Steven Rinella knows a thing or two about cooking meat. The avid outdoorsman can often be seen grilling on-site during episodes of his show on Sportsman Channel, MeatEater (a production of Food Republic’s parent company Zero Point Zero). The award-winning author recently published his third book, Meat Eater: Adventures From the Life of An American Hunter. Rinella writes in to Food Republic to discuss the best and worst aspects of grilling wild game and the challenges of cooking in the field.
What is the best type of wild game to grill? How do you prepare it?
Elk is my favorite wild animal, as you will see below. I also like to make burgers with wild game. I cut the lean game meat with 10% of its weight in pork back fat. It’s still very lean, but quite tasty. Once you get used to burgers like that, you’ll lose interest in those fatty, nasty beef burgers.
What about something that doesn’t work?
I’m generally pretty disappointed with freshwater fish on the grill. You can pull it off, but they’re just not as good for that application as saltwater fish. I think there are a couple reasons why: The fats are a lot different, for one. Freshwater fish don’t seem to have as much fat. And the bones are different. Saltwater fish tend to have heavier bones that are easier to pick away from the flesh on a whole-grilled fish. Freshwater fish have more delicate bones that can be a pain in the ass to deal with. I was recently looking at a cookbook where the author had grilled all these freshwater bluegills and largemouth bass. They sure looked nice in the photos, but I’ll bet you anything that they turned out pretty dry and hard to handle. But I’ll keep messing with it and trying new ideas until I die. I love to fish, so I have plenty of material to work with.
What challenges do you face grilling in the field?
Fuel and heat control are the main challenges when I’m grilling in the field. I always use native materials, as it’s impractical to lug around a sack of briquettes in your backpack. And there’s a huge amount of variability with the kinds of wood you encounter in different places. In the mountains you’re often dealing with pine, which burns super fast and isn’t that hot. In Alaska, you’re often dealing with wet wood. You can get it to burn, but it’s smoky as hell and doesn’t put off as much heat.
Now and then, though, you get into the perfect situation. One of the reasons that I love hunting in West Texas is that you can kill something and then grill the loins right over a bed of mesquite coals. That makes up for all the hassles of trying to grill over soggy willow.
How do you overcome them?
Just keep trying and experimenting. And be open to the idea of eating undercooked and overcooked flesh.
What is your favorite cut of meat to grill?
I know it sounds terribly predictable, but you can’t beat the loins. As a hunter, I grew up calling them “backstraps,” which is still a very common term. Those are the muscles along your spine that they work when you get a massage.
I handle them all pretty much the same way, from black bear to elk to wild hogs to domestic products. I remove the loins from the carcass with a Havalon or a boning knife and peel away with the silver skin using the same method that you use to skin a fish fillet. Then I cut the loin into 8-inch pieces. Rub the pieces with salt and pepper, brush with peanut oil and grill on high heat.
I eat everything rare except for bears and wild hogs. Those you want to cook to well done because of trichinosis. The key to a good grilled loin is to let it rest a long time before you slice it in order to keep the juices from running out. I’ll risk letting it cool to room temperature rather than slicing it when it’s too hot and letting all the goodness drip over the edges of the cutting board.
What are the best vegetables for the grill? And how do you cook them?
My favorite grilled vegetable is a recipe that I stole from my buddy Eric, and I think he might have stolen it from Steve Raichlen. Cut a red bell pepper in half so it looks like two bowls and then brush each bowl with olive oil. Lay the cut sides down on a grill until the rims start to get charred. Then flip them over and fill them with black beans and sautéed onion and garlic. When the bottom of the pepper starts to char, top the beans with shredded mozzarella. Pull them off the grill as soon as the cheese melts and then top with minced cilantro. It’s like two side dishes in one. Plantains are another great vegetable for the grill. So are steaks cut from big heads of cauliflower.
What is the most useful piece of grilling gear you have purchased or used?
I like those little contraptions that hold jalapeño peppers in an upright position over the grill, so you can stuff them with cheese and it doesn’t run out. I also like fish baskets for doing whole fish. And I like those mesh grilling baskets for doing a lot of sliced vegetables all at once.
What was your favorite grilling experience?
My favorite grilling experiences happened when I was hunting and fishing with Makushi tribesmen in Guyana. Those guys have pretty refined palates and they know all the best stuff in the jungle to eat. We shot black curassow with bows and slow-grilled them over a wooden rack set about 30 inches above the charcoal, which is how the tribesmen cook pretty much everything. It was fantastic. We also had paca, which is a large nocturnal rodent that looks like a cross between a chipmunk and a whitetail deer fawn. We scraped the hair off and grilled it in pieces with the skin on. Also fantastic. And one of the best fish I ever ate was a grilled herbivorous piranha called a pacu that we shot with bows out of a large rapids. It was stunningly good. I’ve been trying for several years to get back down there, just so I can enjoy some more of that food.
For more Steven Rinella check out his website, themeateater.com.
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