They say you always remember your first hunt. For me, it was a turkey hunt in spring early on a Saturday morning. I had spent the previous night drinking aged Scotch and smoking cigars on a wide veranda with some of the most gregarious and unpretentious Southerners I had ever encountered. They were well-heeled country folk who had a take-no-prisoners attitude when it came to what they stood for and the life they prized. Good food was a huge part of that life, and on that day before the hunt there were endless stacks of cheese, freshly baked bread and a mound of salad that could feed a regiment. Cacciatorini, salami, ham, pork belly, catfish and other meats were piled high on platters, alongside collard greens with white macaroni and chips and dips. And there was plenty there to wash it all down with: red wine, beer in large tubs and whiskey. After the meal, everyone moved into the smoking room by the fireplace and the guitars emerged, and the blues were played loose and hard in a haze of Cuban cigar smoke-a sort of bacchanal to welcome in the warmth of spring and summer and, more importantly, the start of turkey season.
Even now, so many hunts later, the wild turkey in spring marks both a beginning and an end for me. The air is warming up; I can smell it just as much as I can feel it. It is the last hurrah of the hunting season, when the earth erupts with color and life. The sun comes up along the edge of the trees to the east earlier than it has for months, and you can hear the sounds of nature slowly waking up.
Several weeks ago, as I drove toward a mid-morning turkey hunt, I thought about how this was the end for a while. It was the last chance to hear the owls agitate the turkeys at daylight-and to hear the turkeys gobble back as the house woke up.
Wild turkeys are the ultimate test for a seasoned hunter. There are things that they teach you-that the hunt itself is the great thing, not the amount of game you take. There are many times when you leave the woods empty-handed, when all you can do is salute an ol' gobbler for outsmarting you.
That morning, I inched along the meadow of a dairy ranch, watching the dark crimson tail feathers of three jakes move through the high grass, flexing their muscles for the hens they hoped to attract. When I reached a small clearing in the brush, I sat where the hill met the gully and watched them strut. Two of the jakes moved toward each other in the clearing, their identical silhouettes bobbing in the sun. And as the two heads came together and become one, I slapped the trigger of my shotgun and the silhouettes disappeared. The turkeys became my dinner.
From that experience in California came this traditional Scandinavian dish that is comforting and rich, an ode to the gravy soaked meatballs I had during my childhood. The addition of lingonberry sauce at the end gives it an underlying sweetness, while the yogurt gives it a tang. The meat and gravy is ideally suited for mashed potatoes, which makes this hearty dish just as enjoyable in fall as it is in spring.
"Wild Turkey Swedish Meatballs"
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound ground turkey leg meat
½ cup shallot, finely diced (you can use a food processor for this)
4 cloves garlic, minced (you can use a food processor for this)
1 whole egg
¾ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup sherry
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoons ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 cups turkey stock
1 tablespoon lingonberry sauce or red current jelly
¼ cup plain yogurt
1. In a skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter until it bubbles. Add the shallots and garlic and sweat over low heat until soft and translucent, about four minutes. Sprinkle with a dash of salt to help release the moisture. Turn off the heat and let cool for five minutes.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine the turkey, egg, breadcrumbs, sherry, Worcestershire sauce, parsley, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, salt and pepper. Add the cooled onion and garlic mixture and incorporate.
3. Shape the meat mixture into 1-inch balls and place on a sheet tray or plate; you will end up with about 20 meatballs.
4. Heat the turkey stock in a small pot and bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat and set aside.
5. In the skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of butter. Brown the balls in the butter over medium heat for about 1 minute on each side, just so they are browned but not cooked through. Remove them with a slotted spoon or tongs back to a plate.
6. Once all of the meat has been browned, use the pan juices to make a sauce. Whisk in the flour until it is thick and clumpy and let cook for a few minutes while you whisk. A thick paste will form. Next, whisk in the warm stock a little at a time until you have a light brown sauce.
7. Let the sauce thicken slightly, then return the turkey meatballs to the pan. Cook on low heat for 10 minutes uncovered so that the sauce reduces further, and stir occasionally. Turn off the heat and whisk in the lingonberry sauce and yogurt. Serve immediately with lingonberry sauce on the side and a dollop of mashed potatoes.
Makes 4 small portions