by Dave Arnold
Czimer’s Meats, outside of Chicago, specializes in hard to find meats. We ordered up some beaver, yak, a whole raccoon, some bear, and a lion steak. Lion?
It is illegal in the US to sell wild hunted game, so how does Czimer’s get these meats? Some of Czimer’s meats, like Yak, are farmed. In other cases the meat is a by-product that would be thrown away if not eaten. Czimer’s raccoons and beavers are wild animals that are trapped for fur. Perversely, although commercial hunting is illegal, selling meat from trapped animals is not –provided they are slaughtered in a USDA approved facility. Bears and lions are raised by big game dealers for circuses, exotic pet enthusiasts and zoos. When those animals get too old to breed or their owners discard them they are slaughtered for their fur and the meat goes to Czimer’s. Sad but true. If the animals are being slaughtered, it is a sin not to eat them.
Why cook these animals?
America used to be the place to eat strange animals. We were world renowned for the quantity, quality, and variety of our game. We ate wild animals, farmed animals, young animals, old animals. For an eye-opening reference, see Thomas DeVoe’s 1867 book The Market Assistant(free on Google books), which describes all the foods available in 19th century American markets. Now we eat a fairly small number of animals, almost all of them young. Hunters are the only people here who eat a wider variety of meat from animals of different ages. Because older animals are tougher, and wild game often lacks extensive marbling, hunters often have problems making meat as delicious as it could be. They frequently relegate game meat to highly sauced preparations or stews, or serve tiny chunks of meat fried in a heavy batter. I have had alligator seven times and I still don’t know what it tastes like; it’s always served as generic fried stuff with a gloppy sauce. Every hunter should adopt low temperature cooking to get the most out of their meat, which is what we did with our Czimer’s shipment – you get delicious and tender meat without overcooking and without masking natural flavor.
The meat we got from Czimer’s came frozen. We thawed it, then seared, then bagged with salt and butter, cooked low temperature, and finished in a raging deep fryer.
Most of the meat we ordered was in steak form. Unfortunately, these steaks were cut very thin. Czimer’s explained that most cooks grill these meats, and if they were cut thick they would be preposterously tough. They agreed to cut thicker for me next time. Here’s a rundown of the meats:
Yak is delicious. Our piece arrived hard and tough, so I knew we’d have to cook it a while. I wanted it fairly rare, so I cooked it at 56 degrees C for 24 hours. It was great –tender and juicy. Strangely, it tasted a bit like duck breast — it had a bit of a livery taste that certain cuts of meat take on when you cook them a long time –duck, eye of round, etc. Usually, this liver flavor is a negative attribute. On yak it worked nicely. A definite do-again.
Lion tastes like pork with a special savory twang. The guy at Czimer’s told me lion tastes different because lions eat meat exclusively. The meat itself was very pale and soft when raw, so I figured I wouldn’t have to cook it a long time. It had very little intramuscular fat, so I thought the greatest challenge would be not drying the meat out. We cooked it at 60 C for 2 hours; it was good but still tough. Next time I would cook a little lower – maybe 58 C, and for a lot longer time –like 24 hours. It turns out that older meat can be tough even if it feels soft raw. Czimer’s explained that lion meat is always soft, and you can’t use the way it feels raw to judge how tender it will be after cooking. I liked lion, but don’t know that I would cook it all the time –I’ll stick with pork. It probably isn’t healthy to eat a lot of carnivore meat anyway (concentration of toxins, prion nonsense, etc).
The bear meat was dark –almost black. Like the lion, it felt soft. Bear meat has to be cooked thoroughly to kill possible trichinosis parasites; I cooked it at 57 degrees C for 2 hours, which is sufficient for safety. Like the lion, it was still a bit tough. The bear meat started out slightly sweet, but I found it had an off-putting metallic, bloody aftertaste. Nils didn’t mind it. I wouldn’t cook an old black bear again.
Racoon was a big disappointment. The one we had was whole. We cooked it at 60 for 5 hours. The meat was tough, and there wasn’t much of it. The fat wasn’t great either. If I were to cook raccoon again, I’d cook it a lot, lot longer –like 48 hours, shred the meat, and serve it pulled like pork.
When I called Czimer’s and asked for beaver tail, the guy asked whether I wanted the tail or the flapper. The tail, he explained, is a nice fatty chunk of meat from the posterior of the animal. The flapper is the tennis-racket looking appendage that, along with buck teeth, are the signature characteristics of the beaver. He said that a lot of people call and ask for the flapper, but they are always disappointed, because there isn’t any meat on it. “It’s pretty useless,” he said. I took that as a challenge. “I’ll take two flappers and a tail,” I replied.
In medieval times, good Christians were forbidden from eating meat on many days of the year. Fridays, Wednesdays, Lent, and other Saint’s days were fast days. Meat, dairy and eggs were not allowed, but fish was. The human mind being strange, and the scientific classifications of Linnaeus being far in the future, the medieval cook got around these rules by classifying mammals like whales as “fish.” Even stranger, while the body of the beaver was considered an animal (verboten on fast days), the tail was considered fish and could be consumed whenever. God knows what they would have done with the platypus. I suspect that it is the medieval food recreactionists who have been calling Czimer’s looking for the beaver tail, only to be disappointed by the paucity of culinary possibilities for the flapper.
Here is what I did:
Beaver tail is straight up fantastic. It has a woody-musky aroma and flavor that is unique among all meats I have tried. Nils went bonkers for it as well. Every recipe for beaver I could find advised soaking the meat in vinegar, so I brined the tail in a mild salt and vinegar solution before searing it and bagging it with butter. I cooked it at 60 degrees C for 48 hours. Man, was it good.
Beaver flapper is basically skin, fat and cartilage with a bone running up the middle. We figured if it was going to be good at all we’d have to treat it like a pigs ear -cook it at high temperature to gelatinize the connective tissue, then crisp it up in the fryer. Since we had two, I cooked one whole and the other we blanched and skinned.
The blanched and skinned one was a gloppy fatty mess. Maybe it would have been good for something, but we were tasting it after we had tasted all the other meats and we weren’t in the mood. The whole flapper puffed up nicely in the fryer but we deemed it too fatty and weird for general enjoyment.
Watching it puff up gave me an idea –beaver flapper chicharron. I took the skin from the second flapper, cooked it in boiling salted water, then cooled it, scrapped off the excess fat, and dehydrated till it felt plastic-y (see our post on puffed snacks). When I fried the pieces, they puffed up beautifully and still had that woodsy beaver flavor that we all loved. I fed it to an amphitheater full of students at a demo Nils and I did a few weeks back; they seemed to like it too. Call up Czimer’s and get your flapper while they last.