This is the first of a three part series which utilizes indigenous foods and traditional cooking techniques as inspiration, placing indigenous traditions into a new context. We are taking direct inspiration from the work of Sean Sherman aka The Sioux Chef (see some of his ideas here), and we begin with elk.
Elk once roamed the entire Great Lakes region and were an important food source and cultural touchstone for the indigenous population. Today, the only area within the Great Lakes region with a substantial free-roaming elk herd is Northern Michigan through re-introduction. Michigan’s native elk disappeared around 1875. Today’s elk herd dates back to 1918, when seven western animals were released near Wolverine, MI. The herd grew to over 1,500 animals, and elk hunting resumed in 1984. More recently, elk were also re-introduced in Northern Wisconsin and now number about 400 animals.
The elk of our dish is farm raised and similar ground elk products can be purchased at any of these farms:
- Bugling Pines Elk Farm – Wisconsin
- Lake Winds Elk Farm – Wisconsin
- Hawks Hill Elk Ranch – Wisconsin
- K & K Elk Ranch – Wisconsin
- RC Ranch – Wisconsin
- Maplehurst Elk Farm – Michigan
- Hiawatha Farms – Michigan
- Amber Elk Ranch – Michigan
We are adding some charred wild leek leaves to the meatballs and then also making a charred wild leek sauce with sunflower seeds. More on wild leeks here, but if you don’t have access to these highly seasonal leaves, a 1:1 blend of green leek leaves and sage will mimic some of the herbaceous notes we’re looking to add.
The base of our sauce here is plum, which are indigenous to the Great Lakes region, along with cranberries, blueberry, and raspberries. Plum sauce has long been a feature of Asian cuisines, so we felt comfortable the sweet sour component would provide the right contrast for the wonderfully rich elk meat.
Elk Meatball with Charred Wild Leek and Plum Sauce
- 1 lb ground elk meat
- 1/2 cup fine ground cornmeal
- 2 cups water
- 2 Tbsp cedar salt (see note)
- 2 bunches wild leek leaves (or mix of green leek leaves and sage) to yield 1/2 cup finely diced
- 1 duck egg
Bring water to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Rapidly whisk in cornmeal. Stir frequently until all water is absorbed and corn meal is softened, approximately 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Char wild leek leaves lightly over an open fire, a hot grill or by placing on a pan under a broiler, until just beginning to blacken on the edges. Allow to cool and chop finely. Set aside half of the charred leeks. Add 1/4 cup of the charred leeks, 1 Tbsp of cedar salt, and remaining ingredients to the elk meat and use hands to mix until just incorporated, try not to over-mix. Form into approximately 2 inch balls and set on a parchment paper lined pan. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Note: Our inspiration for the cedar salt is the finishing salt sold by Sakari Botanicals. We made our cedar salt by harvesting new growth cedar tips, processing them in a spice grinder, and then combining in a 1:1 ratio with salt.
- 12 pitted, dried plums
- 1/4 cup of unsweetened, dried cranberries
- 2 ounces dried chanterelles, powdered (see note)
- 2 cup low salt vegetable broth
- salt to taste
Chop plums into 1/4 inch pieces. Place all ingredients except salt into a medium sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook until reduced by half, then set aside to cool. When cooled to room temperature, puree mixture. The resultant puree should be close to the consistency of a thick marinara. Add salt to taste.
Note: If you don’t have access to powdered chanterelles, simply buy a 2 ounce package of dried chanterelles and blend until powdered in a spice grinder or blender.
Wild Leek “pesto”
- 1 bunch wild leeks (from above)
- 1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp corn oil
- 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
Add finely diced wild leeks, charred above, and 1/4 cup corn oil (or use another neutral cooking oil) to a blender. Toast sunflower seeds in a pan with 1 Tbsp. oil, then add to the leeks when lightly browned. Add 1 tsp of salt. Puree until blended, but not smooth.
- 1 cup fine corm meal
- 1 Tbsp Vegetable Shortening
- 4 cups water
- Salt to taste
Combine corn meal and shortening in a medium saucepan, then add boiling water while whisking rapidly to avoid lumps. Cook over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring continuously. Add salt to taste.
Final cooking and assembly
Preheat oven to 400ºF and remove elk meatballs from refrigerator. When oven is ready, bake elk meatballs for 15-20 minutes or until cooked through. Reheat corn porridge on low, stirring occasionally.
To serve, place a scoop of warmed corn porridge on a ridged plate or a shallow bowl. Top with warmed plum sauce and then place an elk meatball on top. Place a small dollop of wild leek pesto on the meat ball and sprinkle with cedar salt.