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Flash in the Pan

No balls, just necking

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“Are you cooking balls yet?”

This is one of many codes for asking a fellow hunter about the success of his or her hunt, a euphemism for “get yer elk yet?” In this case, the one being questioned happens to have a tradition of cooking and eating elk testicles soon after the kill. To other hunters, you can inquire “How’s your hunting season going?” or “Been out yet?” One acquaintance of mine asks “Are you bloody?”

Welcome to Chef Boy Ari’s hunting preview for autumn, 2006.

You might be thinking that hunting season is still weeks away. But bow hunting already started, and some rifle hunters, myself included, have already had a few weeks worth of opportunity to cook the balls, as it were.

Hunting season arrived early for me this year because I drew one of 80 early-season rifle permits for elk in the Rattlesnake wilderness. For the first time, I’m simultaneously hunting and warm, hunting and dry, and hunting and frolicking in the flaming autumn bushes in the high old-growth forests of the Rattlesnake.

Chasing elk during the rut is a different game from tracking them through the snow. And my friend, who I’ll call Bugle Boy (and who isn’t, incidentally, the ball cooker) has initiated me into the clan of the elk talkers. He got his elk with a bow on opening day, but he loves chasing elk so much he’s happy to join me when he can. It seems like every time I go out with Bugle Boy, we’re surrounded by elk.

When you bugle, it’s like calling out to all the elk within earshot: “Where are you?”

“We’re over here!” bugle back the bulls, hopefully surrounded by cows.

When Bugle Boy hears that sound, he looks like an 8-year-old at the candy store.

On our first hunt, we found a herd and I had a big one in my sights. But not everything was still enough, including my heart, and I didn’t pull the trigger. Not cooking balls yet.

In fact my tag is for a cow, so even when I’m successful I won’t be cooking balls, which is fine with me. Rutting bulls can be pretty stinky, and I suspect their balls are no exception.

Since I can’t bugle very well, when I’m out alone I don’t know where they are. Since the elk could be anywhere, I try to be silent enough to hear them before they hear me. But no matter how quiet I am, everyone in the forest seems to know I’m there. Every step is like walking into the only bar in a small town; everything gets quiet and watches. Then a squirrel starts chewing me out. That’s when I blow my cow call, which makes them think I’m an elk, and I can hear the forest relax around me. The birds start chirping, and the squirrels chill out.

And then there is my sausage, one of the great pleasures of my hunting experience. Made from last year’s deer by K&C meats, it’s a summer sausage, which means it’s already cooked and ready to go—which isn’t to say that my sausage isn’t divine on the grill, or crumbled into a hot pan a la bacon. But out there, walking in my wilderness above my town, with a pocket full of sausage and some pickled homegrown peppers for eating atop a chunk of Le Petit bread, it all seems very right. I’m totally immersed in my food chain, eating last year’s deer while hunting this year’s elk. I also eat Snickers bars.

Hopefully I’ll have my proverbial balls cooked and my literal freezer full by opening day of rifle season, because I’d rather go on midnight patrol in Fallujah than suffer that chaos. Okay, not really. But regardless of what permits you have, now is the time to grill, braise, jerk, give away or otherwise dispose of the dregs of last year’s meat. I sure like what they do at K&C meats, and between now and opening day they’ll have the time to make you some sausage too.

Last night I thawed a packet of neck meat from a buck I shot last year. After browning the chunks in oil, adding water a few times when it dried up, I put the chunks in the oven, covered, with a little garlic, vinegar, soy sauce and water, and let it braise for an hour at 375 degrees. Then I added a bay leaf, and coarsely cut garlic, onions and carrots, and gave it another hour, adding water whenever it started to dry up. Then I added some of the plum sauce from last week’s Q&A (consult the archives online if you didn’t clip it), and gave it another hour, seasoning with salt and pepper and adding a little more garlic.

The meat fell apart, sweet and savory, in my mouth, and I can’t wait to do it again. So if you want to know how my season’s going, just ask, “Are ya cookin’ neck yet?”

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Can I pick it?

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

I had a good crop of tomatoes and peppers this year. But the plants, full of fruit, seem like they need another month to fully ripen, and I don’t think they’ll get it. Should I leave the fruits on the plants as long as I can, risking frost damage, or should I pick them unripe?
—Salsa in Waiting

A: Dear Salsa Waiter,

Your plants will be able to weather mild frost if you cover them at night with a tarp or a light blanket. But eventually, probably by late October, it’ll be cold enough to freeze right through that kind of insulation, and then your tomatoes and peppers will be toast. So keep an eye on the weather forecasts, cover your plants when it’s going to frost, and when the Big One is imminent do one of the following:

Pick off your tomatoes and peppers. You can wrap the green tomatoes in newspaper and stick them in the closet, and they’ll turn red soon. Or you can keep them on the windowsill. The peppers, even if they aren’t red, are still going to taste good and you can use them, or string them up and they’ll turn red.

What I do, space permitting, is pull up the whole plants and hang them upside-down in my garage. They ripen nicely that way, and so whenever you want a ripe tomato, just walk into the garage instead of the garden. In my case, it’s a shorter walk anyway.

Or call or visit Alameda’s Hot Springs Retreat, where they’re in the midst of a two-week permaculture workshop that’s addressing issues like this one, among many others related to designing a secure and sustainable life close to the land. Call Janell at 741-2283 for more info.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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