Exotic Meat and Fowl Are Winning Choices for Health

I don’t know whether it qualifies as a trend, officially, but I’m noticing more game and exotic meats on restaurant menus. My husband sometimes orders boar or buffalo, and I know that many diners enjoy venison, pheasant, ostrich and even alligator. But now I’m seeing more evidence that these unusual choices are actually more healthful than conventional meats. I hope you agree that we should look into them…

All game available at restaurants has been raised on farms or ranches. Most of these animals are fed a fairly natural diet, free of the processed feed, antibiotics and hormones used in the industrial factory farms that provide most of America’s livestock. This alone would make the meat better for you than typical supermarket fare — but game meat is better for you in other ways, too. Exotic meats usually have much less fat than beef, lamb, chicken and turkey — and fewer calories, too. For example, seven ounces of buffalo (bison) meat has, on average, five grams of fat and nearly 300 calories, versus beef with almost 19 grams of fat and 425 calories… venison has about the same amount of fat as bison and even fewer calories. Venison and bison are high in iron and B vitamins.

How to Cook ’Em

Taste can be a barrier for many people, since these meats and fowl tend to have a far more intense flavor than the tamer meats that we’ve become used to. In part it will depend on where an animal is raised, says Karen Adler, author of The Everything Wild Game Cookbook and other game cookbooks. “These are creatures of the natural land,” she says. “Taste depends on the region of the country the animals live in and the foods they forage or are fed.”

Whatever the animal, how you cook it is critical to creating appealing flavor and texture. Since game meats have less fat, overcooking quickly dries them out — Adler advises serving them as rare as you can while still being safe. “Certainly don’t go past medium, because with so little fat, the meat will get tough,” she says.

To Cook Non-Fowl Game Meats…

Try slow cooking or stews. A Crock-Pot on low is a good way to prepare wild game because it retains juices and cooks slowly at a low heat. Here’s one recipe: Season a small roast with herbs, salt and pepper, along with one or two cups of beer or wine. Add chopped onion and garlic and, after the meat has cooked for several hours, add other chopped vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, turnips and celery. Continue cooking for another hour or two until the vegetables are done the way you like them.

  • Grilling is fine, and you can marinate the meat first if you want to tone down the gamey flavor (although Adler describes these meats — elk, in particular — as having a “wonderful, clean, red-meat taste”).
  • Roasting works well — however these meats should cook a long time at a very low temperature (even just 290°F). Adler likes to braise roasts with liquid in the pan, perhaps beef or chicken broth or wine, to keep the meat moist.

Game meats also can be ground and are delicious in dishes like tacos and chili, but Adler says not to stop with those. “Have fun with soups, pot pies, lasagna and rich ragout sauces,” she urges.

To Cook Game Fowl…

To Adler’s educated palate, pheasant is the most wonderful of all fowl to eat. She describes the taste as lean and mild and suggests preparing it the way you would a chicken — one pheasant is usually sufficient to serve four people. Adler likes to slice the breast into scallops (you can also pound it into paillards if you wish) and sauté with capers and white wine. It can be grilled, but keep the heat relatively low so the meat doesn’t get tough. Pheasant can also be roasted whole in the oven.

Adler also likes the delicate flavor of quail — they’re fed on grains and flower buds. Quail is small, so one bird typically serves just one person — you may need even two for big eaters. Adler’s favorite quail recipe: Dredge in seasoned pepper and sauté until lightly browned… add sautéed onions deglazed with white wine or vermouth, one can of mushroom soup and enough chicken broth or beef broth to almost cover. Simmer for an hour or two until the legs twist easily and the meat is tender.

Ostrich, another option (albeit an expensive one) is low in calories, and its taste has been described to me as being “halfway between beef and chicken.” Adler suggests grilling steaks quickly over a hot fire, pan-sautéeing over high heat or broiling — all to medium rare.

Where and How to Buy Game

You can buy game from some butchers and high-end supermarkets, but it will be farm-raised and fattier than wild. You also can buy farm-raised game in specialty stores and online — but be prepared, as these outlets charge a pretty penny. Buy only wild game that is USDA- or state-inspected (look for a seal or state license number on the packaging).