Kristy Crabtree is not your typical chef, which makes sense, because she’s not your typical hunter, either.

STORY BY PJ DELHOMME

Kristy Crabtree will be the first to admit she is neither a professionally trained chef, nor does she play one on Netflix. And yet, her life tends to revolve around food: growing it, hunting it, cooking it, and sharing it. “I wake up in the morning thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner,” she says. At times, this can be a daunting exercise.

When she opens one of her five freezers, she stares down at what’s left of a couple mule deer, a bull, and a cow elk. There’s also a bison, some crab, and fish from last year. A few packages of bighorn sheep. Her favorites? Pronghorn and cow elk. “Cows tend to be more tender than bulls, and I love the sagey flavor of pronghorn.”

Dinners typically consist of some chunk of wild beast paired with vegetables grown in her greenhouse. “We like seasonal eating,” she says. “We’ve got that field-to-plate and farm-to-plate mentality.”

When she’s not running her own web design business, busting out a 45-minute Crossfit-style workout next to her greenhouse, or planning her next hunt, Crabtree can be found refining her wild game recipes for her website nevadafoodies.com and for her column in Bugle magazine. By design, her recipes “aren’t too fancy” with most prep times being around 15 minutes and cook times usually less than an hour depending on the cut of meat.

Crabtree did not grow up like this. In fact, doing much of anything outside was never really her thing. Growing up near Carson City and Reno, Nevada, her dad drove a truck and was gone most of the time. Mom always worked. Crabtree was the girl who always had to do her hair in the morning. That all changed when she met Andy.

With his dad alongside, Andy would take Crabtree scouting for animals, but she soon grew tired of staying in the truck while the boys took off after an elk or mule deer. At 32, she took a hunter safety class and started hunting herself. Now, she cannot be contained.

“I’m more into hunting now than Andy is,” she says. “I do all the research and get the tags. I lIke the physical nature of hunting, being alone, and the adrenaline. I still do my hair, except when we go hunting. You can’t care about your hair when you get up at three or four in the morning.” As an added bonus, she loves to cook. Combined, you get the kind of life partner you only read about in magazines.

Crabtree isn’t the kind of hunter to keep the spoils of her overflowing freezers all to herself. Quite the contrary, cooking wild game for neighbors, friends, and family is what she lives for. When she invites her non-hunting neighbors over for a meal, the secret, she says, is not to make a big deal about what’s being eaten, and most guests love to hear about the hunt.

“The kids and neighbors like the hunting stories that come with the meals,” she says. “Each package of meat tells a story. Plus, that meal provides a way to connect back to the hunt and pay respect once again to the animal. I even converted a gal who was a vegetarian. She loved my elk tenderloin, and she wanted more. ‘But you’re a vegetarian,’ I said.”

To Meat Perfection

Knowing how to cook wild game in a way that converts even the hardiest herbivores takes time and curiosity. For Crabtree, she taught herself through reading cookbooks and simply looking at photos. “For me, a recipe is a way to get started. It’s how I lay the foundation. Then, you can tune it to your palette.” Her go-to dishes include any type of Mexican-American cuisine: tacos, fajitas, and enchiladas.

Other advice? Take online cooking classes to get an idea of how to cut, slice, and prepare things. Learn how to sear properly. Most of all, cook the dishes that you like to eat. But for anyone who has ever cooked or eaten wild game, Crabtree knows that it presents some unique culinary challenges. “Wild game has a different flavor than store-bought meat, and you have to figure out how to cook it,” she says. “There’s typically no fat in wild game, so you have to add it. Olive oil is what I like to use. I’ll marinate the meat first with oil and then brush a little on the steaks while they cook on the grill. It adds just a little bit of flavor and, most importantly, fat.”

And then there’s the taste. Newcomers and old-timers alike can be put off by a “gamey” taste to the meat. In some cases the gaminess simply refers to the unfamiliar flavor of wild game, but other times it refers to the meat tasting a little, shall we say, off.

To keep the gamey taste out of the game, hunters have to take proper care of their meat in the field. Because Crabtree likes to hunt the warm, sometimes hot, falls of the desert southwest, getting the meat cooled immediately after the shot is essential, she says. To do this, Crabtree skins the animal, breaks it down into manageable pieces and hangs the quarters in game bags in the shade. If she needs to leave the meat outside overnight, the cool night air will circulate around the quarters, helping to cool them down. Once back at the truck, she puts them in pre-cooled coolers, taking care to keep the meat as dry as possible. At home, she will dry-age the meat in the refrigerator for seven to 10 days to help break down the enzymes and tenderize it.

All of this effort and care is paramount in keeping hundreds of pounds of meat fresh. And when done right, those delicious wild meals shared with friends, family, and neighbors will go a long way to ensure the future of hunting. “Support for hunting can be through food,” Crabtree says. “Around a table of wild game, we can educate folks on conservation and how hunters are part of the conservation process in our society. And they should know what goes into the hunt. You have to hike, scout, and troubleshoot. It’s not all about death. There’s a whole lot more to hunting than killing an animal.”

Amen to that.

Venison Enchilada Meatballs

Bake or Wood-Fire

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Servings: 4

Ingredients

– 2 lbs ground venison
– 1 tsp ancho chile powder
– 1 tsp cumin powder
– 1 tsp coriander powder
– 1 tsp mexican oregano
– 1 tsp garlic powder
– 1/2 tsp kosher salt
– 2 tbsp olive oil
– ¾ cup shredded Mexican style 4 cheese blend
– 2 green onions, finely chopped
– 1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
– 1 avocado, sliced
– sour cream

Red Enchilada Sauce

Heat a saucepan over medium heat and add the vegetable oil. Whisk in the flour and all seasoning ingredients creating a paste like base. Slowly pour in the broth whisking the sauce until smooth. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10-15 minutes until slightly thickened. Remove from heat. (Note: you can make this sauce a day ahead and simply refrigerate overnight.)

– 2 tbsp vegetable oil
– 3 tbsp flour
– 2 tbsp dark chili powder
– 1 tsp cumin powder
– 1 tsp coriander powder
– 1 tsp mexican oregano
– 1 tsp garlic powder
– 1/2 tsp kosher salt
– 2 cups vegetable (or) chicken broth

Instructions

1– In a bowl, combine the ground venison, ancho chile powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, garlic powder and kosher salt. Using your hands, form 10-12 individual meatballs and set aside on a plate or baking sheet.
2– Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Set a 12-14 inch cast iron skillet in the oven to preheat before baking, about 10 minutes.
3– Carefully place the meatballs in the skillet and drizzle the tops with olive oil. Bake for 20 minutes. Pour the enchilada sauce over the meatballs and top with shredded cheese, chopped green onions and cilantro. Continue baking for 15 minutes until hot and bubbling.
4– Serve with sour cream and sliced avocado.

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