“Well, crap” I said.
“What?” asked my much older and much less good looking brother.
“I found the elk…”
“At the bottom” I bemoaned.
“Of course…they have to be at the bottom” he said stoically, bringing his binoculars to his face. “Where they at?”
My brother and I have a code developed over the years of describing terrain. This skill must be honed for hunting pairs to be effective. Things that others would not notice on the hillside become indicators to us – the dead tree, the limpy tree, the butt-cheek looking rock face, the place we got the chukar that one time. These descriptions all mean something to my brother and I, but to the layman they are probably gibberish. So when I described the location of the elk to my brother is was undoubtedly in some sort of gibberish like “See the fence line? That is the private boundary. Now look at the bare knob with the one juniper on it…now see the dead buck brush…look left. If you hook around the front side of that you can see her butt glowing in the morning sun.”
“Got her…damn, all the way at the bottom too…like five of them”
“Well, this is what I am doing today so what are we waiting for?”
“One of us is gonna get an elk” he said.
“Shut up dude, you’re gonna curse it.”
We dumped off the ridge toward the elk, in total losing about 1100 feet in the process. The beginning of the stalk was easy with a lot of trees to provide cover and a lot of ravines that held deep shade to keep us hidden. We played the wind, the thermals in our favor. As we stalked closer to the elk they began to do what elk do and move around. Soon the original five elk multiplied into fifteen. Then a bull elk showed up, then the bull was gone, a mule deer buck decided to feed with the herd. It was a shit show in the best possible of ways.
At about 400 yards we stopped, the cover ran out. Nothing but a patch of willows shielded us from the elk. We had to wait them out. After about fifteen minutes the elk fed out of sight into a small ravine and we made our move.
On the way toward the elk a hand came out and slapped me in the chest. “Stop!” my brother whisper yelled – the kind that is overly loud but still said in a hushed voice. Dead ahead of us, out in the open just like us, was a solo cow elk. “We are busted” my brother lamented.
The cow made the worst noise that a cow can make, that god awful barky noise that tells all the other elk the game is afoot. A heartbeat later the elk began to scatter. The barking cow took about ten elk with her up and over the hill. The bull showed back up, only to vanish quickly. The mule deer buck looked around dumbly before hightailing out. However, I had not seen the original group vacate the area. They were still around somewhere, I knew it.
I charged up the nearest hill and on the other side of the ravine, standing broadside at about 100 yards, was a solo cow elk. I put my crosshairs on her and I shot. She just stood there. So I shot again.
Big brother then showed up next to me, the elk still broadside across the ravine. “Shoot her for me would ya?” I said. Lamenting my lack of skills and apparent accuracy.
“Why?” he said, pulling his gun down.
I looked at her again with my binoculars. I could see she had two pink holes near her front shoulder. Then her legs began to stiffen and her balance began to wane. “She is dead dude, she just doesn’t know it.”
As if on que my cow tipped over. Sliding from an open hillside about 60 feet into a hawthorn infested ravine. This was not going to be an easy pack, so why should it be an easy butcher job.
Next came work. We cut, tied and cursed until the elk was boneless and in game-bags. As we prepared to hike the elk out I turned for one final look back – and saw her tongue sticking out of her mouth. “Wait” I said. “I’m gonna grab the tongue from this one.”
My brother cocked his head and looked at me. “Fine, but you are carrying it…” Clearly not wanting another pound in his pack. We made our way up the hill, suffering the whole way.
Elk Tongue Tacos
Honestly I have left most tongues in the field, or in the trash with the rest of the deer or elks head. I am not sure why I did this, as a chef I have always know that they are good. Even when I was in restaurants I only really made veal tongue dishes.
But times are changing. Food that was formally taboo is now commonplace – my son ordering a lengua taco at the Mexican market down the road proved this to me.
Getting the damn thing out –
So the first thing with getting the tongue out of your game animal is logistics. How the heck do you access the meat? Shortly after the animal dies rigor sets in and the jaw becomes borderline immovable. Instead of accessing the meat from the inside I go through the bottom of the jaw. I make a slit from the furthest forward point of the jaw bone to the back of the throat. Then I reach in and detach the tongue from the back of the throat. I find this a heck of a lot easier than dealing with teeth and prying open the jaw bones.
The first step with the tongue is to clean it VERY WELL. Depending on how you found the critter it was probably eating or chewing its cud. You can assume that the critter did not Scope its mouth out after you shot it and that dental hygiene for wild animals is not great. You want neither cud nor grass in any dish you create.
I put tongues in a plastic bag to not cross contaminate the other sections of meat. When I get back to the house I wash the ba-Jesus out of the tongue meat. The tongue will be stained brownish, after a good scrub the whole outside layer of the tongue will turn ivory colored. Then I freeze. For this recipe I am using one elk tongue for tacos for 4. That would be about 4 deer tongues, roughly.
The Recipe –
Braised Elk Tongue
1 elk tongue, cleaned
3 quarts water
1 head of garlic, sliced in half
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon pepper corns
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon red chili flakes
1 teaspoon ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon canola oil
Add all the ingredients to a medium sized stock pot and heat until a simmer. Then cover and let cook for three hours. Basically you are stove top braising this tongue.
After three hours remove the stock pot from the heat. At this point three options present themselves. 1) Peel and eat the tongue. It will be good but not as good. 2) Let the tongue cool overnight in the broth. Then peel and eat – this is the best tasting option but requires the most planning. After you choose your destiny you will need to do the following.
Peel, Slice and Fry
After the tongue is cool you will need to “peel” it. This sounds worse than it really is. Basically after the tongue is cooked the white cap will come off quickly a knife. See attached photo.
Next slice tongue crosswise into planks, then into strips and then into cubes. See the attached photos.
When you have the cooked tongue in dices it is time for a taco!
Heat a nonstick pan on medium high and add the canola oil. When the oil is almost smoking add the diced taco meat. Fry meat until browned on at least one side and hot all the way through.
Next garnish with whatever taco-ish things you want. For the recipe I used a green onion and avocado creama and arugula. I serve mine in a flour shell, because I am not a traditionalist in any way and I like flour tortillas.
Avocado and Garlic Creama
1/2 cup sour cream or Mexican creama
1 clove garlic, diced
2 each green onions, roots removed
¼ of an avocado
1 teaspoon lime juice
Salt and pepper
Puree all until smooth. Use as sauce on tacos. Enjoy!