December 28, 2013

Austin chef and outdoorsman becomes a cookbook author

Jesse Griffiths’ ‘Afield’ is a guide to preparing feasts from wild game and fish.

Jesse Griffiths grew up in Denton, worked some in Fort Worth, then moved to Austin and the limestone streams and wooded hills of Central Texas.

He has been described as “a tireless worker, who hunts and fishes, appreciates our great outdoors, understands the importance of what we need to preserve in our cultural heritage, and translates it for the modern age.”

It would be fair to ask, then, who is this guy? Is he a teacher, a prophet, a rod and gun guide of some variety?

Primarily, he is a chef and a butcher. He owns a restaurant in Austin and he has become an ardent fan of turning his fish and game into feasts for the eye and appetite. He is also a cookbook author who has written a guide on how to prepare those dishes from the wild.

The book, I believe, is one of those seminal works that should be included in any outdoorsman’s kit, along with fresh ammunition and appropriate bait. It is titled Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish (Welcome Books, $40).

Afield was a nominated finalist for the 2013 James Beard Foundation book award. For those unaccustomed to the culinary arts, anything with Beard’s name on it is a big deal.

There are a couple things that set this book apart from the more mainstream cookbooks on wild game. Griffiths, first of all, is an avid hunter and fisherman, and along with his more than 80 recipes (all illustrated by fellow hunter and photographer Jody Horton), Griffiths tells the stories of the hunts and fishing trips that bring his food to the table.

If you don’t give a whit about his recipes, you can at least enjoy the tales of climbing muddy creek banks, spotting wild hogs in the bush, and feeling the ocean spray while surf fishing on the Texas Gulf Coast.

And, hunters and fishermen can certainly relate to Griffiths’ attitude about the outdoors. In the introduction to his cookbook, he writes that he once tried to explain his outdoor sports to his anti-hunting mother by telling her hunting is “the same as planting, growing and harvesting a carrot, just compressed into a few exciting moments.”

He was serious in his description, particularly comparing the growing season of plants to the opening seasons in hunting and fishing. If it were up to him, it says in his book, there would be an opening day for strawberries.

“Some of the best times I’ve ever had,” he writes, “were with friends on the bank of a river, drinking a little beer and frying up that evening’s batch of redbreast sunfish. Or maybe sautéing a fresh venison liver with some bacon and onions after a long, cold day in the woods, knowing that we will have good, ostensibly organic, free-range, grass-fed meat in our freezer for the rest of the year.”

It is hard to imagine a better preamble to lure outdoorsmen into the world of recipes and campfire cooking.

Afield is a far-ranging book that begins with doves, probably most appropriate for this time of season. It is that time, Griffiths writes, “When feathers coat everything and will turn up for months to come like beach sand in a tent.” He shows how to hunt them, pluck them and fry them. The book offers simple splayed birds on a grill, to rice with gizzards, hearts and livers.

Cooking fish, is also simply explained, but taken to as much extreme as you’re likely willing to go. There are recipes for beer batter, mustard batter and cornmeal batter. Photos show how to prepare red fish on the half shell, fish soup and even a smoked catfish terrine.

Moving to the larger animals, the book offers chapters on field dressing everything from wild hogs to deer, turkeys and ducks and geese. For those who dream of wildly concocted sausages, there is a chapter on sausages and charcuterie where you can create pancetta, bresaola, terrines and pâtés.

And to round it all out — bring it back to scale, the books ends with the basic rabbits and squirrels.

In the end, Afield is a reminder that wild game and fish are a sustainable food source for us; a food source to be respected and treasured. And, the preparation of that food is as important as the capture.

“The moment the animal is brought to hand,” it says, “is not the end. It is the middle.”

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