Hunter, Writer, Butcher, Cook: Jamie Carlson and Minnesota’s wild foods movement

Jamie Carlson // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Jamie Carlson // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Jamie Carlson’s idea of a perfect field snack is a raw antelope liver, taken directly from the freshly killed animal itself. “Raw antelope liver is the sweetest thing you’re ever going to have,” he says while tending a campfire at Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan. “Pull it out, rinse it off, put a little lemon on it—just chow it down and you’re good to go.” 

The rain is beating down upon us as we talk, but it hasn’t thrown Jamie for a loop. The fire is strong enough to bring his venison stew to a rolling boil and his tent is big enough for the two of us, our photographer Sam, and Carlson’s two kids to all share lunch together beneath the intermittent sheets of rain.

Carlson lives parallel lives: the Navy vet works as a nurse, but he’s also a self-taught master of wild foods. A non-exhaustive list of his conquests includes pheasant gumbo, venison testicles, fried squirrel bellies, acorn flour pancakes, fried sheep heart, and cedar-braised bison. He’s also a prolific writer, crafting stories about foraging, hunting, fishing, and all things wild and culinary in a column for Outdoor Life, and the website Modern Carnivore.

There is an idea rising in Minnesota (and the rest of the Upper Midwest) that the flavor of our part of the world strikes as distinct a note as the cuisine of Brittany or Calabria or Shanghai. The specifics of that flavor are still coming into focus, but they include close connections with farms, freshwater, and the region’s rich woodlands.

Jamie Carlson rifling through Sumac in Lebanon Hills Regional Park // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Jamie Carlson rifling through sumac in Lebanon Hills Regional Park // Photo by Sam Ziegler

“We are really good for foraging,” says Carlson of Minnesota’s many forests. “We’ve got everything up here, where other areas don’t.” He casts his eyes in a 270-degree arc covering the woods around our little campsite, mentally shopping Mother Nature’s supermarket. “From where you stand right now, there are five or six different things you can eat,” he declares. “There’s wild grapes behind you, there’s sumac over here, there are mushrooms in the woods, there’s nettles over here—it’s all around us. It doesn’t take much to find it. And we’re not even that far from Minneapolis.” 

The silence of the turtles

Carlson’s driving passion to explore all things wild and edible isn’t without risk. Years ago, he acquired a couple of snapping turtles, purged them of mud and debris (a week spent in tanks at his house with constant water changes), slaughtered them, and butchered them, all precisely according to DNR guidelines.

“So I write the process down, and post some recipes, and everything’s good, and months go by, and there’s a knock on the door,” he recalls. “And there’s a Burnsville police officer standing there. And I look at him and the first words out of his mouth are: ‘Everything’s fine.’ And I’m like: ‘No it’s not, you’re at my house, what’s wrong?’”

What was wrong, as it turns out, was that PETA had called the police on Carlson for animal cruelty.

“He was telling me, ‘Yeah, this morning at muster they were handing out assignments and they told me I was going out to investigate a double homicide.’” The officer concluded that Carlson was in the right about the turtles, but his timing was awkward—Carlson was in the process of cooking a beaver. The officer refused to hear the details.

Because Carlson has been willing to dive in and do it—whatever “it” may be, no matter how complex or horrifying or obscure—he’s a fountain of knowledge about how to turn the bounty of the
wilderness into food fit for a high-end urban table. Do you know how to cook a heart? Carlson does—a casual mention of the topic produces a lecture fit for culinary school:

Some of the foraged foods Carlson brought with while camping // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Some of the foods Carlson brought with while camping // Photo by Sam Ziegler

“The heart is tough, so you’ve got to cook it right—high heat, real fast. I like to chamber it out—take the ventricles out, split it in half, take out all the valves and veins. Within the heart are all these little fibers that are very tough and they don’t cook out at all. So I filet those out, and what you end up with are three very nice pieces of steak, once it’s all trimmed out and done. 

“And with that, a very light marinade—a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and olive oil. Let it sit for a half-hour, then let throw it on the grill—TSSS!—about 30 seconds and flip it over, about 30 seconds, and slice it nice and thin and serve it up with whatever you got.”

For Carlson, “whatever you’ve got” is not about what’s in your backpack or cooler. It’s about finding a connection between wild game and the plants that surrounded it.

“If you’re going out to kill a deer or a duck or a pheasant or a rabbit, what better way than to kill it and then look around it to see what’s there, and cook it with what you found,” says Carlson. “That’s something I’ve been trying to get more into: When I do kill something, I eat it—part of it at least—right where I killed it, with something that’s right there. If I were here right now and I was able to kill a squirrel, and I was able to take some sumac and grape and chokecherries, you could sear the squirrel, season it with some sumac and salt, and then make a sauce with grapes and chokecherries. You’ve got everything you need.”

The diverse fruits of his hunts and forages notwithstanding, Carlson is driven by far more than curiosity. Along with his friend and publisher Mark Norquist (of Modern Carnivore), Carlson serves on the board of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, an organization dedicated to giving a “voice to the silent wilderness.” The group’s mission animates everything that Carlson does, including our meal, which is cooked on public land from ingredients Carlson hunted, fished, or foraged himself.

“The outdoor mission is vitally important to all of us,” says Carlson, referring not to the group’s members but to everyone in modern American society. “Ninety percent of the freshwater in the country starts in the backcountry. Before it gets to us, before it comes out of your sink, it has to come from somewhere else. All that water trickles down those hills into your house somewhere. If we don’t protect that land, your freshwater goes away.”

Hard rain and a full table

Inside the tent, Carlson’s meal has come together. The food on the table tells two stories: the story of a self-taught chef who uses the natural world as his pantry, and the story of how Minnesota’s search for its own unique culinary voice might be leading us all outside to the parks, lakes, and woods. There’s an appetizer plate, including a Lake Superior-caught trout that’s been dry-cured with maple sugar, sumac, juniper, and salt, and then smoked over alder; pickled ramps; pickled mushrooms; and trout rillettes. The trout is lightly smoky and deeply flavored, nicely offset by the bright acid and vegetal sharpness of the pickled ramps and fungi. The rillettes are creamy, indulgent, and perfect on thin rye crackers.

On his camp stove, Carlson has whipped up a two-part dish that is as simple as it is sublime—tiny potatoes that have puckered from the heat of the oil they were cooked in and homemade boudin blanc. The latter are delicate little white sausages made from rabbit, pheasant, pork fat, breadcrumbs, and spices, and served with apple butter.

And then there’s the piece de resistance: Auntie Boots’ beef stew. In its original incarnation as a family recipe it’s a classic battle axe of a dish—a beef bourguignon with no twist—but Carlson brings venison that he hunted and maitake mushrooms that he harvested to stand in for the dish’s usual workaday ingredients.

“She [Auntie Boots] used button mushrooms, but I wanted to add another wild element to it,” he says. “I’ve got a spot near Prior Lake where I find hen of the woods, and every year I get about 20 pounds,” he says. “I cut them up and put them in a quart container, I fill that container with water, and I freeze them.” The mushrooms are preserved and, he notes, there’s a bonus: once the container thaws out, the mushroom water serves as a richly flavored mushroom stock that adds flavor to the stew.

“The pearl onions were Auntie Boots’ trade secret—Birds Eye is the only pearl onion she’d ever use,” says Carlson. “And Byerly’s is the only place you can find Birds Eye pearl onions.”

And just like that we’ve somehow come full circle: from the deer slain in the field and eaten with the mushrooms of the forest to the mass-marketed little onions of Birds Eye. Carlson has squared the circle of the wild and tame sides of Minnesota, in one big, bubbling, delicious mass of stew.

■ ■ ■

Recipe for Venison Shank French Stew

Venison Shank French Stew // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Venison Shank French Stew // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Ingredients

2½ pounds venison shank meat, cut into 1½ inch
chunks (sub any cheaper cut of beef, like chuck roast)
8 ounces mushrooms (hen of the woods, shiitake, button, etc.)
8 ounces pearl onions
4 tablespoons flour, divided
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon Beef Base,or beef granules
1¼ cups game stock, or beef stock
1½ cups hearty red wine
1 cup ruby Port
½ cup dry sherry
2 tablespoons bourbon
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Parsley

Directions

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees or build a fire beneath a metal grate strong enough to hold a large, full, fire-safe pot, such as cast iron.

Mix 2 tablespoons of flour with ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp black pepper, and toss with the cubes of meat, making sure all the meat is covered in flour. In a large ovenproof pot or Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Brown the pieces of meat in batches. Being careful not to overcrowd the pan, add more oil as needed, setting the meat aside as you brown it to use later. Once all the meat is browned, add the mushrooms and onions to the pot and cook for 2–3 minutes, then add the bourbon to deglaze the pan. Combine the beef base, ketchup, and flour, and stir to make a paste. Add that mixture to the mushrooms and onions and cook for a few minutes. Pour in all of your liquids except the sherry vinegar and then add the meat back to the pot. Cover the pot and transfer to your preheated oven (or keep your covered pot suspended above the fire). Bake in the oven for 2‒2 ½ hours (or keep at a strong simmer over the fire for a similar amount of time), until the meat is tender. Taste the sauce, season as needed. Right before you serve, stir in the sherry vinegar and top with parsley. 

Jamie Carlson's  // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Jamie Carlson’s Venison Shank French Stew // Photo by Sam Ziegler


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here