Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Harvest Kitchen Series – Bear Kielbasa

Bear
The author's friend, Zach, with his first bear shot in Pennsylvania. Contributed photo from Tyler Frantz

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

Sometimes beginner’s luck is the very best luck to have. 

When I texted my old college buddy, Zach, at the last minute to see if he’d be interested in serving as the cook for our 2021 bear camp, it took him about half an hour to respond. In the span of that time, our camp’s business meeting was well underway, and we booked someone else to prepare the food instead.

However, we did still have a bed opening, so I proposed Zach’s name to attend as a guest hunter. After the meeting, I called to let him know that he lost the bid as cook, but he needed to purchase a bear license because he’d be joining us on his very first bear hunt.

Zach became a hunter late in life, and had taken a buck, doe, and rabbit up to this point, but had never hunted the big woods of northern Pennsylvania for bruins. 

On opening morning of the firearms bear season, we hiked three miles onto the mountain before daylight and dropped Zach at a known bear crossing that had produced for members of our camp in the past. The rest of our foursome spread out and took our stands in promising locations, planning to sit all day. 

Just after 1 p.m., Zach’s shot echoed through the barren trees, and he soon radioed to indicate he had a bear down. The bruin turned out to be a 153-pound (dressed) female that aged 18 years and 10 months — one of the oldest bears shot in the state that year.

Zach had hunted a total of about six hours before he shot his first bear. Talk about lucky!

The Prep

The bear was deboned, trimmed of all fat, and vacuum sealed for long-term freezer storage, since we were unsure if our camp would be holding our annual bear roast — which had been suspended during COVID. Upon learning we weren’t holding it again this year, Zach decided to get sausages made by a local processor, Hemperly’s Butcher Shop, in Lebanon County. 

Zach ordered Hot Italian, Smoked Hemperly’s Hunter (a house specialty), and Kielbasa. He graciously dropped some off at my house recently to give it a try, which I was grateful for, considering I helped him lug it the three miles off the mountain back to the truck! 

I stopped by Hemperly’s shop to ask him what he put in the Polish-style kielbasa, and without giving away any of his measurements or secret ingredients, he shared that it was a base mix of salt, pepper, garlic, ground mustard, marjoram and a touch of sugar — with just a little pork mixed in because the bear was trimmed so leanly.

I threw the portion-sized links on a preheated grill, and carefully rotated them every few minutes over medium heat to ensure they were cooked all the way through to prevent getting trichinosis, which is possible with bear meat if undercooked.

We fixed up a side of buttered pierogies and baked bean casserole to go with it, and it sure smelled good.

The Table Takeaway

The result of the bear kielbasa experiment was a hit with the entire family. My wife and our 7-year-old and 3-year-old kids found it quite enjoyable, not gamey at all. I’ve had Hemperly’s smoked venison kielbasa many times and loved it. This unsmoked version with bear was more mellow, smoother, with a touch less bite.

As I generally do with kielbasa, I added a bit of horseradish and ketchup as a dipping sauce, which further enhanced the flavor and washed it all down with a crisp pilsner. It was an excellent way to utilize bear meat, and I’d do it again without question if I ever have bear meat to spare. Now, if only I were as lucky as Zach!

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