Joe Zankl loves to hunt and as chef (and owner) of the Port Hotel he loves to find creative ways to cook the animals he bags
Joe Zankl, owner of the Port Hotel restaurant and inn, is an avid hunter who enjoys finding creative ways to prepare the wild game he shoots.
Zankl, who grew up in the Town of Port Washington, started hunting with his father when he was 10 and hasn’t stopped.
When he went to the University of Wisconsin-Stout to get his degree in restaurant and hotel management, Zankl practically lived off the fish he caught and game he shot.
“There were opportunities to do so many kinds of fishing and hunting there,” he said. “That’s what we ate as college students.”
As his hunting experiences expanded to include bear, moose, elk, antelope and other wild game he bagged throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico, so too did his cooking repertoire.
Some of his favorite recipes are from a dog-eared L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook.
“It has recipes for everything, including opossum and raccoons,” Zankl said. “If it can be harvested, it can be eaten and there’s a recipe for it in there.”
He finds recipes everywhere, he said, often from other hunters and the people on whose land he’s hunted, including Cree Indians in Canada and Buffalo Bob, who raises buffalo in Colorado, as well as the Internet.
“When you come across a good recipe, grab it and run,” Zankl said. “Wild game is more lean and drier and you have to be careful not to overcook it.”
With chronic wasting disease prevalent in deer in some parts of the state, Zankl said hunters and cooks should take precautions with all venison.
“Don’t cut through the bone if possible and remove all the fat and tallow — that gives the gamey flavor anyway,” he said.
Zankl likes using venison for sausage, sauerbraten and stroganoff, noting it can be used in almost any recipe that calls for meat to be cooked with liquids until tender.
He also likes venison steaks, but marinates the meat for one week before grilling.
“Don’t cook beyond medium or it will be tough,” Zankl said. “If it’s done correctly, you will never eat a better piece of meat.”
Although pheasants can fly, they mostly run fast, which makes their legs very strong, he said.
“Braise the legs and they will get tender. Roast only the breast (not the entire bird),” Zankl advised.
He makes a stew of rabbit, squirrel and pheasant in a slow cooker.
“That gets better every time you reheat it,” he said.
Zankl’s favorite place to hunt deer is on his property in Adell, and that’s where he will be Nov. 23, opening day of the gun season for deer.
But when it comes to other game, one of his favorite spots is in northern Saskatchewan, Canada.
He was the first white man to hunt bear with a bow on land near Gow Lake owned by Cree Indians.
“They decided to open it for hunting bear, and I was the first one to apply for a permit,” Zankl said.
He met several generations of the family that has lived there all their lives and learned some of their customs.
Zankl’s hunting trips, which are organized by outfitters, are fly-ins to remote areas. Bush pilots drop he and his friends off on the pier of a lake. They spend most of the day fishing in canoes, then hunt for moose, elk or bear.
Learning about the history of the places where he hunts and the people who live there, Zankl said, is more memorable to him than what he shoots.
But he has some good stories to tell, like the time a 350-pound bear climbed up a tree four times to get him, but scampered down each time when he hollered at it.
“I didn’t want to shoot him because he was too small,” Zankl said. “But those seem to be the nastiest ones. The little ones are scared of everything, and the big ones are smart enough to stay away.”
Another time, he and his outfitter discovered a bear near the end of their canoe, eating a moose Zankl had shot with a bow.
“I shot him (the bear) and he turned out to be our meal on that trip,” he said. “We took the back straps and charcoal grilled them.”
He recently went to North Dakota to shoot swans, which are prevalent there and eat farmers’ crops.
He shot a trophy swan with an eight-foot wingspan. Although his permit allowed him to shoot more birds, he only shot the one swan and three ducks — a female merganser, a drake northern shoveler and a female ring bill. He mounts birds in pairs, and those ducks completed pairs.
The bears he shot were stuffed and are at his father’s or his home.
“Today, I only shoot trophy animals or ones I’m going to mount,” Zankl said. “I’ll get to the point soon when I put down the gun and pick up the camera. I already have some beautiful sunrise and sunset shots.”
He’s had a grouse walk into his blind, a great horned owl look him straight in the eye, a nuthatch land on his camouflaged head and a buck rest all day at the foot of his deer stand.
“He would get up and face a different direction every few hours. It was fascinating watching him,” Zankl said.
“As I get older, I enjoy killing an animal so much less. I appreciate how beautiful they are. The group of people I hunt with are all good people, good sportsmen. They’re all hunters and tree huggers at the same time.”
Turn to the recipe page for more tips from Zankl for preparing wild game and a few of his favorite recipes.
Image Information: Joe Zankl finds game recipes in an old family cookbook. Photo by Sam Arendt