bottom, this is a good thing. Add the apples and flour. The juice from the apples should allow the flour to be absorbed and not clump. When the apples start to brown add the apple juice, about 1 additional minute. Use a wooden spoon and scrape all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. The flour should thicken the apple juice mix quickly. Add the milk, let simmer until it reduces and thickens to a thin “gravy” consistency.
Remove steaks from the oven. Pour off any blood from the platter and serve with roasted potatoes and sautéed kale. Garnish with rosemary if desired.
If I could shoot one animal per year for my freezer it would be a nice, youngish, cow elk. They are the perfect table fare. Tender, flavorful and ample in proportion elk are like giant whitetail deer.
With a large animal there is always scrap and trim that needs used. Cooking is not at its best with easy to use items – think backstrap – but when underutilized things are made to shine. One easy to make shine item is the shank meat. Shank meat is essentially the calf and forearm of an animal. In the fancy restaurants of my past I would serve lamb shanks in the winter like hotcakes. I would charge upwards of $35 a plate for them as well. When I started thinking back to all the shank meat on the deer and elk I had killed I realized most of it went through the grinder and into burger. A true shame.Shank meat is ungodly tough, right? What makes shank meat different is the very thing that makes it tough, connective tissue. That same tissue, if cooked long enough, melts into the most buttery and luscious sauce. What happens in the naturally occurring gelatin breaks down and incorporates into the cooking liquid. But this takes time, shanks are slow food. Mmm tasty slow food.
Anyway, enough science, how about a nice recipe?
Elk Shank with Red Wine and Rosemary
Pre heat oven to 300 degrees, or turn on crockpot to “low” setting.
1 elk hind shank, deboned, bone reserved (this should feed about four people, it will be very rich)
½ cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper
1 ea white onion, chopped into large chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
10 cloves garlic
10 sprigs rosemary, 5 for the braising, 5 for the finishing sauce
2 cups red wine
2 quarts water
2 tablespoons thyme
Roll the deboned shank meat in the flour. Heat a large cast iron Dutch oven on medium and add the butter. Brown the shank meat on all sides in Dutch oven in butter. When brown add the onions and any remaining flour to the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Stir onions around to avoid flour clumps from forming.
Next add the carrots, garlic and half the rosemary. Let cook for one minute and then add the red wine to “deglaze” the pan (remove the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, those are good things). When at a boil add the remaining water, just enough to cover the meat. This can change depending on the size of the pan, but two quarts should be more than enough.
Let cook in oven, covered very tightly, for 4-6 hours or until fork tender. Fork tender is defined as tender enough to stick a fork into the center and twist, feeling little resistance. When fork tender remove the Dutch from the oven and place on kitchen counter.
The cook is now faced with a dilemma – serve hot or let cool and serve the next day. Braised meat, as a rule, is always better the next day after having time to settle and reabsorb flavors. But, in the real world, this does not always happen.
Either way when you go to eat the shank remove the meat and reduce the sauce in in the pan. When it starts to thicken add the remaining rosemary and the thyme. This will brighten up the whole dish. Serve over mashed potatoes or polenta for a great, rib sticking meal.