Harvest Kitchen Series: Smoked Elk Chili

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Like most readers, I’m not a master chef — just a guy who loves to hunt, fish and eat what he harvests. If success afield and family schedule allows, this series will highlight a new game or fish dish each month. I’ll cover all the details from take to table, and everyone will benefit with a collection of easy, everyday meals harvested from nature’s pantry and celebrated in the home kitchen.  

The Take

Riding by horseback into the James Bridger Wilderness Area in Wyoming’s Teton Mountain range was the trip of a lifetime for my father, Steve, who drew a coveted bull elk tag on his very first attempt. His good fortune continued the opening day of the October rifle season, when he and his guide located a herd of approximately 60 elk at 10,000 feet elevation.

Once the herd bull, a massive 6×7, turned broadside at 204 yards, he squeezed off a round from his Weatherby 300 WIN MAG, and watched as the elk ran off with his opposite leg tucked inward from the bullet’s impact.

After scouring the shaded hillside below, they located the giant 345-inch bull expired in a spruce thicket and realized the elk was the largest anyone had shot with the guide over the course of his 35-years in business.

The team went right to work quartering and deboning the animal, packing the meat into muslin bags and stacking it on a makeshift rack to cool over a section of unmelted snow. They covered the bags with evergreen boughs overnight and returned in the morning with pack horses to begin the prime elk meat’s long journey home to Pennsylvania.

The Prep

The first time I ever tasted smoked elk chili was at the former Woods Creek Grill, an amazing restaurant in Lebanon County that unfortunately closed several years ago. The place served a variety of game-themed dishes, my favorite of which being their signature chili.

I’ve tried for years to duplicate the deliciousness of that savory dish with ground venison versions from deer I’ve harvested over the years, but several gifted pounds of ground elk venison from my father’s Bridger-Tetons bull provided the perfect sample size for fine tuning the flavors to get it fairly close to the original.

I started by thawing a 1-pound bag of ground elk burger and placing it in a disposable aluminum pan. I sprinkled a little garlic powder, salt and black pepper over the meat and then placed it in my electric smoker. The pan of meat was smoked with hickory chips for several hours at 225 degrees F until the meat was thoroughly cooked through, and flavored with a good stir hallway through.

In a big stainless steel stock pot on the stove, a splash of olive oil and the fat from chopped bacon provided the frying base for diced onion, chopped bell and banana peppers from the garden and minced garlic. As soon as the vegetables became tender, a bottle of Yuengling Lager was poured in the loosen the bits.

Next, two tall cans of diced tomatoes, a bottle of chili sauce and a drained can each of kidney beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas and black olives were added, along with the smoked meat. For flavoring, some chili powder, honey, smoked paprika and brown sugar were stirred in to taste (I rarely measure anything when I’m cooking — add what you like and taste it to make sure it’s to your liking). This then simmered on low heat for nearly an hour with regular stirring to allow all the flavors to mingle.

The Table Takeaway

While I am a fanatic for spicy food, my wife is not. She likes a little heat, but not overpowering. This sweeter version of chili with the brown sugar and honey allows for a mellower flavor, and I can always kick it up a notch by adding more chili powder or a splash of hot sauce to my bowl.

Either way, we finish the presentation with shredded cheddar cheese and a dollop of sour cream. If you’re really fancy, dice up some chives to top it off and serve with a side of cornbread. Admittedly, it’s not the same as the culinary masterpiece once served at Woods Creek Grill, but it’s relatively easy to make with any kind of ground venison and tastes darn good. Be sure to save a bottle of lager to wash it all down and help celebrate the harvest!

Categories: Bloggers on Hunting, Cooking, Pennsylvania – Tyler Frantz

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