Fill Your Pantry With Help From Mother Nature
Save Money on Your Food Bill
By Gail Reynolds — Worried about how you’ll be able to supply the household food needs this winter without breaking the bank?
You can fill your winter pantry quite generously at little to no expense by carving out the time to tap into the bountiful resources that Mother Nature has to offer. Simply take a hike on the wild side to hunt, gather and harvest what nature most plentifully has to offer.
At Timberlakes Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, Jim and I (like many Countryside readers) have been at this endeavor for years because it’s an essential element and part of our self-sufficient lifestyle.
At this stage of the game, we have pretty much gotten to the point where we can supply the majority of our basic food needs — between the garden produce we can, dry and freeze, the domestic poultry we raise and dress, the game we hunt and butcher, the milk and cheese we yield from our goat herd and the wild edibles (mushrooms, greens) we gather and put up.
To say that it hasn’t involved time, energy and a lot of trips along the learning curve would be an outright mistruth. However, the rewards and sheer pride of going into winter with a full year’s supply of meat, fish, poultry, game, and veggies far outweigh any negative aspects.
Ever since last year, when we began teaching my 12-year-old grandson, Michael, how to procure his own food, the rewards have exponentially multiplied. And the fact that our trips to the grocery store become less frequent year by year make it all well worth the effort.
Because, as I mentioned, it’s been a practice-makes-perfect flow over the past 25 years (especially for me, who had never ever even picked up a gun, let alone hunted or butchered anything except a domestically-raised chicken before I met up with Jim), I’ll share some of the knowledge we’ve gathered over time plus some time-saving tips about processing harvests from the wild.
Wild Edibles for the Non-Hunter
If you’re apprehensive about hunting or a vegetarian dinner, there are still loads of wild edibles awaiting your harvest—mushrooms, wild grapes, watercress, fall greens, Jerusalem artichokes, and nuts, to mention only a few — that are available in the woods and byways throughout the world. These all can be put up for winter fodder in a variety of ways—freezing, canning, and drying.
To check on wild edibles where you reside, check with your conservation department to see if they have information tailored to your area. Generally, this information is available for free or at a minimal charge, and often times can be downloaded from the conservation department’s website.
Fish and Seafood
Many folks who shy away from hunting wild game or fowl with firearms or bow find themselves still comfortable with fishing and exploring the waterways.
Here, you’ll find—especially in the fall months—a “platter-full” food supply which can be frozen for winter meals.
Because the daily harvest limit for one person on most types of fish can provide a generous meal for a family of four, fishing is a perfect relaxing way to pump up your food supply. So every time you hang out that “gone-fishin’” sign this fall, think of it as one meal down—one that you won’t have to purchase at the grocery store.
In our section of Missouri, we are fortunate to have many lakes and waterways at our disposal inhabited with a massive variety of edible fish. In addition, at our farm, we have three huge ponds which support the successful reproduction of bass, bluegill, catfish and crappie—not to forget a handsome supply of frogs and turtles.
In most states, a fishing license is required. As a rule these are very inexpensive (the proceeds going to support the efforts of the conservation department) and along with the license, you’ll be handed a booklet or brochure which outlines the open-season(s), the take limit (how many you can harvest in a given time), and the acceptable size for each type of water creature and fish that you are permitted to harvest.
While some varieties of fish are prepared whole (with scales, heads, and guts removed), others require filleting. Learning how to filet a fish takes some getting used to, but the main goal technically is to separate out the fish flesh (with the use of long filet knife) from the skin (on the top sides) and bone (on the inside).
Whatever method is required, once the fish has been processed, in order to prevent spoilage it’s important to immediately and thoroughly wash the fish in cold water, removing any blood or intestinal debris, and freeze it.
I generally package my fish, washed and drained, in plastic zip-lock bags. This works well for us, since we eat it up fairly quickly. Many of our friends tell us that the best way to freeze fish is to put them in a waxed square carton (like those milk and some juices are packaged in) with water, as they keep well for a longer period without suffering from freezer burn.
Large turtles are also an avenue to a generous supply of meat, and while I am told that it is delicious, I’ve never been successful in preparing turtle that didn’t have the texture of rubber!
If you know how to cook turtle meat or know someone who does, it’s probably well worth your effort as one large turtle provides a heck of a lot of meat!
Cleaning a turtle can be a chore, but there’s an easy way around this if you have a knife and a pair of shrub clippers. Use the clippers to remove the upper and bottom shell of the turtle from its hinges along the bottom of the turtle. Once you’ve accomplished this, you can carve out the various areas of flesh. Once again, immediately clean the meat in cold water and freeze for later use.
Hunting Wild Game and Fowl
For those who hunt (or want to start), there’s a plethora of flavorful and nutritious game meat available if you’re willing to invest the time to harvest it, dress it out and process it for storage.
As in fishing, a hunting license is usually required. The cost is not that much and the license usually extends a full year (depending on the game), and when you compare the cost of the license to the cost you would pay for just one pound of good quality meat at the grocery store, it’s about a flush.
Because hunting is a practiced skill, it would be superfluous to go into detail on just how to go about it. If you’ve never been firearms hunting before, the first thing you need to do is to learn how to properly handle and shoot with a gun. Most conservation departments offer free courses on this very subject.
Just how to aim, fire and procure your harvest is a little more difficult (especially if the creature is moving) and it’s a try-until-you-succeed sort of a deal. The best thing when you start out is to hang with an experienced hunting buddy. Watch, listen—then watch and listen some more.
Not only do hunting endeavors stack up pounds of meat for the household, they help balance the wildlife population and environment, promoting the chances for healthy survival of each species that co-inhabits the forests and woods.
The main issues at hand when hunting is that you follow the conservation guidelines to a “tee.” In other words, handle your firearm properly, hunt only during the specified season times and dates, ask permission before you hunt on someone’s property and don’t poach (do not hunt during off hours or off-season).
The reasons for these rules are three-fold: safety is a top priority; you can be fined if you don’t follow the regulations (and possibly have your firearm confiscated); the seasons are generally set on certain dates and at certain times on purpose—to filter out an overpopulation of a certain species at the correct time of year when this should occur. Hunting during off-season (poaching) won’t do you or the wildlife in your area any favors as it can drastically impact the balance and natural life cycles of the different species that depend upon the forest habitat for continued survival.
Processing Your Wild Game Harvest
Whether the wild game that you take qualifies as large game (deer, elk, bear, etc.), small game (squirrels, rabbits, raccoon, armadillo, ‘possum) or fowl (duck, goose, turkey, quail, or dove), the processing, at least the way we go about it, is pretty much the same.
Because we skin all our take—fowl and birds included—my main goal is to remove the outer fur/skin as easily and fluidly as possible (without having excess fur or hair fall onto the fleshy meat), so I can remove the guts, process the meat, clean it and put it up in the freezer as soon as I can to avoid unnecessary contamination, temperature changes, and spoilage.
Birds, Turkeys, Waterfowl, Small Game
With birds, turkeys, waterfowl and small game (rabbits, squirrels, raccoon, etc.), I go about this essentially the same way.
1. I cut off the legs — at the ankle for small game and at the knee joint and middle wing joint for birds, turkey, and waterfowl.
2. With my very sharp knife, I cut a slit around the neck (through the skin, but not all the way through the critter) leaving the head intact (so that I can use it for leverage later on in this process).
3. From this circular slit around the neck, I make an elongated slit (once again with my knife beneath the skin but not into the flesh) from the neck down on through to the bottom of the critter’s body.
4. Now, using my hands I carefully separate the skin (fur) from the flesh, starting from the neck down. If necessary, I use my knife to help separate the fascia which connects this outer coat to the flesh—taking very careful small swipes just above the flesh.
5. Once the skin (outer coat) is separated from the flesh to about the upper shoulder level (just above the front legs for small game and just above the wing for birds and fowl) I just peel it down —first over the front legs, then down the mid-body, then down the back legs. This is where I use the head for leverage, holding the head with one hand while I peel down with the other.
This is much like pulling pajamas off a toddler and the end-product (the furry skin) really does look just like that. The benefit of doing it this way is that the feathers or fur very rarely touch the inner flesh and I try to avoid this from happening as much as I can because it is a royal pain to try to get that fur or feathers off the flesh later on.
Also, if you’re interested in trying your hand at tanning, this process gives you a pelt that’s quite attractive, completely whole and not disrupted by shreds or knife cuts.
6. Once I have the outer coat removed and the critter skinned, I remove the head by simply cutting it off with my knife and remove the intestines by making a knife slice through the lower abdomen.
7. In most cases, I do not make a knife cut up into the breast cage to enable me to get to the heart and lungs. I remove the lower intestines first (with my hand) and then reach up into the chest cavity to remove the heart and lungs.
8. At this point, I use the hose to fully wash out the inside of the animal or fowl and I fully wash off my workspace so that I can carve the meat into the portions I will be using for cooking.
9. In the case of small birds, this is it—they go in the house to be thoroughly cleaned and detailed in cold water. I allow them to drain for a short while (standing them upright in a dish drainer used for just this purpose) and then I package them in plastic bags first, wrap the plastic bags with freezer paper, label up the top of the package with the type of meat and the date (so I can use the oldest stuff first) and then pop them into the freezer.
10. In the case of small game, turkeys or large fowl, I cut up my meat in portions as follows: four legs (cut off at the joint to the body); chest cage; mid-section; and saddle (pelvic/back area). If the animal is on the large size, I sometimes split the back legs into two portions at the knee joint so that I have two thigh portions and two shin portions.
11. In the kitchen I wash and clean the meat thoroughly in cold water, allow the pieces to drain and then package them (same as with the birds) for the freezer.
While the process is similar for large game, it entails more work and for our deer, of course, it requires hanging the animal up off the ground for the skinning portion.
Once you have downed a large animal, the first thing on order is to gut it as soon as possible. We do this in the field by rolling the carcass on its back, spreading the hind legs and making a slit along the centerline of the belly from the breastbone down to the tail. Be sure to slit through the thick abdominal muscle, but avoid cutting directly into the intestines.
Cut around the anus, drawing it up into the body cavity. Then turn the body on its side, remove the innards and save the heart and liver, if you wish, for cleaning and storage in the freezer when you get back home.
Now, roll the animal belly side down and allow the blood to drain out. Tag it according to your state regulations and rules, and once it’s fairly drained out, drag the animal by the head (upwards so that the draining can continue), load it and take home.
Once you arrive home (in some states you have to register your take at a deer-checking station), hang the animal from a tree or rafter so that it’s low enough for you to work on, but is not touching the ground.
As a matter of preference, we hang ours by the neck with its head facing the sky—mainly so that it can continue to drain and also, because even though this is a large animal, we still skin it in the same manner—just with a few different types of cuts.
First, cut off the hooves, then make a slit around the neck and from that slit, make two diagonal slits (from the neck down to the bottom on the body) along the back and also on the underside.
Begin to peel the hide off the animal from neck down to the front legs. From here, make a knife slit along and down each leg and peel away.
Continue peeling down the body until you reach the back legs and make knife slits along and down each leg so that you can continue remove the pelt.
Once this is completed, you can generally peel off the rest of the hide (tail and all) with no sweat.
For large game, Jim cuts and saws the animal (in our case, deer) into fairly large workable chunks while it’s still hanging, and places these into a wheelbarrow for hauling to an outdoor initial processing area.
Once all sections have been cut, the wheelbarrow is taken to a picnic table where the meat is very diligently hosed off and washed.
At this point, Jim saws the neck, mid-back and saddle sections into meal-sized bone-in roasts. The same is done with the bottom section of each leg.
With all of the rest of the remaining flesh, he removes the bones and these portions of meat are either cut into steak slices or into boneless roasts. The cut pieces are then rewashed very thoroughly, placed in a sterile bucket or container and brought into the house for the final clean and packaging.
Under cold water, I re-wash and inspect the meat, making sure that any traces of debris have been removed. I allow the washed pieces to drain in a kitchen dish drainer which we have set aside just for this purpose.
Any portions of meat that are ragged or sinewy are packaged together to be ground up for sausage or placed on the dehydrator as marinated strips of deer jerky.
Once the excess water has drained off the meat, I wrap each piece in a plastic bag, then wrap each plastic bagged-piece with freezer wrap. This extra insulation helps prevent the meat from getting freezer burn, we have found, and it is worth the extra effort.
The packages are labeled by the type of meat and the date and then carted off to the freezer.
Normally, we take two or three deer each season and this pretty much provides for all our red-meat needs.
Here’s an idea on the yields and how money can be saved by hunting, harvesting and processing your own wild game:
• Deer: an adult whitetail deer in our vicinity usually averages, after dressed and cleaned, a yield of around 80 pounds of venison.
Given the portions that we (and now Michael) eat, one deer generally provides us with 50 meals (essentially a venison meal a week).
While deer is leaner and contains more protein than beef, the grocery store prices of beef would be a fair equivalent by which to judge the savings.
A quality lean beef roast these days in our region is running close to $4 a pound. Each deer then, values right at $320. And for all three—we’ve saved nearly $1,000 that would have otherwise been spent at the grocery store.
• Small game: The best way I can show a small game equivalent is to compare the game to the meals that they provide. Two large squirrels or rabbits = one meal. One fairly good-sized raccoon = 4 meals; one goose = 2 meals; one good-sized turkey = 4 meals; 3 ducks = one meal; 12 doves = one meal; and 6-8 quail = one meal.