Cooking wild for a good cause

March 8, 2017

Master chefs and their students teamed skills at the Allegheny Sport, Travel and Outdoor Show in Monroeville last week to help the hungry.

By Ben Moyer For the Herald-Standard

An enticing tang drifted to distant corners of the Monroeville Convention Center last Saturday afternoon. The aroma rose from a kettle of venison stew simmering before a tantalized crowd at the Allegheny Sport, Travel and Outdoor Show. Acclaimed outdoorsman and chef Albert Wutsch had teamed there with Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts faculty and students to celebrate wild game cookery and to raise money for Hunters Sharing the Harvest, which provides hunter-donated venison to needy families.

Chef Wutsch retired as department chairman of the IUP Culinary Academy, is a certified executive chef and culinary educator, and the author of two books: The Art of Cooking Venison, and The Art of Barbecuing and Grilling Game.

Chef Jeremy Critchfield, co-owner and chef at the Stone House Restaurant and Country Inn in Farmington, and his daughter Kitana, assisted in the on-stage presentation. Critchfield is a graduate of the IUP culinary program, where he studied under Wutsch.

As the stew bubbled toward doneness, Wutsch demonstrated how he cuts a venison hindquarter into roasts, cutlets, steaks and medallions, then prepared and served dishes to an eager audience.

A lot of hunters start out with poor quality at the cutting board, Wutsch observed. I’m showing you how to butcher and cook a deer from the chef’s perspective. There’s technique to this; you can take the best cut of venison and ruin it in five minutes. Or, you can take the toughest cut on the carcass and make it into high cuisine.

Wutsch carved thin wafers of dark red meat that hissed when Critchfield and Kitana sauteed them in a blazing skillet.

For me, it’s all about flavor, Critchfield told the crowd. The best way to treat a tender cut like this is to brown it quick. Keep the pan hot by not adding too much meat at once.

The team deglazed the pan with sherry wine and made a sauce with Dijon mustard, apple cider and cream. They swirled the browned meat slices in the sauce and invited spectators to crowd in for a taste on toothpicks and plastic utensils. Their offering didn’t last long.

Wutsch and the Critchfields then stuffed thinly pounded venison cutlets with pesto sauce and prosciutto for grilling, prepared a roast for the oven and discussed the merits of hanging a deer to age before processing.

Aging depends on the conditions, Wutsch said. If I’m where I have a cooler with consistent ideal temperatures, aging has benefits. If I’m hunting in the backcountry and need to skin, cut up and pack out an animal without aging, that’s what I do. Either way, I can achieve excellent results for my guests at the table or the campfire.

Current Indiana University chef Melinda Mcisaac, instructor Tom Barnes and their students prepared two versions of venison chili for sampling. Attendees were asked to drop a dollar in a kettle adorned with a poster that read Please give a buck for the pot.

The donation entitled guests to a bowl of either Spicy Southwestern or Traditional-style venison chili in support of Hunters Sharing the Harvest.

The Spicy Southwestern has a definite kick, Mcisaac told one show-goer who asked if the chili was hot. I thought I knew how to cook deer meat, but I learned some things today, said another attendee. He and others in the crowd pitched nearly $700 into the Buck Pot, and Allegheny Sport, Travel and Outdoor Show director Chris Fassnacht, as promised, matched that amount for a grand total of almost $1,300.00 raised at the show.

There’s no way Hunters Sharing the Harvest could provide over 100,000 pounds of nutritious ground venison to needy Pennsylvanians every year without the help of hunters, our sponsors and folks like these from IUP, said John Plowman, HSH executive director.

Since 1991, Hunters Sharing the Harvest has collected and distributed over one million pounds of hunter-donated ground venison to hungry families through food banks, soup kitchens, churches and community organizations. Donations pay the fees of certified butchers around the state who prepare the meat for distribution.

This is a great program that we’re all proud to support, Wutsch told his audience. It’s the most effective effort of its kind in the nation.

Contacted later, Chef Melinda Mcisaac said western Pennsylvania was a natural place, not only to share venison with the less fortunate, but also to teach respect for wild game and to celebrate game in advanced cooking.

Wild game absolutely fits into a cuisine for this region because hunting is such a deep-rooted heritage here, and deer are renewable and abundant, Mcisaac said. For a chef, working in a restaurant or an educational program like (IUP), it’s all about the target market. I don’t know if it would be so well accepted in some bigger cities, but here it works.

Even in urban areas, wild game is gaining recognition as food that fits the modern desire for locally produced, healthful meat that’s easy on the environment.

Game, like this deer, is definitely sustainable and healthy food, Mcisaac said. Increasingly, people like to know where their meat is coming from.

Mclsaac’s observation echoed those Critchfield made at the show demonstration.

I’ve been butchering and cooking deer, squirrels and other game since I was a kid back in Armstrong County learning from my grandfather, Critchfield said. A lot of people would like to have this kind of personal control over their own food, but they don’t have the skills it requires. We’re beginning to change that with demonstrations like this.

IUP’s culinary students were eager to help at the HSH fund-raiser. We posted sign-up sheets asking for volunteers. The space filled up right away and we had more students on waiting lists, Mcisaac said. They were so enthusiastic, pitching in with anything they could do to make this a success.

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