By Spencer Neuharth

There are plenty of reasons to pick wild game over traditional options when it comes to plugging protein into your diet. For starters, wild game has fewer calories, fewer chemicals and leaves less of a carbon footprint. Ultimately, relying more heavily on wild game for food means you get to hunt and fish more to make sure the freezer stays full.

However, it also means you have to prepare your food differently, completely changing the simplest of tasks, like grilling a hamburger or making a cold meat sandwich.

With 2017 upon us, my fiancé and I are working on a unique new year’s resolution. We no longer want to get our meat from a grocery store. And no, we’re not going vegetarian.

This is our journey through a wild-game year, complete with the recipes that we’ll use along the way.

Venison Osso Buco

Shank is an all-around condemning word. In football, it refers to a field goal or punt gone awry. In law, it refers to a handcrafted tool for stabbing. In anatomy, it refers to the area between the knee and ankle.

The anatomy term is especially damning when it comes to butchering a deer. Like I wrote about in the November 2016 issue of Outdoor Forum, the phrase “living high on the hog” has a very literal meaning. The higher up on an animal you go, the better the cut of meat. The further you get away from the backstraps, the worse the cut of meat. When it comes to shanks, you can’t migrate much farther south on an animal than that.

Shanks also get knocked for being a locomotive muscle. Unlike support muscles, such as the chuck roasts and tenderloins, shanks are constantly on the move. This tension on the muscle from everyday activities like escaping from predators or getting out of a bed leaves the meat with some undesirable qualities.

The shank of a whitetail is covered in silverskin and often barely even qualifies to make it in the grinding pile. It’s also layered with gristle and wrapped tightly around a thick bone, making it a true culinary challenge. For most, it gets turned into sausage or pitched to the dogs.

I wanted to change that with my 2016 harvests and decided to try a recipe that’s become very sexy in recent years. I’ve seen variations of this covered by Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and MeatEater, so I had to try it myself. Its newfound attention isn’t indicative of its history, though, which dates back hundreds of years.

Osso buco is Italian for “bone with a hole,” referring to the marrow center of this Flinstone-like cut of meat. It’s typically made with veal shanks, creating large steaks that are beautifully marbled.

The accompanying vegetables create mirepoix, which is the combination of onions, carrots and celery that are used to make stocks and sauces. Mirepoix is a French term that dates back to the 18th century, and the mix is part of the main ingredients with traditional osso buco.

The first records of osso buco call for cinnamon and mirepoix, while more modern recipes use tomato sauce and potatoes. This version is a combination of both, with venison replacing the veal.

The completed dish won’t let you down, even when it’s hard to live with the aroma that venison osso buco creates during its four-hour long cooking process. The shanks want to fall off the bone when you cut the butchers twine, and they are rid of the silverskin and gristle that haunt them when raw. The vegetables and tomato sauce are perfect complements for these unorthodox mini-roasts.

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook time: 4 hours

Difficulty: Moderate

Ingredients:

• 2 venison shanks

• 1 cup of flour

• 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil

• 1 onion

• 4 cloves of garlic

• 4 carrots

• 2 stalks of celery

• 16 ounces of chicken broth

• 14 ounces of crushed tomatoes

• salt and pepper

Directions:

1. Set the oven to 325 degrees.

2. Using a saw, cut the venison shanks into 2-inch pieces, leaving the bone attached.

3. Take butchers twine and wrap it around the shanks, ensuring the bone stays attached to the meat.

4. Mince the onion and garlic. Cut the carrots and celery into medium-sized pieces.

5. Over medium heat, add vegetable oil to a Dutch oven.

6. Dust the shanks with flour and add them to the Dutch oven.

7. Brown all sides of the shanks, cooking for only a couple minutes on each side. Set the shanks aside, but keep the vegetable oil.

8. Add the onion, garlic, carrots and celery to the Dutch oven. Cook for about 5 minutes.

9. Add the shanks back to the pot, laying them flat side down over the bed of vegetables.

10. Pour in crushed tomatoes, then add chicken broth. Pour in enough chicken broth so the liquid covers about three-quarters of the shanks.

11. Place in oven for 4 hours.

12. Serve right away, pouring the sauce and vegetables over the shanks.

Kentucky Fried Cottontail

My shotgun had a spoiled season, harvesting its own style of mirepoix that included ducks, geese, pheasants and a turkey. My rifle was equally satisfied, taking down a couple whitetail and an antelope. My bow, on the other hand, went through the 2016 season without taking a shot.

It wasn’t from a lack of effort, taking my Mathews Halon across the state to pursue antelope in September and keeping it involved in whitetail hunting all of October, November and December. With over 120 hours spent together, we couldn’t make it happen.

With the new year upon us, I could sense my bow and I growing apart. In an attempt to reconnect, I decided to take it rabbit hunting.

I headed to an abandoned farm yard that’s treated me well so many times before. My first steps across the crunchy snow sent a cottontail racing out from under a collapsed barn. Before I could even nock an arrow, the rabbit was gone. This sort of encounter is typical for rabbit hunting, but usually I’m able to quickly shoulder my 12-gauge to touch off a fleeting shot.

I realized I’d need to take a different approach if this was going to work. Instead of flushing them out of structure, I’d have to quietly stalk them. To implement this strategy, I headed to the overgrown shelterbelt nearby.

I entered the woods and found a trampled down game trail that was a cocktail of deer, pheasant, coon, squirrel and rabbit tracks. I hovered along it, hoping to spot gray hair against the white snow, which didn’t take long, as two more rabbits darted out of the shelterbelt to safety.

Over and over, my plan was foiled as bunnies snuck out of bow range or kept a tree branch between me and their vitals.

As I elbowed my way through the thick cedars, I felt like a three-legged coyote, handicapped in my quest of lunch. Just as that visualization crossed my mind, a cottontail hopped into my shooting lane and stopped on the game trail. It was a strangely easy opportunity, I thought, as I clipped my release. If I blew this shot, my bow and I would surely be done.

My bright-green pin settled on the rabbit and I punched the trigger, watching as my arrow disappeared into the cottontail’s vitals. The vertically gifted animal made a tall leap into the air and fell to the ground dead.

I proudly carried the rabbit back to my truck, thinking of the fried-chicken taste that would soon follow. While most like to drown their cottontails in cream of mushroom slop in a slow cooker, I prefer to serve them like we’re below the Mason-Dixon Line, and I’ll take this KFC over the other KFC any day.

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

• 2 cottontails, quartered

• 2 cups of buttermilk

• 2 cups of flour

• 2 cups of vegetable oil

• 2 tablespoons of Italian seasoning

• 1 tablespoon of garlic powder

• 1 tablespoon of black pepper

• 1 tablespoon of salt

• ½ tablespoon of creole seasoning

Directions:

1. Cut the rabbit up into six main pieces: two front quarters, two back quarters and two loins. You can also save the belly meat for an appetizer.

2. Soak the rabbit in the buttermilk for 4 hours.

3. Over medium heat, add the oil to cast-iron skillet.

4. In a plastic bag, combine flour, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, black pepper, salt and creole seasoning. Adjust flour asneeded based on how much rabbit there is.

5. Remove the rabbit from the buttermilk and put it in the plastic bag.

6. Shake the plastic bag until all of the meat is evenly coated.

7. Remove rabbit from bag and let it sit for a couple minutes until the flour starts to feel pasty.

8. Place the rabbit in the skillet and fry for about 10 minutes on each side.

9. Let it sit on paper towel to remove excess oil before serving. Serve the backstraps to your favorite guest, or selfishly save them for yourself.

About the Author: Spencer Neuharth is a freelance outdoor writer from Menno, S.D. To see more of his writing and photography, go to boofcommunications.com.