People lucky enough to be invited to Joel Olson’s annual game feed sampled squirrel pizza, fish crepes, duck strudel, and elk sausage — and those were just the appetizers.
Olson, a professional chef who travels to teach at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland several times a year, hosts the annual event each fall in the backyard of his West Side Madison home.
All of the game — this year squirrel, elk, venison, goose, bass and smelt — comes from that year’s hunting or is donated by friends.
In fact, that’s the surest way to get an invite: “If you donate, you’re there, it’s the ticket,” Olson said.
The number of guests over the years has ranged from about 25 to 85 and Olson estimates he spends about 90 hours preparing the meal.
“I’ve been cooking for about two weeks,” Olson said the day before the dinner as he trimmed fat off a tenderloin for the venison carpaccio – raw venison cured in lime juice with cilantro and lemon grass.
Olson’s first game feed was in 1996 and it has been an annual tradition ever since. Each year he starts by taking inventory of his freezer, then brainstorms recipes for almost a month and starts preparing the more than 30 dishes days ahead of time.
“I see what I have, I know what I want,” Olson said of his planning process. From year to year, “I challenge myself to do different techniques.”
Ten appetizers, 15 entrees,
six side dishes and three desserts
Olson, who was born in Viroqua and grew up in Marshfield, earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from UW-Madison. He worked as a chef for decades, but fought formal training for a long time, not wanting to ruin his cooking hobby.
But he finally gave in, graduating third in his class at L’Academie de Cuisine, where he’s been on staff since 1995. He also runs the cooking program at the McLean Community Center in Virginia.
About 45 people attended this year’s feed, where the favorites included the grilled stuffed smelt with tarragon lemon sauce; the venison carpaccio (a perennial hit); and the duck, duck, goose strudel “which was the first to disappear,” Olson said.
Olson describes the strudel — duck cooked in duck fat and topped with more duck and corned goose breast – as “a meat log wrapped in puffed pastry.”
“I used some good Wisconsin cheddar to bind it together,” he said.
The 10 appetizers, 15 entrees, six side dishes and three desserts were all served buffet-style and guests could pick and choose what dishes they wanted to sample.
Always a fan favorite is pizza made with fat Wisconsin gray squirrels braised, boned and topped with homemade garden pizza sauce and mozzarella.
“I’ve been doing the squirrel pizza for a decade,” Olson said. “People look for it.”
Olson said he always tells people what they’re eating, but “if they don’t listen and find they love this pizza, well that’s another story.”
A versatile sausage recipe for elk, venison and more
But guests needed to be sure not to fill up on the squirrel pizza to leave room for the main courses.
“(This year) the runaway entree favorite was the venison roulade (stuffed with crab, prosciutto and almonds), followed by the Greek-style elk sausages with tomato sauce,” Olson said via e-mail after the dinner.
Olson’s sausage recipe works well with elk, venison, antelope and even moose.
“The key is to tightly roll very small sausages, about the size of a breakfast link,” Olson said. This minimizes the chalky dry taste of very lean meat. And chilling the links before frying helps them hold their shape while cooking, he said.
Having enough fat in the recipe also is important for flavor, and his Greek-style sausage recipe calls for heavy whipping cream.
The hand-rolled sausages – made with plenty of garlic and fresh oregano, are simmered with roasted onions and fresh tomatoes.
While desserts are last to be eaten, Olson always makes them first – this year’s options included two trifles.
For the “killer” sour cherry and chocolate trifle, Olson bakes a German chocolate cake embedded with drunken sour cherries. Once baked, he crumbles the cake, soaks it cherry brandy and sour cherry juice and layers it in a trifle dish with whipped cream.
The raspberries for the second trifle also were soaked in booze (the game feed, after all, is an adult party) and layered with lemon curd for a second, refreshing dessert.
The third dessert – an apple cake – never made it to the table this year, but that was all the better for Olson and his family who enjoyed with party leftovers.
Even after hosting his wild game dinner for years, Olson says he still encounters guests who are a leery about tasting his meaty dishes.
“I just encourage them to try it,” he said, remembering one guest who was nervous about eating wild game, but thoroughly enjoyed a dish with creamy dill sauce without realizing he was eating rabbit.
“Once you have people who love it, more people will try it,” he said.