“There’s nothing like a nice piece of Hickory.”
Last year some friends gathered for an evening of food, drink and fun, with everyone bringing a dish made from wild game acquired over the course of the year. That night was such a success we’ve decided to make it an annual tradition! This year we gathered at my friend Jason’s house, and his smoker added a great new dimension to many of the dishes. Here’s a little tour of the feast!
This marinated venison backstrap was on the smoker for about three hours, cooked to perfection and so incredibly tender it was hard to believe. Fantastic. Don’t ask Jason for the marinade recipe, he won’t give it to you.
My friend Carolyn told me about this dish and I had to try it. Baked beans mixed with browned ground venison, peppers and onion, baked, then topped with crumbled bacon, drizzled with honey and put in the smoker for 45 minutes.
Full smoker! Marinated dove breasts, jalapeno poppers filled with shrimp and seasoned cream cheese, then wrapped in bacon, mushrooms stuffed with ground elk meat and cream cheese, and the tenderloin.
Cheese stuffed beer bread? YES PLEASE! Thank you Anna!
These are the finished smoked bacon wrapped cheesy shrimp jalapeno poppers. The cream cheese, I’m told, counters the heat in the peppers. Um, no.
Anna made this incredible mac and cheese. It was delicious and popular, and good to have a dish on the table that wasn’t meat colored.
I don’t really get tired of marinated bacon wrapped venison tenderloin morsels of awesomeness.
The finished mushrooms stuffed with elk meat, cream cheese, mushroom and seasonings.
I actually forgot to try this! Wild turkey breast stuffed with goat cheese and peppers.
Another view of the perfectly cooked venison tenderloin, marinated and then smoked with hickory. Like butter.
I took the smoked, marinated dove breasts, wrapped them in puff pastry and baked them for ten minutes or so.
Anna made this wonderful lemon meringue pie from scratch, in addition to the pie and the amazing beer bread.
It was a real treat to sample amazing donuts from Front Royal’s Naughty Girls Donut Shop. The story of the shop and the amazing young woman who started it is a great one, and I encourage you to read about it here.
And in addition to all of the above, we of course had a variety of excellent seasonal beers to enjoy.
It’s never too early to start planning for next year’s Game Night, either — I’m thinking venison meatball and cheese sliders will be on the menu!
Some good friends gathered on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for what we hope will become a new annual tradition. Game Night is a feast, the sharing of wild game hunted throughout the year. It is a celebration of cooking, drinking, laughing and eating, and all of those to excess. Let me walk you through some of the delicious ways we gave thanks to the animals we hunt, and the friends who shared this special night.
Marinated, Bacon-Wrapped Venison Tenderloin Morsels of Awesomeness
I’ve been making these for a few years, they’re easy and very popular. Cut the tenderloin into good size chunks, marinate overnight, wrap each with a half slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick (soak the toothpicks for 10-15 minutes so they don’t completely burn up). Then grill. Keep an eye on these as the bacon will cause flare ups. Some charring is of course delicious, but you don’t want to leave these unattended.
Here’s what I use in my marinade: 1/4 cup Worcestershire, 1/4 cup soy sauce, a bottle of beer (try different varieties for fun, but I like using a dark, richly flavored beer), 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1 tsp black pepper, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark), 1 tsp of cayenne pepper.
Here are the completed venison morsels, which by the way came from this beautiful deer. Thanks to Anna for this and other great photographs from the night. Please check out Anna’s web site, AKG Inspiration.
Bacon-Wrapped Dove Appetizers
Across the board, everyone loved these incredibly delicious dove breasts that Chris and Anna brought. Regular readers might recall our dove hunt. What a fun day that was, and tasting these makes me want to get my full limit when we go back next year. Chris marinated these, wrapped each breast around slices of green bell pepper and onion and secured with toothpicks. Absolutely delicious. Anna also made an amazing pot of macaroni and cheese made with four cheeses: fontina, havarti, brie and sharp cheddar. (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
Horseradish Encrusted Venison Tenderloin
My friend Jason loves to cook wild game almost as much as he loves to hunt it, and he is very talented at both. I’ll let him walk you through preparing these great main course: Coat the tenderloin with olive oil, salt and pepper. Then spread prepared horseradish over it evenly. Mix a sauce of about 2 cups balsamic vinegar and 4 tablespoons of sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Stir occasionally until it gets syrupy. Grill the tenderloins (preferably to about medium rare) and remove from grill. Top with crumbled goat cheese and broil on high in the oven for 3-4 minutes until cheese begins to brown. Slice, drizzle with balsamic reduction and serve! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
This, in my opinion, is absolutely perfect medium rare venison tenderloin. Great job by the grillmaster Jason.
Fresh Wild Turkey Breasts
And I do mean fresh! Jason shot this turkey on Thanksgiving morning. He used a liquid garlic butter rub and coated with Cajun seasoning. Then this was cooked in an oilless turkey fryer. This is the first time I’ve had wild turkey and it was great with quite a kick to it! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus
Thanks again to Jason and Allie, Jason’s girlfriend and a long time dear friend of mine. I did not actually try these, but they looked and smelled great! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
At some point when everyone was occupied in the kitchen there was a knock at the door. This is what we saw waiting to be let in. Now, and only now, can we get this party started. Our friends Ken and Mary accompanied this bear, along with more treats. Which brings us to dessert…
In addition to this amazing thing I’ve never had before, our friends Brad and Jess also brought one. I love these things! It’s like pumpkin pie/cake and cheesecake all rolled up and sliced. Fantastic.
Bourbon Pecan Pie
Okay I love pecan pie. It’s one of my very favorite things, especially at this time of year. And in the heat of the moment last night, with the beer flowing, the hugs being distributed, the laughter and friendship warming us on a cold night, I might have been heard saying that the bourbon pecan pie Allie made from the recipe in my favorite magazine, Garden & Gun, is the best pecan pie I have ever tasted.
Now, a day later, with a clearer head, I do not hesitate to say it again. This is honestly the best pecan pie I have ever tasted.The recipe can be found at Garden & Gun here. Thank you Allie for this! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)
I want to thank everyone for coming and making such amazing contributions to a meal I will not soon forget. As we go through the next year spending time in the woods or on the water, we’ll enjoy setting aside some venison, wild birds, maybe a fish or two, with plans on preparing for next year’s Game Night. Can we top the First Annual? Does a bear drink wine out of a bottle?
I was about thirteen years old when I tagged along with my Dad for a few days of fishing down in North Carolina. We ended up at some sort of camp with a bunch of his friends, and it was here he told me we were dove hunting that afternoon. When the time came, he brought me to the perimeter of a huge rectangular field and handed me my Remington 870 20 gauge and a box of shells. He turned a bucket upside down and told me to sit there and if a dove comes my way, shoot it. Some other kids and I were at one end of the field, and my Dad and his friends would be at the other. That was the extent of my dove hunting tutorial. Really? People do this? Is this a thing? Or is this a snipe hunting type trick to keep all the kids sitting quietly on buckets for a few hours while the men pile into a pickup and head out to a bar?
Well, it turns out it really is a thing. And that afternoon there was very little bird activity down at the far end, and even fewer birds at the kid end of the field. But in one spirited volley at the far end, dozens of shots were fired at a cluster of birds. Some went down, some retreated over the treeline behind the hunters, and one lone dove flew straight toward me. The shots silenced as he flew out of range of the adults, and I watched him for a while as he approached. I loved the idea of hitting this dove that my Dad and his buddies all missed. This is called, “counting your chickens before they’re hatched.” But I had an easy, low, straight flying bird coming directly toward me. I put the bead on him, waited until I had a nice short shot, and pulled the trigger.
Let me interrupt this story to begin my list of Helpful Hints for the Beginner Dove Hunter:
1. Be aware of the status of your gun’s safety.
In the time it took me to realize the safety of my gun was on, the bird slipped safely and quietly over the tree line behind me. It was the only bird that came my way that afternoon. I unloaded my Remington, put the three pristine yellow 20 gauge shells back in the now full box and closed it and my dove hunting chapter, not to be opened again until almost four decades later. Yesterday.
My friends Chris and Anna invited me to come out dove hunting with their dogs Wyatt and Luna on a stunningly beautiful, blue sky day in rural Virginia. Considering how my first experience went, I was excited to give it another try. We got to the field early and then Billy, the host who set up the shoot, gave us some ideas on good spots. We chose an area where some power lines intersected with a tree line at the far end of the fields. The terrain was brutally difficult to walk in. Deep, irregular mounds and ridges of firm ground – an artifact of a chisel plow early in the season – made it feel like you were walking on bowling balls. But we navigated the obstacle course the several hundred yards with all our gear and set up for the day. Anna was working the dogs and taking photos, Chris and I would be shooting. Here is the spot I chose, some cover of overhanging limbs and plenty of shade, but with a good view of the fields and open sky. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
The gun I brought, a 1952 16 gauge Winchester Model 12, is one of my very favorites. Light and comfortable, the 16 gauge is built on the 20 gauge frame. I’ve often said of this gun that I could shoot it all day long, but on this day I did exactly that. And the simple, brilliant Model 12 design just makes this gun aim where you’re looking the second you throw it up to your shoulder. However, aiming and hitting are two different matters when it comes to dove.
Chris chose a spot more out in the open, sitting against the base of a phone pole about 75 yards away from me to my right. He immediately started shooting single flyers racing by him from behind. Here is Chris and Wyatt with the first bird of the day.
Wyatt making sure I got a good close up before he gave the bird up.
Watching their flight pattern, it doesn’t take long to identify and recognize these birds. We didn’t get any photos of them in flight, but here is a file photo of a common migratory mourning dove. Note the distinctive shape:
Early on I had opportunities but just couldn’t get a handle on shooting these things. Chris’s success, I determined after observing for about ten minutes, was due to better instincts on where to sit and where to watch, faster reaction time, and better shooting than I exhibited.
2. Have better instincts, react faster, and shoot better.
I brought over 100 shells and within the first hour I had burned through maybe 20 and I’m not sure I even scared a bird. Chris graciously let me sit in his spot for a bit, probably to let his gun cool off and give his shoulder a rest, and before long I had another chance. Three doves whipped around the phone pole I was leaning against, I picked one and quickly took two shots at it. Miss, miss. I took my time on the third and connected, downing my first dove ever. Chris is a truly good friend, and he exhibited this with a genuine, spontaneous celebratory outburst when those feathers flew. I know he would have traded all his birds to that point just to see me hit one. Anna brought Wyatt over to find the downed bird in the thick millet and he made quick work of the task. Here we are sharing the glory.
Breaking the ice with this one helped a lot. I felt like I started to shoot better and react better. But I was still leaving a lot of opportunities in the field. Some lessons learned:
3. If you stare too long at one distant part of the field, birds will appear very near you in the other direction.
4. When #3 happens, and people try to bring it to your attention by yelling, “LOOK UP!!”, you would be surprised how vast an area “up” is and how easy it is to not see something there.
5. If you put your gun down to pee, you will miss birds.
6. If you hit a bird on your second or third shell, reload before you go to find it. Doves are watching you, and if they count three shots and don’t see you reload, they will come and land on your shoulder or roost on your dove stool till you get back.
7. When you watch a huge field for doves, your brain will send you some false alarms. Dragonflies look like doves. Butterflies look like doves. Trust me, it happens. I had the safety off and the bead drawn on a big, beautiful orange butterfly half a dozen times.
8. If you switch places with someone because you haven’t seen action in a while and they’ve almost limited out, birds will stream toward your original location like your cooler is the very place they are migrating to.
Luckily there were enough birds around that despite my missed opportunities and missed shots, I was having some success. And having the dogs there to find downed birds was just key. We spoke to some guys on our way out who were shooting a lot of birds but not finding many. We didn’t lose a bird all day. Here is Luna with our first joint effort together.
Anna tucked into the shade and sent dogs as needed.
9. Bring a dog.
Chris, as predicted, got his limit of fifteen birds, and took just under fifty shells to do it. That, from what I know of dove hunting, is pretty fine shooting. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
These dogs worked their butt off in very difficult terrain for a long, warm day. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
As for me, I ended up with seven, and took about 70 shells to do it. Not too bad, considering I burned an entire box before I even hit one.
But more importantly, I had an absolutely fantastic time. Shotgun shooting is my favorite kind of shooting, and dove hunting is as exciting as shotgun shooting gets. It’s really a blast!
10. Don’t get frustrated, everybody misses these birds. A lot. Just remember how much damn fun it is, hit or miss!
I’m exploring recipes, and will do a follow up post on eating these dove breasts. It’s always rewarding to me when a hunt becomes a meal.
I’ve come a long way from that upside down bucket in a North Carolina field a couple hundred yards across from my Dad, watching that solitary bird over the barrel of my Remington as he slipped above the trees. And I think if you told me that afternoon as I placed those three unused shells back in the box that one day I would be writing that in dove hunting I’ve found perhaps my favorite type of hunting, I would have disagreed strongly.
But it’s true. It’s fun, casual, social, challenging, rewarding and exciting. And I can’t wait to do it again.