Taco dishes filled with spicy wildlife and fresh fish seem to be hard to beat at the Alabama Wildlife Federation Cook-Offs, and the recent Gulf Coast competition at Spanish Fort was no exception.
In front of a packed crowd at the Blue Gill Restaurant, the Venison Birria Taco, prepared by the Five Rivers Fiesta team of Daniel Haas, Thomas Clark, Todd Amos and Charles Green, was crowned overall winner.
“It was great,” Haas said. “I was tired after that, but we enjoyed it. I have seen this dish on TV shows and eaten it at several different places in Texas. It’s a bit more mainstream food now, pretty mainstream Mexican food. Some people know about it, but we thought it would be another change of pace in cooking.”
Haas said members of the cooking team opted for venison because their freezers were well stocked with venison. After studying several recipes, Haas added his own twist to the dish with a sauce made from a drip pan of slow-roasted venison and spices.
“The recipe called for roast venison, but I’m not an expert at deboning the hind quarter, so we used a good cut of loin and tenderloin because it’s much easier to remove the silver skin and connective tissue from those cuts,” he said. “I took a recipe made to feed 10 to 12 people and increased it to 10. The recipe calls for a large dutch oven, but because of the cooking method, we used Crockpots. You might have to go to your local taqueria to find all the chilies.”
Venison Birria Tacos
3-4 pounds of venison
1/4 cup cooking oil of your choice
6 dried guajillo chili peppers, with seeds
4 dried chile de árbol peppers
2 chipotle peppers
2 dried ancho chilies, stemmed and seeded
2 tablespoons adobo sauce
1 can of roasted tomatoes
2 tablespoons of white vinegar
1-2 tablespoons of minced garlic
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
Juice of 1 lime
A dozen flour tortillas
1 pound Mexican four cheese blend
1 cup pickled red onion and jalapeños
2 bunches of green onions
2 bunches of fresh coriander
Season the meat with salt, pepper, and garlic powder before transferring to a Dutch oven or Crockpot and sear in the hot oil along with the drip pan.
To make the sauce, place the peppers in 1 gallon of boiling water for 5 minutes. Reserve 3 cups chile cooking liquid. Place the rehydrated peppers in a food processor and blend. Add the next 10 ingredients through the lime juice to the food processor. Add chili water until desired consistency is reached. Pour the sauce over the stewed meat.
If using a dutch oven, place the meat in the oven for four hours at 325 degrees and another 30 minutes at 350 degrees with the lid off. Using the Crockpot, turn on high heat and cook for three hours, then turn it to low heat for another 90 minutes.
“After about four hours, start checking the meat with a fork,” Haas said. “If you can spin a fork in it, it’s brittle and you can start crushing it. One of the things to look for when slow cooking wild game is that the meat forms a foam. Scrape off the foam and get rid of it.”
As soon as the meat is soft, remove the venison from the utensils and cut it. Take the tortillas and brush them with the sauce left on the pan before heating the tortillas in a skillet, griddle, or grill.
“There’s a little layer of fat on the sauce,” Haas said. “We take the tortillas and dredge them through it before heating the tortilla. You can tell when it is coated because it will be dark red on both sides. This is where you really get the flavor. This is the solution because the tortilla will be a little crispy by cooking it in rendered fat. You cook that tortilla for about 30 seconds on one side and flip it over.”
After flipping, remove a portion of the cheese and place on the tortilla and on one half of the sliced meat. Flip the tortilla over and cook for about a minute. Flip and cook for another 30 seconds, or until the cheese is melted, before placing on a serving plate.
“The recipe calls for chopped white onions, but we actually did pickled red onions and jalapeños,” Haas said. “We also sprinkled chopped green onions and cilantro on top. Then we took the remaining sauce and poured it over the sauce.
“We are glad that everyone liked them. We probably served 150 tacos. We’ve been busy. People kept coming back. As for the win, I’m surprised we swept the competition, but I was pretty confident that if the dish was executed the way I envisioned, it would have a chance to at least win the game division. We thought it would be a little different and few people would refuse melted cheese, slow cooked meat and fried tortillas. I love cooking and I love the chaos of cooking for a large group of family and friends.”
The Five Rivers Fiesta team will advance to the AWF Wild Game Cook-Off State Finals next August.
Another taco dish in the running for overall winner was Fairhope Fish House’s Day Boat Tuna Tacos, which won the fish category. Chef David Ramey seared fresh yellowfin tuna and prepared a tasty taco. Hooks Lake took second place in fish, followed by Team Hiller.
BA’s Barbeque has traditionally won the poultry competition with its goose steak. Caden Bradshaw said keeping it simple is the key to a flavorful, tender white-fronted goose breast.
“Specklebellies are called the ribeyes of heaven,” Bradshaw said. “I didn’t soak them in any milk or ice water like some people say you have to do to get the flavor of the game. All I do is make sure I remove all the fat from the goose. You get your favorite steak seasoning. This time I used Kinder’s, but use whatever you like. I sprinkle the goose breasts with spices and put them in a plastic bag for about 30 minutes. Then I put the breasts on a hot grill or grate. You flip them every five minutes until the internal temperature reaches 130 degrees. That’s a nice medium rare. I let them rest for five to eight minutes and then drizzle them with melted garlic butter. Slice them against the grain and they’re ready to eat.’
Wild Turkey Confit prepared by the Tensaw Delta Waterfowl/CCA Eastern Shore team took second place in the poultry division, followed by the Hiller team with a Quail Wrap.
Gator Bites by Equipment Depot took second place in the games category. Eastern Shore Ace Hardware took third place with Bacon-Wrapped Venison.
Visit www.alabamawildlife.org/wild-game-cook-off/ for a schedule of remaining 2022 cook-offs.