Saturday, August 18, 2012

Waapiti Chili

The Shawnee and Cree called it waapiti or "white rump."  These animals were not mere white-tailed deer.  They were taller, heavier and much more majestic creatures.  The waapiti bulls were crowned with a large rack of antlers, jaggedly reaching for the sky.  Traveling in herds of bulls or cows, the land of the waapiti stretched across North America, as far as their eyes could see and their legs could take them.  They could be seen meandering through forests, emerging occasionally along the edges to feast on nearby grasses.  They could also be seen climbing hills and mountains, surveying the lands for food and predators.  

They had predators, such as the Native Americans. The Cree, along with the Kootenai, Ojibwa and Pawnee hunted the waapiti for its meat, as well as its thick hides, which could be made into warm robes for colder weather.  Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest used the bones and antlers of the waapiti for their harpoons and fishing equipment.  And, for the Oglala tribe in the Great Plains, the waapiti were valued for more than their earthly contributions of meat, hide and bone.  The waapiti were considered a dominant animal spirit, associated with love, passion, strength, courage and swiftness. 

Today, waapiti -- or, as we know them, elk -- are valued for a completely different reason ... as a healthy alternative to beef.  Although the range of the elk has been drastically reduced due to hunting and loss of habitat, some farmers and herders have taken to raising herds of elk for consumption.  Raising elk stands in stark contrast to how cows are raised.  Rather than being stuffed in feedlots, elk are free-range, allowed to roam and graze on grasses and native grains.  Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in elk (as they also do in bison), and, given the free-range lifestyle, elk can live healthier lives without the need for antibiotics.  In the end, elk (and bison) provides a healthier alternative to beef, with less fat and cholesterol than feed lot beef.

I recently found that a local grocery store carried elk patties.  The ground elk meat presented an interesting challenge.  I quickly pulled out my phone and Googled possible recipes using elk.  I Immediately came across a recipe for elk chili.  It looked interesting, but I thought I could do a little more to make the dish stand out.  First, I decided to use different color bell peppers, to add color to the dish.  I chose some small red, orange and yellow bell peppers.  Second, I decided to add some jalapeno peppers, which would not only add some green to the color profile of the dish, but they would also add some heat to the chili.  Third, I decided to go a different route with respect to the beans.  Like many chili recipes (outside of Texas), the elk chili recipe called for the use of kidney beans.  Those beans are fine, but I wanted to choose the healthiest beans I could find.  I decided to use borlotti beans, which had a little more Vitamin C and Iron than the traditional kidney beans. Finally, I decided to use a little beer to make the chili.  The beer, combined with the liquid from whole tomatoes, helped to elevate the sauce for this dish. 

Recipe adapted from
Serves 3-4
1 pound of ground elk meat
1 cup of bell peppers, finely diced
4 small jalapeno peppers, finely diced
1 1/2 cup of onions, finely
2 garlic cloves, finely diced
1 can of whole tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon of seas salt or kosher salt
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
6-8 ounces of beer
1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Ground pepper, to taste

1.  Brown the elk meat.   Season the meat with the salt and ground black pepper.   Heat the olive oil in a pot over medium high heat.  Add the ground elk meat and brown the meat.  Use a spatula or a spoon to break up the meat into smaller pieces as it browns.  Once the meat browns, which should take about four to five minutes, remove the meat from the pan and set aside.   Drain all but one tablespoon of the grease from the pot.

2.  Saute the vegetables.  Add the onions and saute them over medium high heat for about two to three minutes.  Add the bell peppers, jalapeno peppers and the garlic.  Continue to saute the vegetables until the onions are translucent and the peppers are soft. 

3.  Make the chili.  Add the tomatoes, dried thyme, dried oregano, smoked paprika and brown sugar.  Also add the paste and water from the tomato can, as well as the beer.  Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a simmer.  Return the meat to the pot.  Simmer for fifteen minutes to half an hour.   Serve immediately.

You can also add some garnish, like crumbled cheese or chopped scallions.


For this dish, I think a beer works best.  I drank a Heavy Seas Loose Cannon Hop3 Imperial Pale Ale with this dish.  The pairing with an Imperial Pale Ale, especially the Hop3 works very well, adding a nice hoppiness that complemented the spice in the dish. 


For more information about elk, check out the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

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