Friday, February 26, 2010


Snook have always been a fish of some romance in my mind.
Like Charley Waterman, I think their Spanish name, "robalo" sounds better then the oddity of "snook", which sounds like something that happens to someone on a felt-covered table, or an object of derision. Tell someone not fairly involved in the outdoor world that you'd like to fish for snook and you're liable to face the same expression as if you'd said you were off to hunt snipe. On the other hand, robalo sounds racy and a bit powerful, more fitting for a beach front cruiser and ambushing predator. Webster's traces the name "snook" to Dutch for a type of pike-fish. Fair enough.

Growing up and fishing a bit in South Texas, snook were rumors or memories, as they, along with tarpon, had pretty much disappeared. Fortunately, both have come back to some extent. Cold snaps like recent ones in Florida and Texas are hard on the populations, though. I'd read of snook in stories about Costa Rica and the Florida Keys and other warm waters. Heck, even Travis McGee fished for them. They lay under mangroves and docks and would cut you off in a minute. In the fall they'd run the beaches and passes. Mouth like a bass, strong, with razor-sharp gill plates. Those were the things you read about snook. My first couple trips to the tropics didn't lead to any snook, though. Bonefish and tarpon (sightings) along with seeing and throwing at permit were all plenty of excitement. The first snook I saw was a baby caught by a friend in the South Texas surf. Neat as a novelty, but not quite the explosive gamefish you read about, not until it added another foot of length or so.

I won't complain, though, because a few years ago, six now in fact, I caught my first and to date only robalo.

We headed down to Baja for a couple of days. It was our second trip and we stayed in San Jose del Cabo, which was busy sprouting condos where only a couple of years before nothing but beach existed. After some slow panga fishing, Dad and I took advantage of our mid-morning flight time to slip out to the beach at dawn on the last day, walking along and throwing plugs with spinning outfits. Fishing on the beach at that time is always exciting, the low light is flat and you can't see much, so it's easy to imagine lots going on out there even if bait isn't being chased to the surface.

I was using Dad's light travel rod and a reel with ten pound test to cast a chartreuse Top Dog out past where the waves were breaking. The beach was quite steep so we'd follow a retreating wave, cast, then back up before the next wave and start working our plugs. As my plug climbed the back of a breaker just yards off the beach it was suddenly sucked down by a mouth I could put both fists into. An interesting struggle with a couple of half-jumps later, I had her up on the sand and removed the plug. A quick picture, wade her out and revive her, and it was time to rinse of the gear, pack our wet clothes in plastic for the flight home, and leave on what for me will always remain a high note.
Hard to top:

Funny, growing up I don't think I ever daydreamed anything better.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

and then the bits

After making stock, we took three pounds of the oryx's liver (which was three quarters of that organ) and trimmed it up.

Then we took an equal amount (all we had) of trimmings that were too small for stew meat, added another three pounds of pork shoulder and a pound of fatty pork belly and made sausage.

Our amounts were dictated by the amount of trim we had and the amount of liver, as our goal was to make good use of the liver without just slicing and cooking it. A's not a bit liver fan. Besides which, liver makes a great sausage component.

Using the ratio specified in Charcuterie, we put together 3 oz. of salt and 1 t of pink salt, then went about our (own) spicing. For the 10 lbs of meat, that ended up being 4 T of black pepper, 2 T of half-sharp Hungarian Paprika, 3 T dried thyme, 3 T dried parsley, 6 bay leaves, ground fine in a mortar with a bit of the salt, and 4 oz, approximately 1 cup, of garlic. We mixed the spices with the chopped meat and let it season overnight.

Next day, we made up two batches of sausage in five pound lots, one with a cup of very dry sherry mixed in with the meat, the other with a half cup of water and half cup of red wine. The latter carried the garlic flavor a bit better and turned out better overall. The reason for two batches? You need to mix the ground meat together a bit to get it to bind, and five pounds is about the maximum amount the Kitchenaid stand mixer will comfortably handle.

Testing a bit of the meat for spicing:

The (natural, hog) casings had to be soaked for a while in cold water, then rinsed and rinsed out:

Threading the casings onto the stuffing tube is a tedious process lending itself to bad jokes:

Fortunately, this blog barely rates PG so you'll be spared any of those jokes. For the sharp-eyed readers, yes, the feed tube on that grinder does have meat on it. We had to take photos between batches because I forgot to do so at the start and, once you get going, you aren't taking photos unless you're ok with smearing up the camera with raw pork bits. I've made sausage by myself, but find the job is much, much easier with a second set of hands. In any event, 5 pounds in one long coil, then divided into links:

Pretty, aren't they? This is a fairly spicy, garlicky fresh sausage. It falls well short of being hot and the liver is only there in the background. I doubt anyone who didn't know about the liver would guess at its presence, a fact no doubt helped by the very mild nature of (all of the) game liver (that I have tried to date).

Ten pounds of sausage sounds like quite a lot, and a couple of hours work was involved in this process, but once you start parceling it into packages it doesn't add up to all that much. More interesting than the couple of pounds of burger and plain liver for the frying that we'd have had otherwise, though.

That's it for the oryx processing, though, now we're just down to cooking and eating.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

so, bones

After the meat, and a couple of big bones for the delectation of the dog, what about the other bones? Neck bones didn't make it out this time, two rounds through that portion pretty much wrecked any use out of those bits, but we still had bones from quarters:

Part of those bones were the knuckle ends from the shanks, lots of meat and sinew and such on those. Bones mean stock, building block for so many things. Bones and veg:

I'd leave the skin on the onions for color and flavor, but these were dirty and in bad shape. Beside, plenty of flavor from the leek leaves.

Some bones roasted, some raw, for a mix of flavor.

Two twenty quart stock pots to start. The silver pot on the right has stock from a pan that was deglazed with red wind and that includes some roasted tomato paste, the black pot on the left is a simpler concoction of bones and veg. Both have bruised peppercorns and bay leaves.

Now, Michael Ruhlman says (in "Elements of Cooking") never to boil stock, that you'll lose to much flavor. Jacques Pepin and Julia Child and various others say "bring it to a boil". I'm of the latter school. A nice boil and skim off all the foam and floaty bits.

Cook for about six hours at what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall describes as a "nervous shimmer", just short of a boil, then the clear stock is reduced by about a quarter, the dark stock strained, then reduced by a good third. The result?


So, about twenty quarts of stock in all. The light stock is very neutral, very similar to veal stock though without quite as much body. The dark stock is a bit more intense and is destined for a few batches of bordelaise with orxy and frites and other sauce, as the wine comes through despite all the cooking and reduction.

Next, yet more bits.

Friday, February 12, 2010

so, meat

I'd guess a good sized oryx at running about 250 field dressed. Not so big as a good sized cow elk, but much bigger than any mule deer I've run into.

We quartered out our animal, saved the heart, liver, tenderloins, backstraps, and miscellaneous bits along with the quarters, then got to cutting. Dad and I got most of it done in a day and a half- deboned, silverskin off and sinew out, wrapped and in the freezer:

Even the dog has his bits stashed:

I've read, and heard from other hunters, that oryx is "the best wild meat you've ever eaten". We saved out a chunk and grilled it, just meat and fire, served alongside baked potato and relleno casserole with a green salad and a decent red (one of my all-time favorite meals, all in all) to see what we thought.

(yes, it's a little rare. Wild meat I've dressed and prepared myself I prefer cool to cold red in the center. You can taste it better that way.)

The meat is a lighter color than deer or elk and is also more mild. More mild, even, then well cared for antelope and with a coarser grain, closer to elk, than antelope. Wild meat for those who like their meat less wild. Can't say that it'll be my favorite, but I wouldn't be sorry to see oryx across the deserts of the southwest. It's not like the bighorns stand a realistic chance of refilling those ecologic niches.

Next post, dealing with bits.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Back in the late 1960's and after urging by archeologist and frequent African hunter Frank C. Hibben, the NM Dept. of Game and Fish acted on the idea of bringing oryx (pdf link), or gemsbock, into New Mexico to add another species to the Chihuahuan desert lands of the Tularosa Basin, essentially the White Sands Missile Range. The animals did well there, and now you can put in for and draw a tag to hunt them as they range freely on the missile range and beyond. The Dept. of Game and Fish estimates three to six thousand oryx roam south central New Mexico now. Since natural predators aren't doing much to control oryx numbers and Chihuahuan desert is apparently a bit more hospitable than the Namib, population reduction through hunting (and providing another hunting opportunity was the whole purpose of bringing in oryx).

We were lucky enough to draw tags last year for a once-in-a-lifetime hunt on the Missile Range for this past January.

On one hand, I'm tempted to bring out my inner Capstick:

The cerulean sky was marred by a crepuscular smear of cloud, dimming the hard winter sun and we crossed the many dongas leading down from the mountain like fingers and cut our prey's spoor. That spoor was wide and bold and our experienced tracker had no trouble. Past hunts allowed my eye to follow the bright splashes of lifesblood splattered on the hard stone of the unforgiving landscape easily as well- A kept overwatch in case it turned. Where the quarry had paused, viscous lakes of gore slowly filtered into the desert sand....

More realistically (and lacking much of a Capstick), we hunted pretty hard and, as two of a hundred hunters in an area the size of a couple of different states on the eastern seaboard, felt crowded. One stalk was ended when other hunters took an animal out of the bunch we were working, we passed a couple of others and figured we had things scoped for the second day, which turned out to be cut short for some sort of military exercise. That second day produced nothing much early on, except a road I wouldn't quite brave, and, on the way to a high point to eat lunch and glass, we saw a critter that present a shot which was a bit long but do-able. I shot too far back despite repeated warnings to the contrary, and a bit low as well, so A got to see how you follow a blood trail and we found our oryx a bit away in greasewood scrub studded with mesquites and cut by a lot of little draws. Once down, dressing and quartering started. My dad was along as observer, adviser, and factotum and headed off with the first quarter, A followed with a second and I finished dressing the animal and, once Dad made his return trip, we headed off with the rest of the meat, hustling to meet the national security deadline for getting off the range. The truck was visible, but a darned good little hike. Meat for the next year, the subject of a couple more posts.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

good show

Fred Eaglesmith came through town last night. Neil of AMP arranges good shows and this one was a bargain, $15 on a Friday night. We've missed Eaglesmith on his way through town before, so we jumped at this chance, though I saw the notice of the show only a day or so off.

You've probably heard a Fred Eaglesmith song before, even if you haven't heard of him. He's written lots of things that've been covered pretty successfully by various folk and country performers.

Eaglesmith explained how he was going to go to Nashville but had a standing date at the Red Mug in Minnesota and couldn't make it down there. This was my first time to his show and I was surprised how good his voice is, in a gravelly singer-songwriter alt-country (Canadiana?) sort of way. He talks, tells stories and jokes and generally has a good time so that you do, too. Check out his schedule, he's heading west from NM and then'll be back in points east and north. If he's in your neck of the woods you'd be lucky to catch him.

Not my video, but a pretty good representation of the show (although the sound is better live):

Friday, February 05, 2010

End of the Duck Season

Last weekend saw the end of duck hunting, the end of fall, really, as I see it. We didn't get out, being busy with other worthwhile pursuits, but we did make a last hunt the weekend before.

We set up on the west side of the river, bad because you face back into the rising sun, but thorough camouflage and plenty of overhanging vegetation on the steep bank mitigated the problem.

The ducks liked the spot we set up pretty well, so we had some birds dropping in, mostly right over our heads. Hard shooting, but fun.

That banded bird on the end picked up his jewelry two weeks earlier and twenty miles away. Not a whole lot of info for the biologists, I'm afraid.

Since it runs ninety days, I always feel like I have worlds of time when duck season starts. Lots of weekends to get out, chances to tweak the set up, find different spots, adjust to the ever-changing river. All of the sudden, the holidays are done and only a day or two is left. Looking back, we didn't make all that many hunts after all. I think there is a lesson in there about taking advantage of a situation while you can.

Next year!