Game Night; Hold the Poker, Please
When a dear friend of mine asked Mike and I if we were interested in joining her at a game night in the Niagara area, I was somewhat reticent at first. I mean, I like games well enough. Well, I like $20 worth of slots, and I have been known to kick butt at Cranium after a couple bottles of wine, but games aren’t really my bag.
She looked at me sadly, like I was more of a ninny than she had expected, and explained kindly that it wasn’t that kind of game night. There was no Monopoly or Poker involved. In fact, if you did see any hearts and clubs on the table, you would probably want to come back in an hour because dinner was clearly still being prepared. And with that I was hooked, the weekend in my calendar as fast as my fat little fingers could type, and our next date was set for a night of fun, merriment, and wild meat.
When it comes to a good game night, I was delighted to find that this was an annual (or more frequent) occurrence in the area. Hosted by one of the many independent Italian clubs and halls, game night was a way for the community to celebrate together while giving gustatory praise to the fine wild game that we have in the Southern Ontario area. With a price tag that made me almost made me weep with joy at only $40 per person (seriously. No really, seriously), this was well worth the trip to beautiful Niagara Ontario.
When we pulled up to the doors of Club Italia, I was fascinated by the kaleidoscope of clientele that we would be sharing the evening’s festivities with. Pressed and coiffed politicians were rubbing elbows with hunters clad in camo and trucker caps, who were clearly excited for the 50/50 draw featuring some sort of hunting rifle. I would have taken a few pictures of our fellow guests for you, but despite my affinity for creating awkward situations, I was not in the mood to pique the ire of a group of people who likely had guns. Really big guns. Guns that they knew how to use. Anyway, it was clear that everyone was here for the same reason: MEAT. Is there any better reason in the world?
The first hour was for cocktails and nibbles, with a delightfully long hot appetizer station which included;
- Wild boar meatballs in a sweet and tangy glaze. Mike couldn’t get enough of these and for good reason. They were light and tender with a robust flavor and the sticky glaze perfectly complemented the gamier meat.
- Mixed focaccia with cheese and assorted game meats. I’m not sure of the specific ingredients per focaccia, but the little square which looked like a pepperoni pizza must have surely had wild boar sausage. There was a regular bruschetta focaccia as well, but my favorite had a thin layer of tomato sauce with browned ground meat (I won’t speculate on the variety) and a sprinkle of nutty parmesan cheese.
- Wild boar carving station, which went through at least 3-4 enormous joints of perfectly roasted meat with crusty bread rolls on the side. The boar was seasoned simply with rosemary, salt and pepper and I went running for a second piece when they cut into the juicy rare center of the beast.
There were also passed appetizers, such as;
- Cubed cheeses which were mild and domestic. Not particularly compelling, however I have such a weakness for cheese that they still did the trick.
- Stuffed hot peppers with anchovies, which were literally just that. Simple but ferociously tasty, I loved the presentation of plump and salty anchovies nestled in the devilishly hot halved cherry peppers which had just been cooked through enough that they started to release their juices into the fish.
- Wild boar prosciutto wrapped melons. Oh wow. At one point I had tried to justify my continuous scavenging of these appetizers to Mike by saying, “I’m just trying to eat a balanced diet with lots of fruit…” Yeah. No dice. I could have eaten that boar prosciutto for 5 days straight and still craved more. With a mild and slightly salty flavor, the meat looked and tasted more like bresaola, an air dried salted beef which is one of my favorites.
Sadly, we were too preoccupied with eating our way through the glorious appetizers to get any pictures of them, so I’ll leave you with a picture of my friend and I guzzling wine instead. Hey, we needed something to wash down all the boar!
Partridge soup, served family style with Calabrese bread and butter
Our starter to the meal was a wild partridge soup with curious wee little pasta rings (anellini perhaps?) which looked suspiciously like the elastics my brother used to have on his braces. Not everyone at the table was blown away by this unremarkable soup, which tasted like a very competent chicken noodle, but that was the charm of it to me. Comforting and wholesome, although I wouldn’t have known that this was partridge if I hadn’t been told, the soup had a delightfully homecooked flavor. It was like sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen, but surrounded by a few more Italians with guns than she would normally invite over.
Cavatelli with wild boar meat sauce, served family style
I was told by our host that each of the Italian clubs and halls had a specialty dish or two, one of which was, of course, a pasta. I had heard tales about the velvety soft potato gnocchi at a neighboring hall (made by one particular elderly woman who uses nothing but potato, flour and magic apparently) and was excited to try this hall’s specialty, homemade cavatelli. The pasta did not disappoint. In the rich and unctuous tomato meat sauce, the cavatelli was toothsome and perfectly al dente. The pasta was thicker and softer than store bought dried pasta, as is often the case, and it was the perfect rustic shape to cradle and kiss the incredibly full flavored sauce.
I should mention that I love when food is passed family style as it allows everyone to take as much or as little as they like. For this course, there was no ‘little’. At least half of the tables, ours included, sheepishly passed back empty platters and asked for more. When refills came out they were made with purchased penne rather than the homemade cavatelli, but you could have dipped stale bread in that sauce and still sung hymns about it on seven given Sundays.
This pasta was so good that I actually forgot, just for a moment, about the boar prosciutto from earlier. That’s saying something.
Elk rib eye and half roasted quail with roasted potatoes, baby carrots, peas and mushrooms, served individually
The first ‘main course’ of the meal was a duo of seared elk and quail. The elk rib eye was dressed simply with salt, pepper and rosemary, cooked to a lovely rosy medium rare, and served in a rich pan sauce. I adore ‘antler meats’ like venison and moose but had never had elk before. The flavor was quite similar to moose but slightly milder, likely owing to the choice of cut. The meat was tender and juicy, cooked perfectly for the crowd.
As for the quail, I rather wish that I hadn’t been in polite company or I would have gripped it by the wing and picked it clean like an alligator. Trying to eat quail cordially with a fork and knife is always exasperating and this was no exception. Mike found the quail to be rather greasy and bony, which it was, but….but that’s quail. It’s like complaining that your duck breast is fatty or that your flank steak is dry. You pick your meat and you pay your price because even with excellent cooking techniques you still know what you’re in for to some degree. The only time that quail isn’t greasy is when it’s bone dry and you can floss your teeth with the meat. That said, it’s still delicious, and perhaps even moreso because you need to work so hard for the rewards.
When it came to the rest of the plate, I picked out all the buttery mushrooms and ate them first and then sampled a potato just to be polite. After all, roasted potatoes are just potatoes, and I had to save my room in my already distended stomach for that delectable elk.
Roasted sausage and rabbit served family style with spring mixed salad in balsamic vinaigrette dressing
Look, I’m not Italian and I don’t have the foggiest idea if “terzo piatto” is what I should be calling this. It was the third course after the soup and I just took a stab at the title. If you have a more accurate translation, however, please let us know in the comments. Any education is appreciated!
Just when we were starting to get the meat sweats, yet another platter of game came out to be served family style. Although our sever was not able to identify the type of game meat used in the sausage, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that it was boar, as that was the meat of choice in several dishes and other types of boar sausages were served during the appetizer hour. The sausage was truly delicious, with gamey and rich dark meat that was delicately herbed and perfectly seasoned. After being browned, the sausages braised in a thin and slightly acidic tomato sauce that balanced out the game meat perfectly.
The rabbit was sectioned and braised in the same tomato sauce as the boar, and the flavor was light enough that it didn’t overpower the delicate sweet meat. I never had such an appreciation of the versatility of a good homemade tomato sauce until this meal, where it’s flexibility and ability to enhance flavors was so keenly in the spotlight. As for the rabbit, it was delicious but a bit fattier than I like so I struggled with some of the more gelatinous bits, but the sparse pickings that I left on my plate were quickly inhaled by one of our dining partners.
After so much meat, a touch of greenery was perfect to settle the stomach and aid digestion. When I make salads I usually opt for a more acidic dressing, and this balsamic vinaigrette was tart and refreshing enough to almost cut through the layers of game in my gullet.
Lemon ice with coffee and tea
After an abundant and rich meal, frankly I was dreading dessert. Nightmares of delicious bowls of tiramisu and custards that I was too full to eat were circling around in my head. Thankfully, my foreboding fancies were put to rest when we were served a perfect wee portion of a refreshing palate cleanser in the form of lemon ice. Lighter than an ice cream or gelato, but creamier than your average sorbet, I have no idea what this ice was actually made of. What I do know is that despite my protestations of groaning buttons and distended tummies, I still managed to finish off my scoop and steal half of Mike’s when he wasn’t looking.
You guys, I can eat, but working my way through delicious plate after plate was an epic challenge that I just barely managed to complete. I have never been exposed to such an abundance of truly delicious game meat, and it was an absolute joy (for my stomach, if not for my colon) to be a part of this.
Fueled by wine and boar, I even managed to sweet talk my way into getting the MC take a picture of me holding the main prize for the evening, a very long and pointy looking shotgun. Or maybe it wasn’t a shotgun, it could have been a rifle. C’mon, I live in the suburbs on Northern Ontario. The closest that I’ve ever come to holding a gun is playing Time Crisis at an arcade before the movies. I asked him where the magnifying glass with the ‘x’ on it was kept (apparently that’s called a scope. Whatever), which is when he gently took the gun away from me and shooed me back to my table. Still, totally worth it.
Our Hunter’s Wild Game Night at Club Italia was a deliciously frank reminder that food doesn’t need to be complicated to be delicious. All it takes are quality ingredients, artful techniques and a bit of patience to bring an absolutely outstanding multi-course meal to your guests.
Also, the next time that I’m in the St. Catherine and Niagara area, I fully intend to rob the house of an elderly Italian couple because I’ve been dreaming of home canned passata and tomato sauce for two weeks now. Either that, or I’ll find my way to wrangle another invitation from our welcoming guests. I have no pride when it comes to good food…or big guns, apparently.