Smoke wafted from the doorways of canvas wall tents as volunteer wait staff in western shirts bustled to place wine glasses on dinner tables. Flames licked mule deer haunches suspended from chains over an open pit.
Anchored around a rustic barn just steps away from the Clark Fork River near Clinton, the sprawling venue offered 360-degree views of the surrounding Sapphire Mountains.
Such was the scene in April at the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers' second annual Field to Table dinner -- a five-course soiree that's part conservation fundraiser, part showcase of wild fare during the group's yearly Rendezvous in Missoula.
“It looks pretty western,” laughed Ryan Busse as he pumped water into a bucket in preparation for the course he’d volunteered to prepare: Partridge Apple Sage Fricassee. “It’s challenging and a ton of work. It looks disorganized and like an actual hunting camp, but it’s a five-star meal that’s pulled off with rustic materials and supplies and open flames.”
The mule deer haunches were a case in point. Earlier, the meat had been rendered in bear fat and rubbed with apple cider and homemade ramp vinegar, a concoction chef Lukas Leaf had brought with him from Minnesota.
“The coolest thing,” says Busse, “Is when people hear ‘wild game feed’ they expect potluck or somebody bringing in tough old antelope from the bottom of somebody’s deep freezer. We give them a world-class meal that nobody sees coming.”
BHA launched its Field to Table dinner in 2016 to more fully recognize the total connection between wild places and wild food. “We wanted to celebrate wild food in a unique setting with great presentation,” explains Busse, who is headed for his third year as chairman of BHA’s Board of Directors.
An avid sportsman, Busse’s day job is running the sales department for Kimber Firearms in Kalispell, where he lives with his wife Sara and their two young sons. About nine years ago, Busse began feeding his family exclusively from items he’d hunted, fished or foraged. The couple loves to entertain and regularly throws large dinner parties, so Busse is accustomed to cooking for big groups. “Sara’s the meal planner, and I’m the cook,” he laughs. For his wife’s recent 40th birthday, Ryan whipped up Elk Vindaloo for 40 guests.
Four other BHA members joined Busse in planning and preparing this year’s Field to Table feast: Cholly McGlynn (Executive Chef at Vista Verde Guest Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colorado); Lukas Leaf of Minnesota (former Executive Chef at Al Vento restaurant in South Minneapolis and current Sporting Outreach Coordinator for Sportsmen for Boundary Waters); Idaho chef and food writer Randy King (author of Chef in the Wild: Recipes and Reflections of a True Wilderness Chef); and J.R. Young (Treasurer of BHA’s California Board and avid forager, hunter, and canner).
Tickets were $500 per couple and $300 for individuals and included wine and beer pairings with each course as well as signature cocktails from Spotted Bear Spirits in Whitefish and Glacier Distilling in Coram. All seventy-two tickets went fast. “Our guests pay a lot of money for these tickets. We take cooking for it very seriously,” says Busse.
Courses included Moose Consommé with Wild Mushroom Flan and Braised Venison Osso Bucco with Bighorn Risotto and Gremolata, among others. Chef King also prepared two appetizers: Antelope Kafta and Elk Heart Carpaccio.
“We settle on the dishes four to five months before the event,” says Busse. The morels topping the Moose Consommé were picked by local BHA members in nearby burn areas; the venison used in the osso bucco was a conglomeration of moose, elk, mule deer, and white tail deer procured from various members. BHA President and CEO Land Tawney harvested the bighorn sheep Chef Leaf used in his Bighorn Risotto just south of the fire pit it was roasted on in the Rock Creek drainage.
“We cook the dish over and over again in our heads before we actually prepare it on site,” says Busse.
Unforeseen variables pop up, but that’s part of the fun. “I get pretty bored pretty fast when I have too much control,” says Busse. He welcomes the challenge of not being able to fine-tune stove and water temperatures, or even consistent characteristics of meat. (He harvested all of the partridges for his entrée himself; some birds were young, some were old; some were from dry areas, some came from grasslands with more moisture.) All these chefs thrive in the think-on-your-feet environment, where split-second problem solving is necessary, similar to the environment on shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef.
Busse and the other chefs agree that the best thing about hunting and fishing is sharing the bounty. “It mattered five thousand years ago; it was required for the group’s survival, and it’s just as important now.”
Partridge in Apple Sage Fricassee
with Herbed Panisse
by Ryan Busse
A fricassee is a traditional French single-pot dish. Today we would call it "comfort food." A good fricassee should should hold all ingredients in a silky smooth white sauce that is not quite thick but not quite soup. Just thin enough to be mopped up by the panisse or other starch. It is equally as good over rice, mashed potatoes or pasta.
2 cups chickpea flour
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
4 Tbs olive oil, plus more for frying.
Mix dried ingredients and add oil and enough water to make a batter with the consistency of a thick paste a bit thicker than normal pancake batter.
Let set for 20 minutes
Heat a skillet over medium-low heat and add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Make small, 3” sized pancakes with the batter. Flip. When cooked, cover panisses and keep warm in foil.
1/2-3/4 lb. of partridge (or other wild game bird), cleaned and cut into bite-sized strips, approx. 2” long
3 cups heavy cream, divided
1 c flour
2 Tbs granulated garlic
2 Tbs salt
1 tsp pepper
1 Tbs sweet paprika
1/2 cup avocado oil or other high-heat frying oil
1 c each, finely diced onion, carrot and celery
1 cup brandy
1 cup stock, either homemade from game birds or chicken stock
2 Tbs butter
5 large egg yolks
2 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and diced
1/2 cup fresh sage coarsely diced
Place partridge in large a plastic bag with 1/2 cup cream to coat. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 8 hours.
Place flour, garlic, salt, pepper and paprika in a shallow dish. Dredge each piece of partridge in flour mixture, shaking off excess.
Heat 1/4 cup of oil over medium-high heat in a large deep skillet until shimmering. Fry partridge in batches until just done, 7-9 minutes, flipping once. Set aside on a paper towel lined plate. Over-cooking will lead to dry meat.
Reduce heat and add onion, carrot and celery. Cooking until just tender, 5-8 minutes. Add brandy, stock and butter and reduce for 10-15 minutes.
For the sauce:
Add remaining cream (approximates 2 1/2 cups) and egg yolks to large bowl and whisk gently to combine.
After the vegetable and brandy mixture has reduced by 1/4, begin ladling the hot contents of the skillet into the cream and eggs 1/2 cup at a time. Repeat this until the sauce is just warm. Once warmed, add all back into the skillet. Continue to cook over low-medium heat just until the sauce has thickened, 10-15 minutes. (This liaison method of warming the cream and eggs ensures that the sauce will not clump or “break” – if you skip and add cold to the hot pan, it will break)
Scatter apples and sage over top of the sauce in the skillet and return the partridge on top, pressing gently into the sauce. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, or until warm.
To serve, spoon the fricassee over the warm panisse.