Holiday Shopping

I have previously discussed the peril of buying your special someone a high-end gift such as a fly rod or firearm

By Rob Breeding

It’s Christmas time. Some folks love the gift giving season, but it’s never been one of my strengths. During the course of the year I can usually come up with good ideas for gifts for those closest to me. The problem is that when it really counts — December — I can’t remember any of them.

It’s kind of like struggling to sit down to write. On Saturday night, when my brain cells are slightly lubricated at my favorite adult beverage emporium, I’m the wittiest, most insightful guy you’ve ever met. But come deadline during the week, those brilliant reflections on the meaning of life are apparently locked away in some inaccessible lump of brain cells.

So you’re stuck reading this instead.

I have previously discussed the peril of buying your special someone a high-end gift such as a fly rod or firearm. I approve of these gifts only when they are of the no-surprise variety. You let slip that a 6-weight Sage One would be the perfect Blackfeet Rez rod, and low and behold, there under the tree on Christmas Day is a long, tube shaped present with your name on it.

The best, safest gifts for hunter and angler types are cool kitchen gadgets for cooking up all the tasty food you bring home. I’m convinced that a sous vide water bath immersion cooker is a must have if you fill your freezer with game meat. I just cooked up some chukar breasts for dinner in my sous vide, and the light meat was juicy and tender, which can be a real trick with game meat using conventional cooking methods.

In a sous vide the food is cooked in sealed bags that are suspended in a water bath heated to the temperature for your desired level of doneness. Put a ribeye in a water bath, set it for 127 degrees or so, and in an hour you’ll have a medium rare steak. Leave it in there two hours and you’ll still have a medium rare steak. Three or four hours? Same result.

You can even leave it in the bath overnight and the steak will never cook beyond a perfect medium rare, though folks who test such things don’t recommend it because enzyme action will turn the meat mushy and leaving food in the bacterial “danger zone” (40 to 140 degrees) that long is risky.

Keep a preheated skillet handy. Put your favorite cast iron in the oven and heat it until it’s surface-of-the-sun hot. That way when you pop the meat out of the bag you can give it a quick sear. The Maillard reaction (browning) doesn’t happen until you get to about 300 degrees, so that perfectly cooked steak will look gray and unappetizing right out of the bag. The ultra hot skillet means you get browning without long sear times that might turn your medium rare to medium.

I haven’t killed an elk in years, but next time I get my hands on some back straps the butterflied steaks are going in the sous vide with that same scalding cast iron on stand by. I’d turn the cooker down to at least 125, or maybe even 120. Over cooking is the bane of game meat. You can dry out beef by cooking it until it’s well done, but it’s still edible, albeit stringy and tasteless. But game meat goes from just right to dog food in a half-dozen degrees or so. Temperature control is key.

Sous vide cookers are getting more affordable. Portable units like the one I have go for less than $200. These portables clamp onto the rim of a stock pot or one of those polycarbonite containers you can get at restaurant supply stores. The preferred method is to vacuum seal the meat for cooking, but I’ve had good results with zip lock freezer bags. You just need to remove all the air so the water bath makes good contact with the meat.

It isn’t all that complicated, but your dinner guests will never know. And that perfectly medium rare elk steak will convince them you’re a culinary god.