Chef Bri Coelho walks us through how to make a better Thanksgiving meal, and she makes it easier in the process.
With all the current interest in hunting as a route to natural, organic meats, even the successful hunt leaves one potential problem unanswered: what to do with that deer, turkey, or wild hog you just harvested?
Here’s a solution: find someone experienced in processing and cooking wild game to show you—the hunter—the many ways your family and friends can enjoy this healthful, wild meat.
And with the holidays fast approaching, wouldn’t it be a fine thing to prepare some wild game for your gatherings? To use game meats to put an organic, healthy spin on what can, admittedly, be a tough time for our diets and our waistlines?
When it comes to those questions, Chef Bri Coelho’s got your back.
Meet Chef Bri Coelho
Coelho is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and The Art Institute and is classically trained in the French culinary arts. She’s also a hunter, a native of Georgia, and a very passionate advocate for people knowing where their food comes from, as well as harvesting and preparing that food.
Once she was out of college and working as a chef, Coelho became increasingly focused on the sources of her foods and ingredients. She had the chance to visit several of the factory farming operations that provided her foods—and was appalled.
“The factory-farming approach just doesn’t sit right with me,” Coelho says. “The chemicals and drugs used, the conditions, and just not really knowing where your food comes from, how it was raised? No, thank you! But with hunting, you have access to this great, organic protein, free of chemicals, and you can literally take this food source from the field into your kitchen and be involved in every step of the process.”
Coelho grew up in California, in an outdoors-oriented family hooked on swimming, snorkeling, and horseback riding. But hunting wasn’t part of the mix.
“Actually,” says Coelho, “my mom was kind of an animal rights activist growing up. Hunting would’ve been a huge problem when I was young. We’ve parted ways on some of those ideas, as you can imagine,” she adds with a laugh.
At some point, she realized hunting could provide organic meat, and she took her first game animal seven years ago, a white-tailed deer, during an archery hunt in Georgia.
Since then, she’s added bear, hog, and moose hunts to her resumé, and even successfully hunted big game on the African Plains. “I only hunt to eat,” she notes. “I don’t hunt animals I would not eat.”
Chef Bri Coelho’s Guiding Principles
“What grows together in the wild goes together .”
One of Coelho’s guiding principles is, what grows together in the wild goes together at the dinner table. “Let’s say you’re doing a fall deer hunt, and the deer have been eating persimmons and chestnuts. I’d match the venison recipes to ones that used chestnuts or something similar and maybe a sweeter, deep fruit like plums. You bear hunt in the fall, and the bears have been eating raspberries? Raspberries in the recipe are going to make that bear meat taste awesome.”
She admits, though, that a hurdle to her work is being a woman in a male-centric tradition. When she started hunting a decade ago, she discovered firsthand that a good number of men didn’t take a woman seriously as a hunter. “You go into a gun store to look for a hunting rifle, and the guy behind the counter asks if you’re picking up something for your boyfriend. It can be pretty intimidating and, frankly, really exasperating. In some ways, it’s easier to just walk out the door.”
But all that is changing, she adds, especially as more and more women enter the hunting ranks. “And I think it’s a plus that, as a woman, I can be there to teach other women,” she says. “Women are more likely, in my experience, to ask another woman what might be considered a ‘dumb question’ to a guy. And the fact that I am hunter myself, makes a difference to the women who’ve attended wild game-focused events; it shows them this is all very possible in their lives, that hunting, and processing game isn’t a ‘guy thing.’”
With the holidays approaching, Coelho suggests trying out a game recipe or two to show friends and family that game meat is a healthy and delicious choice. “Thanksgiving and Christmas are all about family,” she says. “What better way to show them you care than to prepare a meal made from meat you harvested, butchered, and cooked. It’s like a healthy gift from you to them—from the wild to your table!”
Chef Bri’s Favorite Wild Game Cooking Tips
Brine Your Meat For A Few Days
I can’t stress enough how important brining your wild turkey is. Wild turkey does not have the water content that domesticated turkeys do, so brining your turkey is the number one way to ensure you have a moist turkey.
Allow two to three days for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator and allow one full day for the turkey to sit in the brine. This is the time you need to be planning ahead.
Cut Vegetables Prior to the Big Day, Like 2-3 Days Early
Cut vegetables two to three days before the big day and store them in containers in the refrigerator. This will make life easier and quicker when you start cooking your dishes and allow more time with your family.
Rest Your Turkey
Let it rest. I like to rest my turkey for at least two hours. As the meat relaxes, it reabsorbs its juices and becomes more tender.
Lemon Zest Is King
If you think your dish is lacking in flavor and before you reach for the salt try zesting a lemon. Its acidic and bright flavor brings a whole new dimension to dishes.
Dry Your Potatoes By Baking Them
Mashed Potatoes are a must on any holiday menu, and yet people mess them up all the time. I dry mine out before I mash them. I remove my cubed potatoes from the boiling water and spread them on a sheet tray and bake them at 200° for about 20 to 30 minutes to make sure all the excess water has evaporated from them.
For Meat, Go Low and Slow
When it comes to wild game, cooking at low temperatures and over a slower, longer period of time will ensure perfectly cooked wild game.
Once More! What Grows Together Goes Together
A deer during fall is most likely eating acorns, persimmons, and apples, and these items pair perfectly with venison. If it is growing in the same area as the wild game, the flavors will always pair best. So, think of serving your wild game with items that are in season and local.
Chef Bri Coelho’s Wild Turkey Brine:
- ¾ gallon water
- ¼ gallon ice
- 1 cup kosher salt
- ¼ cup honey or sorghum syrup (preferred)
- 12 bay leaves
- 2 heads of garlic, sliced in half with skin attached
- 2 Tbsp. black peppercorns
- 1 Tbsp. chili flake
- 1 bunch of thyme
- 1 bunch of parsley
- 4 Sprigs of Rosemary
- Zest of 3 lemons, reserve lemons
- Zest of 1 orange, reserve orange
In a large pot add the water and all the ingredients except the ice. Bring the brine up to a low boil, and make sure the salt and sorghum is dissolved. Then remove from heat and add the ¼ gallon of ice, this will help it to cool down quickly. Store the brine in the refrigerator till the whole mixture is chilled and cool. Then pour into a large container and submerge the turkey. Brine the turkey in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours. Drain the brine and pat dry with paper towels before cooking.
Venison Sweet Potato & Sourdough Stuffing:
- 2 large sweet potatoes, 3 cups diced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 3 celery stalks, diced
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 3/4 lb. venison, ground
- ¼ lb. pork sausage
- 1 Tbsp. fennel seeds
- 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp. coriander
- 1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 4 cups sourdough bread, cubed
- 2 cups venison stock (or beef stock)
Preheat Oven to 350°
In a large skillet add 4 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Over medium heat add the diced sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. Sauté till the onions are translucent and the sweet potatoes are almost cooked through.
Then add the ground venison, ground pork sausage, kosher salt, black pepper, fennel seeds, cayenne, and rosemary to the pan. Cook till the venison and pork is cooked through and nicely browned. Then turn the heat off and add the cranberries, sourdough, and stock; mix well to combine. Transfer the stuffing to a baking tray, spread evenly and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool before serving.