Bear doesn't intimidate master chef
When Milos Cihelka emigrated from Czechoslovakia to West Germany and ultimately Canada in the 1950s, more than a few people thought he was crazy.
Not because he had fled communism. But because he was willing to cook -- and even eat -- bear meat.
Black bears are omnivores, and they'll eat pretty much whatever they can get their paws on. Most guides and hunters back then believed their flesh reflected that. Cihelka, who went on to become a master chef and winner of numerous international awards for his cooking, proved them wrong.
"It's the same as with venison. A lot of people do a horrible job with venison," said Cihelka, the chef featured on the "Wild Harvest" videos sold by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
"But it can be excellent if you know what to do with it. Black bear is the same way. It's very good, actually."
It's true that an old black bear will be tougher than a young one, Cihelka said. It's also true that you need to remove as much of the fat from a bear as possible before cooking it to avoid greasy sauces and gravies (though rendered bear fat makes excellent pasties, he'll tell you).
But properly prepared and cooked, bear meat "is probably better than venison," Cihelka said.
He should know. At 76 years old, Cihelka is still an ardent hunter. He's been in his tree stand near his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., just north of Detroit, every night this week, looking for the whitetail that's been making the many scrapes he's seen.
He's killed his share of bears, too, though, including three black bears with a bow and a Russian brown bear with a rifle. He enjoyed eating them all. He prefers to slow cook bear meat for a long time to destroy any parasites -- similar to those found in domestic pork -- and to make the meat tender.
"Simmered or braised slowly, an adult bear meat will take a good five hours to cook to tender. But you can use any venison, wild boar or beef recipes for stews and pot roasts to cook black bear. It's very good eating meat," Cihelka said.
"Everything is what you do with it. How you handle it, how you prepare it, that's the key with bear or anything else."
Here's a favorite bear recipe provided by Milos Cihelka.
Black bear pot roast with caramelized honey
• 6 to 8 lbs trimmed bear meat (rub the meat with garlic, lemon juice and oil).
• 1 tbsp mashed garlic
• 1/4 cup lemon juice
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 branch celery, sliced
• 1 small carrot, sliced
• 1 small onion, sliced
• 6 bay leaves
• 1 tsp dry thyme
• 10 juniper berries
• 10 allspice berries
• 2 tbsp black peppercorns
• 1/4 cup bacon fat
• 1 cup ruby port wine
• 2 cups rich beef broth
• Mix vegetables with spices, place a layer of them on the bottom of a stainless or ceramic container, set meat on top and cover with remaining vegetables. Seal tightly and refrigerate 3 days, turning over daily.
To cook: Preheat oven to 325 F. Clean vegetables off meat. Preheat a skillet, add the bacon fat and the meat. Brown meat on all sides, transfer to a large sauce pan. Season with salt. Add marinade vegetables and spices to the skillet, brown slightly. Add port wine, brown stock, salt, and 1/4 cup of the blueberries, bring it to a boil, pour over the meat. Cover the pan and set in the oven. Braise, turning occasionally, until tender (about 4-5 hours).
• 1/2 cup honey
• 2 tbsp red currant jelly
• 1/2 cup port wine
• 2 tbsp dark rum
• 1 cup blueberries
• 2 tsp Chinese 5-spice
• 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
• In a small, heavy sauce pan slowly cook the honey to a rich brown color. Cool it with currant jelly and port wine, set aside. Transfer cooked meat to another dish, cover and keep warm. Strain cooking juices into the honey, simmer five minutes. Reduce if necessary to 2 cups. Gently saute the blueberries in butter with 5-spice to warm up, add to sauce.
Serve with potato pancakes and roasted vegetables. A robust red wine would complete the meal.