Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bear Soup

Winters, I like to make soup a lot. I can make a biiiig pot of it and parcel it out into various canning jars, freeze it, and just grab a jar on my way to work. Handy, especially for someone who rarely wants to fuss around before work. I like to get up, do the morning routine and high-tail it out the door.

My most recent batch has been bear soup. For some reason, this is how it's gone at work:

Co-Worker: Mmmm, that smells good, what kind of soup is that?

Me: Bear.

CW: What?

Me: Bear soup.

CW [looking confused]: Bear soup?

Me: Yeah, you know: Soup made from bears.

CW: [various expression from dubious to horrified]

Now, for the life of me I can't figure out why Alaskans have a hard time with this concept. If I lived in Miami or L.A. or Chicago or New York City, of course I'd expect people to be confused by this. I mean, how often do you see people barbecuing bears in Washington DC or Sacramento? (Okay, I'll grant you that there may be a certain amount of roasting of bears in Chicago from time to time.) But in Alaska… isn't this part of the gig?

I gathered – after some recon – that part of the problem was that some people have had fish-eating bears (which, since they've been eating fish, are not the best flavor and end up kind of … well, fishy.) Then there's another contingent who have not themselves suffered from eating a fish bear, but have heard about it from others. Evidently this is an event so severely traumatizing that the reputation of fish bears has spread far and wide, so that people who have never even been outdoors know all about it.

However, I must faithfully report that bears that have been eating grasses and berries are quite tasty.

So, in case you should want to try the recipe, here's how it goes.

First, start several years ago by making friends with someone who knows how to hunt – and (very importantly) knows how to handle the meat afterwards. Alternatively, you can learn how to hunt for yourself, and acquire the correct meat-processing techniques , but I find that making friends with someone who enjoys hunting is more enjoyable and not quite as messy – most of the time. Because sometimes you might end up getting sloppy drunk with them, and who knows what might happen then.

Next, if at all possible, get yourself invited to their Harvest Party, and luck into winning the bear meat in the raffle. This is quite easy and will only take several years of crossing all your fingers at the various parties until the bear meat falls into your lap. If you want my advice, you'll elect to take the meat that S has slow-cooked and jarred up.

Wait 'til it gets a little chilly out, because that's when soup is best. Get a large pot and a bunch of veggies and spices and stuff, and either make some broth or use chicken stock (because its flavor doesn't mask the bear flavor.)

Hint: Garlic is your friend, and there's no such thing as too many carrots.

You may also want to add things like onions, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Personally, I am a fan of Brussels sprouts, but I know many people are so allergic to them that the mere mention of them here has caused their eyes to bleed. (Sorry about that… maybe you should wear sunglasses or other eye protection from here forward, in case I slip and say "Brussels sprouts" again. Oh! Drat. I said it again. Sorry about that.) Personally, I also like snow peas in my soup, but am not a fan of potatoes, noodles, rice or barley, all of which upset my stomach. However, if you feel like contaminating your soup – er – adding these to your soup, have at it.

You absolutely must add some spices. If you do not, the bear meat will rise up against you and maul you to death. Okay, it won't, but you really really should add some spices. Bear tastes (to me) somewhere between elk and moose, but if you haven't tried those, the best I can do is say it's closer to beef than it is to pork or chicken. It can handle thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram and spices of that nature. It is a particular friend to sage. And have I mentioned garlic? I have? Okay, then; I'll shut up now.

Once you get your broth and spices simmering (and if you like your veggies tender, throw them in there too, so that they have time to get that way) you should think about adding some cooking sherry. Personally I favor the giant bottle of Gallo dry sherry for cooking, but whatever strikes your fancy will do. When I say "some" I mean anything from "none" to "rather a lot, really", depending on your taste. I like to add it early-ish, because it seems to help the spices marry together, and (since I'm making soup I intend to eat at work) I'd really rather all the alcohol cook off so I don't go around hiccupping and smiling sleepily at everyone all afternoon.

Add the bear (and any remaining veggies) any time. In my case this means after approximately 7 minutes and 19 seconds of swearing and rummaging around in drawers trying to find the bottle opener to pop the vacuum-sealed lid off , but use whatever method works for you. Scoop the bear meat into the soup. Make sure you get all the fat off the top and stir it in. There's really not that much when you spread it out over a big pot of soup, and it bestows a rich flavor and a silky mouth-feel to the soup, as well as helping it stick to your ribs.

Since the bear meat is already cooked, you don't have to simmer it long for it to taste amazing. It will also be meltingly tender, literally so tender you can cut it with a spoon. A dull spoon, even. Basiscally you only need simmer the soup long enough to cook the veggies and let the spices blend together. Your best bet is to try it right away so you can be sure you added enough carrots, sage and garlic. Also because it smells so good that you might have a seizure if you don't try it soon.

Note: At this point you may begin to feel a strange burning sensation on the back of your neck. This is your dogs glaring at you in envy and hoping to cause you to spill your soup so that they can help you clean it up by means of judicious wolfing-down and licking-up. It is in most cases safe to ignore this and continue eating. However, in some cases placating the dog by allowing it to lick the bowl is a useful strategy.

See? Bear soup is easy to make. If you start now with the part where you make friends with someone who will hunt bears and share with you, you can have some in just a few years. That might seem like a long wait, but it's probably the fastest method, since I bet that'll produce results before bear meat shows up for purchase at your local grocer's.

Just saying.


EvenSong said...

Some of the tastiest and tenderest steak I EVER ate was from a summer-berry-fattened black bear that my ex shot in the north west corner of Montana. I got the privilege of doing the butchering, which was educational, to say the least. (Do you know that once the hide is removed, the musculo-skeletal bear's anatomy is remarkably similar to a human's?) It was especially exciting when the pastor's wife found the simmering skull in a stock pot on the retreat center stove!

AKDD said...

@ EvenSong:
1) YUM! You lucky thing!
2) Yes, I did know that, actually. But maybe for the squeamish we should keep that our little secret! :D
3) Wish I'd seen her face.

Did you keep the skull?

Melanie said...

I've lived in Alaska all my life and still haven't tasted bear. Sounds yummy!

Dragon43 said...

Great story.
I told yo9u I have & use bear grease.... Right?

Okay, I'm through now.....


AKDD said...

@Melanie, I recommend it. If you're a meat-eater, that is. I prefer it to venison and caribou, personally.

@Dragon... why yes, yes you did. Leading me to wonder what exactly you used it for, of course, but fearing it might be something better left unexplored, I will refrain from asking... ;)

MaskedMan said...

Seems Bear Soup has something in common with English and Welsh yeomanry: To train a longbowman, you start by training his grandfather...

Brussel sprouts.... Mmmmm...

AKDD said...

Snerk! I'd forgotten the one about the longbowmen... thx for the reminder. ANd I'm glad your eyes didn't bleed when I said "brussels sprouts"!

Anonymous said...

That sounds delicious. I live in the 49th state too, but you obviously go to better parties than I do, since I have never wound up with bear meat at one of ours :)

AKDD said...

@ redzils: Well, I've never gotten bear meat at a party before, either - although I've gotten some other yummies at the Harvest parties over the years. I just got lucky this year! :)

Your choices here are to become a friend of Wildwood, or to start your own "Wildwood franchise" - an idea my cousin came up with, actually, after reading something I put on FaceBook. It's a long commute for her to attend a party in AK, so she asked if she could open a Wildwood franchise in her neck of the woods. I think it's a great idea.... a little more Wildwood in teh world would mean a little more warmth, generosity, humor and good-heartedness in hte world. We could all do with that.

Welcome aboard, BTW! :)

Anonymous said...

@AKDD, I might live close enough to be a friend of Wildwood - I grew up the giant cabbage capitol, my parent's live in the giant halibut capitol, and I am in the big city now.

If not, starting one would be excellent. I think we could all use more warmth and good heartedness in our lives.

AKDD said...

So, translating, you grew up in Palmer, your folks live in Homer, and you now live in either Anchorage or Fairbanks, I'm guessing. :D

See? Practically around the corner.