All-Natural Alternatives To Standard Meat Choices
Adventurous palates can satisfy their cravings at restaurants like Birdsall House or Harvest on Hudson, where locally sourced game often appears on cold-weather menus.
Left: Rabbit is used in place of chicken in the scarpariello at Harvest on Hudson; right: Birdsall House's venison sausage
Photos By Michael Polito
At a meeting of Bedford 2020 (a nonprofit organization trying to preserve natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020 in the town of Bedford), the discussion about forests and clean water was closed with a suggestion that Westchester residents adjust their way of thinking—with a slide showing venison on a grill. It was a gotcha moment because deer over-browse the forest floor. Rye Brook resident Ron Szczypkowski is a serious proponent of eating game. “I haven't bought meat in a supermarket for 40 years. I eat fresh fish and venison I catch myself,” says Szczypkowski. “Wild game is very precious because it doesn’t have all that junk in it.”
If you hanker for a taste of game but don’t have either facility or temperament to harvest it (or a relative or friend who does), where do you go to enjoy this all-natural meat? Several restaurants in Westchester County feature game on their menus.
Executive Chef David Amorelli of Harvest on Hudson in Hastings-on-Hudson explains: “There is a larger market out there for game in winter. People who have sophisticated palates are really looking for something different.” His autumn menu featured squab and veal tripe. The winter menu may also include venison as an occasional special. Rabbit scarpariello with sweet sausage, fingerling potatoes, hot cherry peppers, and rosemary is always on the menu.
Krista Espinal, executive chef of Birdsall House in Peekskill, says, “I use game a lot. Boar, venison, and quail are pretty familiar to people and easily adapted to recipes. It’s accepted pretty well here. At least every month there is some sort of game item on the menu.”
At farm-to-table restaurants, locally sourced game often appears on cold-weather menus. At Cafe of Love in Mount Kisco, seasonal ingredients determine the menu. “Fall is hunting season, so it was appropriate to feature venison,” says owner Leslie Lampert. “And we have cinnamon-roasted quail on the winter menu.” Likewise, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills serves venison throughout the winter, with emphasis on using the whole animal. At Restaurant North in Armonk, Executive Chef and partner Eric Gabrynowicz hammers the point home, “We are farm-driven. We feature venison as available.”
An appetite for game seems to be seasonal as well. During summer, people tend to prefer lighter meals because they are weight-conscious. With heavy coats come hearty appetites. Birdsall’s Chef Espinal explains: “I do quail a lot in the summertime. It’s a light dish. It works well.”
Some diners are discouraged from trying game because of the presumed gamey, or strong, flavor of wild animals. “People with sophisticated palates will appreciate the flavor of game. If people tried it and didn't like it, it was because it wasn't handled properly, says Chef Amorelli. His background is classic French- and Italian-style cooking. “I really like the slow-braised techniques.” One such technique is the basis of daube, a classic Provençal stew with a long, slow-cooking process to tenderize beef. Because game animals tend to be physically active, a marinade and slow cooking helps break down the meat.
As for the gamey taste, Chef Espinal explains, “To overcome gaminess, I adapt it in ways and balance with flavors that make sense.” At Birdsall House, most of the entrées are paired with beer rather than wine. Birdsall House has 20 rotating taps featuring beers from across the US, including local brews from New York State.
Chef Amorelli shared that what any animal, whether domestic or game, eats the last months of its life influences the flavor of its meat. Game is “healthier because it is a lean product,” he states.
If you’d truly prefer to prepare game at home, there are county shops to visit. Marc Rohlsberger, meat manager at DeCicco & Sons in Armonk, says the store always has rabbit and duck. Furthermore, wild boar, venison, and alligator are on order for sausage, which the meat department will prepare in-house. Rohlsberger adds: “People’s response has been good. Buffalo is getting more popular. Guys like it for protein and flavor. We used to sell two boxes a week; now we do eight to 10.” He also indicated that a customer could special-order a meat anytime. However, he added: “It’s not that easy to get fresh. About 80 percent of the time the meat comes frozen.”
Far more exotic meats are available if one is willing to go to New York City. Ottomanelli & Sons market on Bleecker Street offers an extensive selection. In addition to venison, buffalo, and rabbit, one can pick up alligator, ostrich, emu, kangaroo, quail, squab, and pheasant. The meats are available in half- or one-pound packages. All their meats come from inspected plants.
Louise T. Gantress is the author of Bitter Tea and a freelance writer living in Westchester County