Hunting Every Meal | with Chef Jesse Griffiths at Pierce Ranch
Recently my husband and I went to Texas over a long weekend for a hunting and cooking vacation as a late anniversary trip. I guess you might be wondering why I didn't lobby for a long weekend at the Hotel Del Coronado instead? Or maybe a weekend trip to Atlantis in the Caribbean, which is a place I've been wanting to go for years? Now that you mention it, that does sound pretty good. I kind of wish you hadn't even brought it up.
The party line is that we both love outdoor adventure and always appreciate education on cooking - especially truly organic field-to-table cooking where you hunt for your dinner, field dress and clean the animal, and then learn the best way to cook it. Throw in a reunion of sorts with my Texan friend Noel and I was very excited! Oh yeah, did I mention that the trip would be led by the guy who literally wrote the book on field-to-table hunting and cooking? James Beard-nominated Chef Jesse Griffiths (<-- click on this link to read a great interview), and founder of Dai Due restaurant in Austin.
So we flew into sunny Houston ready to ignore the very rainy forecast. I mean these clouds are fluffy and white, right? They can't seriously be foretelling rain??? I thought it looked pretty promising.
Thankfully my precious cargo survived the trip. I was pretty excited to get both of these babies into the same case, especially with Checked Baggage Rates as high as they are these days.
We were picked up by Noel in her awesome dually, named CHIK. The only thing better than the sight of Noel driving CHIK is the sight of a bearded man driving her, as did three different men I witnessed over the long weekend, including Jesse and my old man.
Strangely, those men also put in soft offers to buy CHIK, and she wasn't even for sale.
Spoiler alert: the forecast was accurate. It had been months spent in San Diego since I'd seen sheets of rain coming down like this.
By the time we pulled up to the beautiful 36,000 acres that comprise Pierce Ranch, the rain had subsided.
Then I took a little walk around the grounds. This is the resident ranch dog who couldn't even be bothered to rise for me. Some guard dog! I hope that I'm not spilling the beans that this place is robber-friendly. I mean you'd be very foolish to try to hold up a place where 100% of the guests possess firearms.
Here Jesse is doing some "doppler radar" whispering, acting like he knows what those colored blobs on his phone mean. I guess he did know because the storm cleared. Either that or we just got lucky!
Finally it cleared for us. We got a second ride to our spot, and hiked around some more and spread out. I'm not sure about the wisdom of holding a long steel gun up towards such an angry sky, but I'm still here to tell the tale so no harm, no foul. Or is it fowl? It's kind of both here.
We only saw white-winged doves on this day. They were coming in by the hundreds, it seemed. The old man will tell you, "there were literally thousands in the sky. Thousands." Now I know we've come to take the word "literally" much less than literally, but let me assure you that there were not thousands of birds up there - not even close. I'm stretching the truth a bit by even using the word, "hundreds."
But yes there were many, and I know this won't make sense to you, but in a way they are harder to focus on and shoot in a big group like that. Think of the effectiveness of a school of fish swimming tightly together. It's harder to pick one out.
I still have a very hard time with this part of hunting. A very hard time. It's only fair that I should, in my opinion. It's not fair to just glibly buy a package of meat without a care for how it got there, if I'm being honest with you.
That said, there's a joy in harvesting your own dinner. We had a mandate from our Chef: bring home some doves. He contributed nicely to the count himself of course, but he couldn't be expected to do all of the hunting and also all of the cooking! We joked that it would be like the story of the Little Red Hen. I wasn't going to be the lazy dog, the sleepy cat, or the noisy yellow duck.
Here's the doves we set to plucking. We didn't breast them out - we fully dressed them. We saved the gizzards to go into a nice confit later. At least before Jesse's sous chef Chase accidentally knocked the tray of fully-plucked birds and gizzards into the rubbish bin. He did his best to get them all out, but not without a big silent SIGH from the rest of us. It happens to the best of us, Chase! And the clumsiest.
With so many doves, it was a decent amount of work. But trust me: so worth it! I had cooked and enjoyed doves before, but I was soon to find out that I've been doing it wrong the whole time. I think the secret is undercooking them. Shh! That is a secret.
There is a reason cats always want to catch birds and then just hunker down and start eating them right away. You don't see cats pausing to start a fire and spit, roasting away. They eat them raw, and I'm not suggesting that we all turn into a bunch of maniacs who just shoot things and start gobbling them up raw, but sometimes cats know something that we don't, and that might be a secret they're been hoarding for thousands of years.
Ready to serve: dove paella with okra. Best ever. Cooked much less than I would have, and much more delicious for it.
Field-harvested little olives. They were very earthy and sharp, and if we were judging them on looks they would rate a 10 out of 10. They were about the size of raisins. But not nearly as tasty, in my opinion (sorry!)
We also had some delicious prosciutto made from wild boar. Whoever said you can't eat feral hog was wrong in so many ways.
This is the leg the prosciutto came from. Jesse said this hog was a feral sow with a lovely golden hide dotted with white markings, and she carried a nice layer of fat that made her meat especially delicious. Then he honored the memory of that animal by having her hide tanned. I can't wait to see a picture of it when it comes back from the tannery.
Do you consider that "trophy" hunting? If so, I am also a trophy hunter. I can think of no better tribute to the animal you hunted and ate than keeping some non-edible part (like its horns, head, feathers or hide) and displaying it as a reminder of everything: the hunt, the food, and the precious animal.
Here's a few snippets of the dove hunt crammed into one short video. Don't expect a Spielberg-level movie experience here, or even a Lifetime-level movie experience. It's on YouTube for a reason, and that reason is probably poor production quality.
The paella and prosciutto. I don't remember the last time I had "fifths" of something, but these birds cooked on the rare side of medium rare (since you can do that with doves, unlike chicken - don't go rare on the chicken!) were everything to me.
Photo credit: Jesse Griffiths + Chase of Dai Due | Instagram
The next morning we rose at 5:00 am to beat the sunrise for our duck hunt. Duck hunting was a first for me. The ride out was beautiful because it was still dark and there was a blanket of stars in the sky due to the lack of light pollution. I'd love to have shot film of that magic, but my camera requires light. No matter! You've all been in the dark before underneath the stars, and you know how great that is.
We enjoyed this jam on croissants during those still-dark mornings for "first breakfast," of course all made from scratch - the croissants and the jam. They are coveting that Blueberry Jam recipe over at Dai Due because it is dark liquid GOLD, and I aggressively hinted that I wanted it enough times to confirm that they are keeping it a secret like the recipe for Coca Cola... maybe for the next book. But Jesse did throw me a bone by letting me take the rest of this jar. Which I might have licked clean.
Here is our incredible guide Russ setting out the decoys during first light.
I'm not sure anything good would have happened on this hunt without Russ. Did you think you could just go out there the first time and start shooting ducks without a guide? Wrongaroo. You might be able to distinguish a Blue-winged Teal from a Mourning dove or a Loggerhead Shrike or a Snowy Egret or a Crow (maybe), but can you tell the difference between Teal and a Whistling Duck? Or a Mottled Duck? Or a Redhead (a female)? No you cannot, not whizzing past you in the air in questionable light.
Left to our own devices, we probably would have just thrown the decoys into the swamp face-down, sat in the wrong spot failing to camouflage ourselves, shot the wrong bird (which is against the law), and then tried to retrieve that bird ourselves without a dog, slipping and falling into the muck until we drowned under the weight of our waders.
Our guide also had a beautiful retriever named Bella. She was tireless and ran the length of the land we were hiding out on, and also went out and retrieved just about every duck we shot. Some people insisted on getting their own birds. I was kind of like, Hey that's what dove hunting is for, not duck hunting with a very capable bird dog. Why not let Bella run? I don't want to steal her joy.
On this first teal hunt, there was a lot of down time waiting for the birds to come in. I was able to focus on the area immediately around my hiding spot and spy on spiders and insects. The dragonflies love this habitat and are downright beautiful.
Here are our ducks. Nobody limited out on this morning, but this was enough to make our chef happy with the dishes he had planned for the day. Yes, these ducks are absolutely beautiful - so much prettier than their decoys, which are works of art in themselves.
Does it bother you to see meat before it has had its face "processed" off? If so, you might want to explore why, especially if you eat meat (fish too). Or just scroll past this photo very quickly. That's what I always do when surprised by a sight I don't want stuck in my head.
And if you're looking to mix it up with me over the fact that I sometimes hunt, it's either time to understand where your own food really comes from, or it's time you considered Veganism... although even that too has its problems. I don't have a problem with people who choose not to hunt. In this day and age, it's not for everyone, although rest assured that you owe your very existence to your hunting ancestors. But if you do eat animals, yet take issue with those of us who harvest our own on occasion instead of paying someone else to be our hitman, just know that you are dabbling in hypocrisy.
Photo credit: Still Life | A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange, by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
This is me with Noel after that first duck hunt. Bella the dog is in the background on the left. It was a great day to be out in nature, but we still had our work cut out for us to turn these beautiful ducks into a meal.
Have you ever plucked a bird? With doves and quail (and even pheasant) you can just pluck them straight away without any preparation. With chicken and turkeys, it's best to dunk them in hot water to get the feathers to come out more easily. And with ducks you really need to go a step further: to get butcher-shop quality roasting-ready skin, you can wax your ducks. That's right.
When you dip them into a pot of very hot water with a layer of wax on the top, the feathers will come off in a sheet when you pull the wax off, much like going to a professional eyebrow (or other!) waxer. Sorry but it really is the same idea. That's Chase on the left from Dai Due taking a photo...
His camera angle was better than ours. See?
Photo credit: Chase and Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due | Instagram
Aren't they pretty? Okay I know you were probably expecting the skin to be more glossy and even, but for novices just learning how to wax ducks, this was an okay job!
Then Jesse worked his magic on these teal with one of his signature duck recipes: Teal in a Jar. Find the recipe here.
"You can bake off these little ducks—sealed tightly in mason jars and slowly cooked with beans, bacon, sausage, and onions—and then reheat gently before serving. The cooking vessel also makes for a nice presentation. Quail, which are smaller, could also be used, but a teal just fits so nicely into a pint jar." —Jesse Griffiths
Add the stock and bake slooooowly...
They were actually served out of the jar, family-style. Look at them now! And try to tell me this melt-in-your-mouth food doesn't look delicious?
Possibly even better was this duck confit. Jesse's partner in cooking magic, Chef Morgan, described how to make this but I've since forgotten. If I don't write something down sometimes it's just lost forever to space and time. Luckily I have the cookbook so I can pour over all of these recipes, and try my hand at them even if I wasn't paying proper attention because I was too busy chit-chatting.
More Morgan magic. This is a terrible picture of her but she evades being photographed so this is all I've got.
Dessert was a lemon pie with a flaky crust and simple whipped cream. Every course was paired with a Texas wine in keeping with Jesse's focus on locally-sourced food. I think that's called being a locavore.
I'm not lying when I say the wines were absolutely delicious! Granted I'm not a wine snob so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm still a Californian who drinks almost exclusively California wine. And you know... California wine is pretty good. It's kind of a "thing" here.
And NO I'm not pregnant in this picture! I'm going to blame any bloat on the humidity. Nevermind that no one else looks pregnant or bloated.
That night I went on my first feral hog hunt. Can you see the nervousness in my face? I would like to have a pig for a pet one day. But I also love pork chops and bacon. Well it turns out that feral hogs are very destructive in this part of Texas and they make good eating, soooo...
I was initially set up to shoot one out to about where that white tree stands, if one were to happen by. That's where we were expecting the hogs to come in. There was a feeder nearby, but it never went off.
Sitting in the "ready" position for hours will pump you full of adrenaline that has nowhere to go! Except into that bolt-action rifle when the time is right.
Did I mention that there were mud dauber wasps nesting next to my open window? I know they're supposedly harmless, but they would flit just in and out of the window next to my face the whole time we were in the blind, providing a bit of distraction from the mosquitoes that were biting us all.
I tried not to think about Zika.
And if I wasn't ready to capitalize on an unsuspecting hog, it would seem that Hanuman was. I think you could caption this photo, "trigger happy."
We started to see a lot of feral hog action on a side road instead, so I turned by attention out that way. We also saw a fox, and a good number of deer. When I finally got what I would consider a good shoulder shot on a large grey hog at about 75 yards, there happened to be a doe standing behind the hog maybe 20 yards back and to the left. I lined up my shot perfectly and pulled the trigger. Well if you don't know how a Browning X-Bolt 270 fires, be aware that it is very smoky - when the smoke cleared I thought I'd be looking at a downed hog. Instead, after much tracking, it was apparent that I had missed it completely.
Now I had sighted my rifle in and had tight groupings, so the rifle was not to blame and neither was my aim. Was it nerves? The doe standing in the distance but within sight? My feeling is YES to both. But I'd rather come out of a hunt with a complete miss than an injured animal, so off we went for the evening.
The next morning was Day Two of teal hunting, and we awoke nice and early again but rode out to a different spot. We had more hunters this day, and an extra guide - Andrew of Pierce Ranch - and he was delightful company with expert knowledge in duck calling and bird identification! He also had a great sense of humor that made this my very favorite hunt of the whole trip.
Me and Andrew. He was also shooting a Benelli, but a 12-gauge, and helped me figure out a little field problem I was having with my gun. Rest assured, Benelli users: the problem was my user error, not my Benelli! I have fallen in love with my shotgun all over again.
Our "blind." Kinda rethinking the blue waders right about now since they don't camo too well.
We've never watched Duck Dynasty. Would we like it? I feel like if it's anything like this teal hunt than yes we would.
Here's Russ and Bella racing in under some light gunfire high overhead. I wish I were joking about that, but his face tells you I'm telling the truth. Just know that *I* would not and did not fire a gun at any time while a person or dog was out in front of me. That should be common knowledge, but Russ kind of seemed to expect it.
Photo credit: Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due | Instagram
Russ, Bella, and Andrew confirming that we'd all reached our daily bag limits.
Bella and her quarry. This dog makes you want a bird dog or two SO BAD. These breeds really showcase what humans have been able to do with selective breeding, and how hard-working and dedicated these animals are.
Packing up after an eventful morning.
Our group: Jesse, John, Noel, Debbie, Me, Hanuman, and Steve, with Andrew, Bella and Russ out in front.
Hanging out in the Polaris checking emails. No! I was disconnected from most modern "devices" for most of the weekend and it was divine. I was actually listening to Debbie tell hunting stories. Hunting stories are like diving stories to me: I can never get enough!
Riding out. You can cram 6 people into this thing, and the only slight danger is falling out or tipping over. It's no accident that I'm squarely in the middle in the back. I might have packed myself into a box in the steerage compartment if it weren't frowned upon, so strong is my phobia of ATVs.
What are the rollover stats on this thing? The ground is not very level in most places.
When in Texas? Beer always tastes better when it's cold, you're hot, and you're pumped full of adrenaline and feeling lucky to be alive.
Our waders hung up to dry in the mudroom. I hope they counted on this room actually getting muddy because it got kind of trashed by our stuff.
Also, there was an ammo room. There was some 20-gauge steel shot in here that I used instead of lead shot shells. California has banned lead in all shot shells even when not hunting near water, and I have to say that while it increases the cost of the ammo, I do appreciate it. Filling your food and its environment with lead pellets is just a bad idea all the way around. So while you can use lead in Texas still to hunt dove, I used steel anyway. Thanks to Jesse for that.
After getting back from our second day of teal hunting we had tortilla soup, made with duck meat from the day before. Cute pic because of the duck figurines, but kind of a terrible representation of the duck component in this soup. The Californian who took this picture clearly placed more emphasis on the avocado on top of the soup than on the protein featured below! It wasn't me, so that kind of narrows it down. Also, that beer is not at all local.
After lunch was a class on big-game skinning and butchering, with a sausage-making class as well. Since I didn't catch us a hog the night before like I was supposed to, we relied on the crazy cowboy and former bull rider (not kidding) named Jody who caught a hog the night before. We called this hog "Stunt Double," and he was to be the basis for all of our education as well as an incredible number of upcoming meals.
Skinning a boar is not as hard as it sounds. Once the animal has been gutted, there's actually not much blood at all, especially between the skin and the subcutaneous fat.
Even the old man got in on this!
He's got what appears to be a good commanding form here. I will spare you what happened next beyond mentioning that the word "trachea" was spoken.
And now down to the meat. This butchering class helped me make sense of all those cuts I buy at the store, and also helped me understand why they taste so different from one another.
Look at these tenderloins! They are bathing in a marinade after being expertly tied up by Jesse.
Check out the videos, here. Don't complain to me about how incomplete they may be - it's hard work keeping a GoPro charged and ready for classes as lengthy as this!
We did have a bit of a break before sausage-making class. We had been swimming in the pool every day even in the rain, but on this day, the sun was shining. Pierce Ranch is just beautiful!
And now for the sausage-making. I would include more video except for the fact that it was really very simple: add the chunks of meat you will be grinding to the grinder with salt and pepper, put that ground meat into the casing machine and carefully inject the casings with the ground meat, and then twist off the ends. The sausage should sit refrigerated for several days to "dry out."
Why is there even a saying about not watching how sausage is made? I thought it was awesome and it made me hungry... of course, that's what good fresh ingredients will do. And a kind and supportive teacher who is so generous with his knowledge.
Next we rode out for our second hog hunt. We passed a ton of these cattle every time we rode out anywhere. Pierce Ranch plays host to cattle farmers and also cotton fields on some of its 36,000 acres of property.
Set up in the blind again. This time, Hanuman would get to take the first shot.
The feeder failed to go off again, so again we stalked, and waited.
A nice photo of a passing buck. Maybe you can see how I might've had a tough time making that shot on my boar with one of these in the near distance. Beautiful... distracting... and yet I can also grasp the allure of hunting them. These were off limits to us at this time, though.
And then, one of the cattle came in. This one messed with us for the rest of the night. She just wouldn't leave, and possibly discouraged any other hogs from coming through. We named her Bessie.
Jesse got out of the blind and tried to shoo her away several times. It was hilariously similar to a Mexican standoff. Except Bessie pretty much won the standoff. And we were skunked again - Hanuman didn't even get to take a shot!
When we got back, Noel gifted me this beautiful boar's-tooth necklace, which could've represented victory in the hunt OR "the one that got away." It was The One That Got Away, and I'm okay with that. For now.
Did I mention that everything we ate on this adventure was comprised of wild game? Well this night would be Wild Boar Night. Maybe you're been told that wild game is "gamey" and that wild boar, in particular, is "inedible." Well that really couldn't be further from the truth.
I present: our Stunt Double hog made into ribs, shish-kebabs, sausage, and pork chops. Not pictured: the carne asada tacos we had the next day, the pork tenderloin, or the brisket sandwiches we had on the boat for First Lunch on Monday.
The pork chops.
Also, an apple tart with simple whipped cream. The whole meal was one of those succulent feasts that you know you will remember your whole life.
The final day of our adventure centered around bay fishing. I was pretty excited to try this out since fishing is probably the most easily-accessible hunting one can do, especially here in California - and for sure at our beautiful local Lake Poway, which is stocked on the regular with trout, bass, and catfish depending on the season.
So the only animal I ever really "harvested" in my youth was a single fish on a deep-sea fishing field trip, around age 12. I was so proud to have caught one, but still struggled a bit with the concept of keeping it instead of setting it free.
Me around age 12 after my deep-sea fishing adventure
Did anyone ever tell you that "fish don't have feelings?" It's pretty ridiculous when you think about it, but that's what I believed back then because that's what the adults told me. I also kinda wanted to believe that, since I had caught one, thereby killing it. Thank God it's now settled science that fish do have feelings, and can form personal relationships and use tools and solve problems. But most fishing today is still carried out in the most barbaric way possible.
It's ironic that people demonize the relatively quick, humane death of a hunted terrestrial animal while okaying the torturous suffocation of millions of fish every day.
Me learning to cast. The guy who took us out just showed me once and that was it. He was good at changing up the spots we were fishing from, though. And he was good at helping us take any caught fish off the hook and either throwing them back to the sea (if they were too small) or into the cooler.
Confession: it nearly killed me when he put that first fish in the cooler, which happened to be a sand trout (I believe) that Hanuman caught. I could hear it banging around in there but I was worried about offending our captain if I were to ask to put the fish out of its misery, because this guy had literally written a book on trout fishing. How was I going to ask him to let me kill the fish quickly instead of letting them flop around in there, when that was all he'd been doing with fish his whole life?
I recalled my lesson from my Spearfishing Instructor John Dornellas on a humane brain jab when you harvest a fish in the ocean. It's about humanely putting the fish out of it's misery... and also about stopping the fish from wriggling, thereby sending out signals to other predators that there is a wounded fish nearby.
I decided to ask the captain to practice on those fish.
He was confused, but agreed. He was actually so taken aback by my request that he asked if he could take a photo of me doing it, no doubt to send to his fishing buddies with lots of LOLs attached. I know being a woman from California - especially one who wants to put all the fish out of their misery - sounds nuts! But you read What a Fish Knows and tell me it doesn't change your life and how you view these intelligent creatures. I will never let a fish suffer on my watch and I'm not going to apologize for it.
The perfect "kill shot" to humanely kill a fish right away, taken in my Spearfishing class
This was a beautiful Speckled Trout. Apparently the ocean variety have much harder scales than freshwater trout, but a similar sweet taste. It affects your expectations when you cut into it to filet it, though.
Here's a sampling of some of our catch. The long, skinny eel-like one was to be used to make a fish sauce because it was not a traditional "eating fish," though when we tried its raw flesh sashimi-style it was really good! Left to right are sand trout, speckled trout, sheepshead, the long eelfish, a blue crab, and a croaker.
Photo credit: Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due | Instagram
We filleted the trout and shelled the crab for soup, serving the croaker as filets for dinner. The scraps went into this pot for fish stock.
Before dinner we were playing in the pool with bird dogs Ranger and Dot.
See their antics here:
Behold, the soup! A delicious corn and potato chowder featuring crab and trout. With beauties Noel and Debbie laughing it up in the background. And some kind of delicious Texas wine being served.
I kept making this for myself: a Maker's Mark Old Fashioned with muddled bourbon-soaked cherries in the bottom.
Our last supper.
Ending on a sweet note: a poppy lemon cake with these Texas berries... not raspberries or blueberries though. The empty wine glass might be why I can't remember the berry!
Thanks for looking, and happy hunting and cooking!