Spicin' Bison

By Lucinda Hutson

Barney made an impressive getaway! He busted through the gate of the neighboring estate, trampled the new landscape and catapulted 1,800 pounds of bulk into the swimming pool—pulverizing its imported mosaic tiles in the process. Even though he caused $10,000 worth of damage, Barney wasn’t ground into patties, but rescued because he was much beloved—the only bull in a small herd. Yep, Barney was a bison (aka a buffalo), raised on my friend’s Hill Country ranch about 15 years ago.

 

Around the same time, my brother, Stuart, was introducing buffalo to his Mesilla, New Mexico farm with the intent of making buffalo jerky flavored with the red chiles and garlic he grew there. A visionary, he knew that lean bison meat—loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients and one-and-a-half times more protein than beef, yet low in calories and cholesterol—would attract health-conscious eaters. His enterprise, though, was short-lived. Buffalo love to roam, and Baby Huey, Stuart’s bull, met an untimely fate. Led by the same migratory instinct as Barney, Baby Huey escaped and devoured a final feast of deadly oleander leaves.

I applaud the brave ranchers who try to confine these spirited animals, as it’s been said that “you can lead a buffalo anywhere IT wants to go!” Still, others have fared better with their herds. Thunder Heart Bison humanely gives its barrel-chested beasts free range on a family ranch in South Texas (and boasts stock bred from the famed Goodnight bison—a herd that was cobbled together and saved by Mary Ann and Colonel Charles Goodnight in the wake of the extreme bison overhunting and slaughter in the late 1800s). High Country Bison, another free-range producer, has also had great success with their herd. Both vendors sell bison at local farmers markets.

Like beef, bison comes in popular cuts like rib eye, tenderloin, roasts, stew meat, top sirloin, New York strips and more (because of the current hot dog revival, High Country Bison's lean “franks” are quite popular). Rich and flavorful in taste—not gamy as some assume—bison burgers, chili and steaks are becoming more popular on menus today, and many grocery stores sell bison too. Just be sure to choose grassfed bison for the highest quality of flavor.

Cooking tips: Beef lends itself to hot searing. Lean bison cooks best low and slow, though it generally cooks more quickly than beef. Take caution not to overcook it—pink in the center and juicy is best, so check it often. Because of bison’s low fat content, rub grills and griddles with oil to keep the meat from sticking. Keep the bison 4 to 6 inches away from a direct heat source when broiling or grilling it.
Try braising bison roasts at a lower temperature and for a longer amount of time than you would a beef roast. Season roasts with a combination of the herbs and spices listed below, and throw in onion, garlic, a few whole dried red chilies and fresh bay leaves. Shredded bison makes a tasty taco or sandwich filling.

Spicin' bison: Season bison (or venison, quail or other wild game) with Southwestern and Mexican flavorings, aromatic herbs and freshly ground spices. Local autumn fruit chutneys, chunky preserves, jellies and jams make tasty glazes and sauces. And don’t forget other fall complementary favorites like orange marmalade, dried cherries, pomegranates and cranberries. Local producer Confituras creates gorgeous preserves like apple Hatch chile chutney, pear preserves with sage and honey and tomato preserves with lemon that all call out to bison. Homemade barbecue sauce, Mexican salsa, spicy honey mustard, jalapeño or habanero jelly and tangy vinaigrettes make good dunkers and drizzlers, but use sparingly so as not to obscure the bison’s flavor.

Herbs: cilantro, Italian parsley, Mexican mint marigold, mint, rosemary, sage, savory

Extras: garlic, onions, shallots, carrots, celery, fennel bulb, potatoes, pepitas or pine nuts (great in meatballs or meatloaf), cinnamon sticks (whole or ground), juniper berries

Freshly ground spices: whole allspice berries, anise seeds, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds

Grind whole spices and chilies in a spice grinder to use as a rub for steaks or for seasoning ground bison, stews, chili and kabobs.

Chilies: freshly roasted Hatch green chiles or poblanos, Mexican dried red chilies: ancho, chile de arbol, chipotle (dried or canned), guajillo, pasilla, New Mexico dried red chiles, Sriracha sauce


SPICY BISON MEATBALLS WITH
TEQUILA-SPIKED CRANBERRIES

Makes 20 bite-size balls

At your next fête, serve bison meatballs hot from the oven to dunk lightly in a sauce of your choice. They’re also good simmered in a robust tomato sauce with Hatch green chiles and served over pasta. Or try them formed into sliders, instead of meatballs, to sandwich between homemade cornbread or sourdough biscuits. Enjoy them instead of fatty sausage for breakfast.

¹/³ c. dried cranberries, plumped in 3 T. tequila reposado (soak for
   approximately 15 minutes, drain and reserve liquid for other
   uses) and coarsely chopped if desired
¼ t. heaping, allspice berries
¼ t. heaping, cumin seeds
½ t. black peppercorns
½ t. coriander seeds
2 dried red chiles de arbol
2 T. olive oil, divided
¾ c. chopped red onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 lb. ground bison
½ c. tostada chips, crushed to a medium crumb with a food
   processor or rolling pin
1 large egg, beaten
¹/8 t. cinnamon
¾ t. salt
3 T. combination of fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, Mexican mint
   marigold, rosemary, sage)

Plump cranberries in tequila and set aside. Grind the whole spices and chiles de arbol in a spice grinder and set them aside. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy skillet, then cook the onions and garlic until translucent, but not browned. Cool.

In a bowl, mix the bison, onion mixture, chips, egg, ground spices, cinnamon, salt, fresh herbs and drained cranberries until combined, but do not overwork. With dampened hands, form meatballs or patties. Pat the meat gently between your palms to compress them slightly, then roll them into bite-size balls.

To cook: Heat the remaining olive oil in a cast-iron skillet. In two batches, cook the meatballs on all sides until lightly browned yet still slightly pink inside—8 to 9 minutes. Or heat them on a greased baking sheet in a 350° oven for about 15 minutes, turning once.

 


SPICY DIPPING SAUCE OR GLAZE

Here’s a quick and easy sauce to inspire your own creations!

4 T. autumn fruit chutney or chunky preserves (I use orange-
   cranberry marmalade)
3 canned chipotles in adobo, chopped, with some of the adobo
   sauce (or use Sriracha)
2 green onions, finely chopped
Reserved tequila from plumped cranberries, plus a splash more
2 T. finely minced herbs or fresh cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
1½ t. orange zest (optional)

Combine ingredients in a small bowl and adjust flavorings to taste.