Gretchen McKay

Into the woods: recipes for deer hunters

Illustration by Daniel Marsula/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Donny Zarra has headed to deer camp two or three days after Thanksgiving for as long as he can remember — more than 30 years in all, at cabins and with groups both large and small in Centre, Crawford and Forest counties.

“I think I was born with a bow in my hand,” quips the Brentwood resident, who throughout the season also hunts rabbit, pheasant, grouse and other small game with Duke vom Buffeltaler, his champion Deutch Drahthaar hunting dog.

With his father, Johnny, and younger brother, John, Mr. Zarra will head to the family’s camp in Tionesta once again this weekend. Monday, Dec. 1, marks opening day of Pennsylvania’s firearms deer season and heaven forbid the men miss a single minute of the festivities. The single busiest day of the hunting season, it’s like Christmas morning for the estimated 950,000 sportsmen who will take to the woods in hopes of bagging a prize doe or buck.

“It’s a tradition, like a national holiday,” says Mr. Zarra. Then again, he works as a professional hunting guide when he’s not helping out at Zarra’s, the old-school Italian restaurant his father opened in North Oakland in 2000, in the space where he used to run the Electric Banana rock club.

An early start + a long day in the woods walking + the possibility of having to drag a 100-plus-pound deer through the woods = some very hungry orange-vested men and women. (That’s right, girls hunt, too. In fact, women are the fastest growing segment of the hunting and shooting community, counting today for as much as 11 percent of all hunters.) So guns, ammunition and insulated boots aren’t the only essentials the Zarras will load into the back of their truck for the weekend.

The men also will pack massive amounts of food. Enough to feed a small army.

Homemade meatballs, a big pot of chili, a selection of imported Italian cheeses and several sticks of house-made sopressata and other dry-aged salumi are just the delicious start. Also making the trip will be fixins for his mother, Judy’s, garlicky beans and greens and Crafton hunting buddy J. R. Williams’ Salsa Picante, a spicy pasta dish that marries sauteed fresh peppers with wild mushrooms,onions and meatballs or sausage.

Dried meats and imported cheese are hunting camp staples. Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Oh, and good coffee to wash down the hot, hearty breakfast they’ll chow down on before heading out into the woods well before daylight.

And good bourbon to warm up frozen fingers and toes upon their return.

“You have to eat good because you suffer in the woods,” says Mr. Zarra, 42, who likes to be in his tree stand an hour before sunrise.

If you didn’t grow up in a family where deer hunting is a way of life, you might be thinking, “They own an Italian restaurant. Of course it’s all about the food.” You’d only be partly right.

For most hunters, good food is as much an expectation at deer camp as bringing home a year’s supply of venison and a eight-point rack. Hunting can be a pretty physical activity, after all, and the days can be quite long. The typical sportsman/woman might hike miles through Pennsylvania’s hilly terrain in his/her quest for the perfect shooting location or as part of a deer drive; there’s also a lot of lifting, bending, stretching, twisting and turning. (To ward off heart attacks along with sore joints and muscles, some states offer “couch to deer hunting” fitness programs.) And if the hunter is successful, he or she has to drag the field-dressed deer back out to the car.

“When they get out of that cold, they’re like wolves, they’re so hungry,” says Johnny Zarra, who has more than 40 years of deer hunting under his belt but these days is perfectly content to remain at camp while everyone else is hunting so he can serve as resident chef.

“We’re ready to eat, for sure,” Donny Zarra agrees.

Also, guys tend to eat a lot when they get together. Especially if playing cards and drinking beer — two favorite post-hunt deer camp activities — are involved.

Donny Zarra, with his mother, Judy, and father, John. Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With opening day coming a mere four days after Thanksgiving, plenty of leftover turkey and candied sweet potatoes will make their way into deer-camp kitchens. Venison meat products from previous hunts — sausage, roasts, steaks and jerky — also are extremely popular.

Eric Schumann, a lawyer with Tucker Arensberg, has a nice stash of spicy deer sausage in his Ross freezer that will make the trip with him to a friend’s farm near Moraine State Park at the start of the rifle season and then to a camp at Ross Mountain north of Ligonier at the end.

“It’s like andouille,” says Mr. Schumann, a Langley High School grad who started hunting in college.

His wife, Annette, also will cook up a big batch of spicy chipotle meatballs, while an Italian friend from Cleveland, Jim Arcuri, will bring a selection of meats and cheeses, as well as something to make for dinner in a slow cooker after a lunch of cold cuts, such as his legendary “camp sauce” stew.

One favorite camp dish is a hunter’s version of bulgogi: deer tenderloin or backstrap marinated insoy sauce, olive oil, brown sugar and red wine and then quickly grilled until just cooked through. “People can’t even tell it’s venison,” Mr. Schumann says.

For Farmington’s Ben Moyer, a freelance writer who specializes in nature and the outdoors, deer camp means hauling out the Dutch oven or propane stove for any number of hearty meals cooked under the sun or stars. Kielbasa-and-sauerkraut is a particular favorite, along with pot roast or chili.

In the past, meals were much more elaborate — homemade pot pie, perhaps, or a buttery stroganoff made with a previous year’s venison. “But we’ve gotten away from that,” opting instead for sandwiches while out in the woods and an easy hot dish that can be quickly thrown together for dinner in his crude campsite. (Not wanting company, he declines to give an exact location.) He will, however, bring his famed homemade salsa, which he puts up every summer with veggies grown in his garden.

He shares Mr. Schumann’s enthusiasm for deer tenderloin – so much so, that on several occasions after bagging a deer, he’s cut the highly prized morsels out of the abdominal cavity on the spot, using a pen knife, and cooked it on a stick right in the woods.

“You take some salt, make a pot of tea … it’s a ritual,” Mr. Moyer says.

And if you’re the one who has to prepare meals to send into the woods with your hunter? Here are some general observations about food at deer camp:

It has to be hearty — and hot. After freezing your buns in a chilly tree stand all day, a salad just won’t do. Unless, of course, it is smothered in steak.

Speaking of which, the more meat, the better. And don’t forget cheese and crackers, or in Mr. Zarra’s case, a loaf or two of his wife, Jamie’s, homemade bread.

Meals have to be easy to prepare (not a lot of ingredients or require multiple pots/pans) and quick to get on the table. Think stir-fry and one-pot dishes, eggs and omelets, pre-made casseroles or stews that just require reheating and anything in a crock pot.

Don’t forget about fixins for a “real breakfast.” No one wants to fight off hunger pangs when he has to sit absolutely still for hours on end. Alternatively, scout out one of the many pre-dawn pancake breakfasts put on as fundraisers at churches and volunteer firehalls,

Pack dessert. It doesn’t have to fancy – ice cream, a store-bought pie or even a plate of brownies will do. Sweet dreams lead to even sweeter hunting the next morning.

Beans and Greens

Zarra’s Beans and Greens. Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PG tested

2 ounces extra-virgin olive oil

Heaping tablespoon minced garlic

Pinch hot red pepper flakes

3 to 4 good handfuls fresh spinach

15-ounce can cannellini beans (can substitute navy beans

Bring oil to a sizzle in a cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add garlic and pepper flakes and cook, stirring often, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add greens and cook, tossing often, until wilted and bright green, 3 to 4 minutes. Add beans and toss gently to mix and warm through. Season with salt and pepper and serve in a bowl.

Serves 1 hungry hunter.

— Donny Zarra, Brentwood

Hearty Camp Sauce (Stew)

2 pounds deer steak or beef top round (or a combo thereof), cut into 1-inch cubes

4 cups of tomato sauce (preferably homemade, but canned is OK)

1 packet of onion-soup mix

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic or red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 carrot, cut diagonally into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 medium onion, chopped

Before heading to camp, combine in a resealable plastic bag the meat, oregano, basil, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper, and shake. Then add oil and vinegar to the bag for a marinade and of course keep cold (Jim says you can also just use a 1/4 cup of your favorite Italian salad dressing if you don’t want to do everything from scratch). Keep the pepper, carrot and onions in a separate resealable bag.

The next day (or 2) at camp before you head out for a day in the woods, combine the tomato sauce, onion soup mix, bell pepper, carrot, onion and the marinated meat in a crock pot and cook for 7 to 8 hours on low. If you like, add 6 to 8 medium potatoes cut into chunks to cook with sauce and just serve as a stew with crusty Italian bread.

Serve over your favorite pasta.

— Jim Arcuri, Cleveland

Braised Basque Chicken

PG tested

So easy. And so delicious served with crusty bread and a green side salad.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

10 chicken thighs, skin removed

1½ teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 medium onions, cut into half rounds

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 medium red bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 cup chicken broth

4 ounces Spanish chorizo or sopressata, cut into 1/2-inch dice

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken evenly with salt and pepper.

Add chicken to skillet and brown on all sides. Transfer browned meat to insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker. Add onions, garlic, bell peppers, paprika and thyme to skillet and saute until vegetables are softened, 7 to 8 minutes.

Deglaze pan with vinegar and broth, scraping up any browned bit from bottom of skillet. Transfer contents of skillet to slow-cooker insert. Add chorizo and stir to combine. Cover and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours, until chicken is tender and cooked through.

Skim off any fat from top of sauce and serve stew from cooker set on warm.

Serves 8.

— “Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Every” by Diane Phillips (Chronicle, $24.95)

Chipotle Venison Meatballs

4 slices raw bacon (or 5 slices if thin-sliced), chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced (one separated from the others)

2 large eggs

1/2 cup dried bread crumbs

1½ pound ground venison

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup total chopped parsley, cilantro and/or mint (whatever’s on hand)

28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 or 2 small cans chipotle en adobo, with sauce

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Combine bacon, 1 minced clove of garlic, eggs, bread crumbs, venison, salt, chopped herbs in a bowl. Mix by hand, and then form about 16 meatballs, the size of small plums. Spread the meatballs around a glass baking dish lightly sprayed with vegetable oil, and bake until browned, about 15 minutes.

While the meatballs are baking, mix the tomatoes, chipotle peppers (with the sauce), dried oregano and remaining 2 minced cloves garlic in blender or food processor, and puree. When the meatballs are browned, pour the sauce over them, and return to oven to bake until sauce is thickened, about 15 minutes more.

— Annette Schumann, Ross

Venison Bulgogi

2½ pounds venison steaks, trimmed of all fat and silver skin, cut into 1- to 2-inch medallions and lightly pounded to tenderize

4 scallions, white and green parts, chopped (reserve 1 chopped green part of scallion for serving)

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1-inch piece ginger, peeled and thinly sliced against grain and chopped

1/4 cup light brown sugar

4 tablespoons sesame seeds, lightly toasted in dry frying pan (reserve 2 tablespoons for serving)

1/3 cup sesame oil (I use dark)

3/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons sriracha hot sauce

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Combine all marinade ingredients in blender or food processor and puree. Pour marinade over venison in large resealable plastic bag and marinate at least 1 hour.

Put venison on wooden skewers, and grill directly over heat, turning once or twice until just cooked through — just a few minutes each side. Place on serving plate, and sprinkle with reserved chopped green scallions and toasted sesame seeds.

— Eric Schumann, Ross

A week in California wine country

LIVERMORE, Calif. — Much as I cook and write about food for this section, I’m pretty much at a loss when it comes to figuring out a good glass of wine to serve with it. My main criteria when perusing the shelves at my local wine store is whether or not I like the label. Plus, I’m cheap.

I know I’m not alone. With so many different vintages, varietals and weird terminology — how can something taste “flabby?” — the mysterious world of wine can be really intimating to a lot of us.

I was the perfect candidate then, for one of six 2014 Legacy Awards offered this spring by Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international society of women working in food, fine beverage and hospitality. The winner of this “wine experience” would spend a hands-on week learning all she could about turning grapes into wine at one of the country’s oldest and best-known familywineries — Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Calif. Talk about a life-changing experience!

The best way to learn was to get my hands dirty during the harvest. My visit, then, fell during the last week of September, which gave me plenty of time to try to bone up so I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot when I met fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente.  But you know how things go. The thick “World Atlas of Wine” PG wine writer Libby Downer graciously loaned me sat pretty much uncracked in my living room until the night before I was to meet her for lunch to discuss it. My bad. I gave myself away when I guessed, incorrectly, that rose was a mixture of red and white wines.

With only about 50 (mostly mom-and-pop) wineries, Livermore Valley just east of San Francisco doesn’t have the cachet — or money — of nearby Napa. Still, much of California’sChardonnay originated with what’s known as the “Wente clone,” which came from cuttings imported from Montpellier, France, in 1912 by founder Carl H. Wente, a German immigrant who purchased 47 acres of vineyard land in the 1880s. The vineyard today counts more than 2,800 acres of grapes, along with a couple hundred head of Black Angus cattle.

Along with following the grapes’ path from the vineyard to the winery, I’d be doing plenty of grunt work: working the sorting line, shoveling pomice, punching down “caps” of grape skins, and washing and filling barrels. I’d also get to spend some time in Wente’s 1/2-acre organic garden with Master Gardener Diane Dovholuk and watch as executive chef Matt Greco fine-tuned dishes for an upcoming dinner at the Beard House in New York City.

And did I mention wine tastings? Lots and lots of wine tasting, plus a wine aroma seminar in which I’d put my nose to the test and learn to identify naturally occurring aromas such as herbs, fruits and spices. There’d also be more than a few good meals, starting with a welcome dinner that included Chef Greco’s signature dish — house-made lamb pastrami served with pickled onion on rye crisps.

“Wear grubbies and closed-toe shoes while working in the winery or the vineyards,” read an email from Julie Orr, Wente’s national accounts coordinator. Good advice, because at 7 my first morning, I was in tramping through vineyards heavy with ripe, sweet-smelling Cabernet Sauvignon and Orange Muscat grapes with 22-year-old Niki Wente, one of three members of the sixth generation.

A viticulturalist, her job is to sample grape clusters before harvest to crush and test for the Brix(sugar) and acid levels. After gathering the fruit in  plastic bags, we headed back to the “sugar shack.” After squeezing the grapes to release their juices and placing a few drops of liquid into arefractometer, she looked through the eye piece to read the scale.

“But these are just baselines,” she told me, as trucks rattled by carrying huge containers of grapes to the presses. “It’s Karl’s vineyard and he knows when he wants to pick his fruit.”

Over the next few days, I got to see all phases of wine production — how grapes are fed into giant hoppers to be crushed, destemmed (red only) and pumped into tanks for fermentation.  I also spent several happy hours with small lot winemaker Claude Bobba, who with his long hair and gentle demeanor reminded me very much of guitarist David Crosby, only so much cooler.

A self-taught wine expert, Claude took me into the barrel room to listen to the “scream” ofcarbon dioxide escaping and taught me how to take a whiff of fermenting wine to check for off-putting smells without burning my nose (you wave it to your face with your hands). With purple-stained hands, he also showed me how to shovel pomace (the solid remains of grapes after pressing) from a 12-foot-tall fermentation tank and when I finished, put me on the sorting table for an exhausting hour. All the earwigs rolling by on the conveyor belt grossed me out, but no way I was picking them out with the errant /eaves!

When I marveled over the science involved in wine making, not to mention the farming skills — vines need good soil and just the right amount of spacing, sun and water — he didn’t disagree.

“Every year is different,” he told me. “It’s mythic. You’re chasing the elusive butterfly.”

But experiences like mine, he added, help to demystify the process.

Getting my hands dirty in the garden with Diane Dovholuk was an equally pleasurable experience.

The New Hampshire native started her career at Wente in the 1980s as a server, but clearly was destined for something bigger. After completing the Master Gardeners’ Program in Alameda County in 1997,  she persuaded management to allow her to plant a 200-square-foot herb garden in the restaurant’s front yard. Such was her green thumb that five years ago she asked for — and got — a small, defunct vineyard in the back of the property to plant a restaurant garden. It’s been her life’s work and labor of love ever since.

The garden is incredibly diverse for how small it is: more than 60 beds ranging from 20 to 110 feet hold everything from squash, ground cherries, corn, eggplant, melons, peppers and 48 varieties of tomatoes to a wide variety of herbs and greens; most seeds are started in a 30-by-16-foot hoop house near the gate. Under her watchful eye, I got to plant a few rows of microgreens and also shelled countless kernels of red flint corn (and had the blisters to prove it), which she ground into a fine, pinkish meal for polenta.

More fun was watching her go after bagrada bugs feasting on her ’Red Russian’ kale with a blow torch. She’d rather have scorched earth than allow the invasive stink bug-like pests — they just popped up this year — to devastate her beloved leafy greens.

“No way, no how,” she said.

After a week in wine country, that pretty much sums up how I feel about my previous wine choices. No way, no how am I ever going to drink cheap wine again. And no way, no how am I going to complain about paying more for a bottle of good, estate wine crafted by the likes of Claude Bobba.