This game is best left to the experts

September 28, 1997|By Rob Kasper

I AM NOT A HUNTER; I'm more of a gatherer. Yet recently I found myself stretched out on the Barcalounger watching a video of a guy carving up a deer carcass. The guy was Milos Cihelka, a chef and a bow hunter. A guy who knows his top sirloin from his shoulder meat.

Top sirloin makes good deer steaks, which should be cooked quickly and served rare or medium rare. Shoulder meat is tough and should be used for slow-cooking dishes, like stew. And when you are carving up your deer, you should trim off your "silver skin," the filament that clings to some chunks of meat. Unless you are freezing the meat. In that case you keep the silver skin on, because it helps retain the moisture in the meat.

That is what Milos says. After watching him work, I am reluctant to argue with him, or with any guy who is that adept wielding a knife.

Milos lives and hunts in Michigan, outside Detroit. A native of Czechoslovakia, he came to the United States about 40 years ago. Now, at the age of 66, he is a master chef, one of 66 in the country. Four years ago he began working on a series of videos on how to clean and cook game.

In a telephone interview from the office of Wild Harvest Videos in Orchard Lake, Mich., Rita Chiappetta said the company ships many game videos to Maryland. The Mid-Atlantic region, she said, has many avid hunters. I am not one of them. But I am interested in exploring the habits of other Marylanders, especially if the exploration requires only that I pop a cassette in the VCR. On a recent morning, I stretched out in the family room of my city rowhouse and watched the video "Big Game Field to Table."

I watched Milos field-dress a deer. I watched Milos use a rope and the bumper of a slow-moving vehicle to skin the deer. Then I watched him transform the carcass into various cuts of deer meat.

I confess that I was fascinated as I watched him carve. It was like watching a master carpenter build a cabinet. His hands moved with certainty. His tools, a sharp knife and a boning saw, were simple, yet seemed powerful. The procedures seemed so easy that even separating the tail bone from the leg bone seemed like something I could try at home.

What I also found intriguing were the many answers Milos gave to the main question I have about deer meat. Namely, why does so much of it taste so disappointing?

Milos gave several answers, most boiling down to the fact that whoever handled the poor-tasting venison didn't know what he was doing.

It turns out that the flavor of deer meat can suffer if you don't remove all the deer innards correctly, if you don't trim off all its fat and if you mix up its parts while cooking. According to Milos, there are three types of meat found in a deer -- tender, semi-tender and tough. The tender parts, such as the top sirloin, should be cooked quickly and served rare. The semi-tender parts, such at the bottom round, should be served as roast and cooked only a medium amount of time, about 12 minutes per pound. And the tough parts, such as the shoulder and the neck, should be used as stew meat, and cooked for several hours.

He said that one of the disadvantages of sending a deer carcass to a commercial meat processor for butchering is that the processor is likely to slice the prized meat on the deer's rear legs "like a loaf of bread." This type of cut produces a chunk of meat that has three different textures -- tender, semi-tender and tough. As a result, whether you cook the meat quickly or slowly, parts of it will end up being chewy.

The solution, Milos said, is to carve the carcass yourself. Milos also said that another key to good flavor is aging the meat. Aging, he said, makes the deer meat tender and mellow. It made sense to me. That is usually the effect aging has on humans.

Although the video I saw made passing references to aging meat, Milos told me in a telephone interview that he had just finished working on a new video devoted exclusively to aging. (Information on this and other Wild Game Videos can be obtained by calling 800-819-3799.)

As Milos explained it, you can age deer meat by hanging the carcass from a rafter in your garage. The rafter has to be strong, and the garage has to be cool; 34-40 degrees is ideal. You let the deer hang there for two to three weeks, he said, and perhaps apply a mixture of vegetable oil and chili peppers as an insect repellent. If you find any evidence of insect infestation, you slice off the affected meat. In the aging process, the enzymes in the meat go to work, he said, improving the flavor. After the meat has aged, you carve it up and cook it.

After talking to Milos and watching the video, I came close to changing my habits. I thought about grabbing my bow and getting a deer to hang in my garage. Then reality set in. I don't have a bow. I don't have a garage. So I folded up the Barcalounger and shut off the VCR. I am still in search of good-tasting venison. But I'll confine my hunting to looking for deer meat on restaurant menus.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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