TV host Scott Leysath and the secret of the fresh catch…in your own yard!

As Scott Leysath points out, California isn’t just home to Zac Efron and Bradley Cooper. In his home state, the host of The Sporting Chef on America’s The Sportsman Channel hunts fresh fish and land animals and lives to not only tell about it, but cook it in a delicious feast.

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I saw how you love fish cakes. Do you have any recommended wise ways to buy fish? Would you suggest ordering fish in the mail from Alaskan fishermen? Seriously, that’s a thought I had in avoiding fish farms.

It’s a great to turn small quantities of light-fleshed fish into something that, when seasoned properly, very closely resembles crab cakes in taste and eye-appeal. You can also use leftover cooked fish, which often gets thrown away after a few days in the fridge, to make fish cakes. One of my favorite recipes involves building the cakes around a butterflied and lightly dusted shrimp. I leave the shrimp tail intact and sticking out of the cake so that it looks like a giant stuffed shrimp.

I rarely buy fish at grocery stores, especially the large chain stores. Most have forgone the practice of cutting fish to order for a customer and instead have everything hacked into 6-ounce portions. Asian markets can be a good source of whole fish, which I always prefer over portion steaks or fillets, but do be wary of the country of origin. Outside of the U.S., there are some poor fish farming and harvesting regulations and much of the fish comes from questionable waters.

As much as I like Alaskan salmon, I’ll buy it when it’s in-season and available in fish markets. I’ve actually had good luck with Alaskan salmon at box stores like COSTCO when it’s fresh. My go-to fish supplier in the U.S. is a company out of San Diego, Catalina Offshore Products. The quality of their fish is exceptional and they will overnight it anywhere in the U.S.

What’s the difference in flavor amongst the same species of fish from everywhere in the world? For example, salmon and tuna?

The most obvious difference is between farmed and wild-caught salmon. There is little in common between wild Alaskan sockeyes or kings and farmed salmon from Chile. The wild fish are leaner, darker, less fatty and firmer than those reared in pens while dining on fish food that often contains chemicals to make their flesh more salmon-like. I won’t condemn all salmon farms since there are those that are much more conscious about ecological management than others.

Since there are several varieties of tuna harvested around the world, I’ll limit my response to the U.S. favorite, the yellowfin or ahi tuna. Depending on how far the fish has to travel to the consumer, it may be treated with carbon monoxide to preserve the reddish-pink color. You’ll often see tuna from Tahiti with a label that reveals, “treated with smoke (or wood smoke) to preserve color.” Apparently, there’s no harm in eating smoke-treated tuna, but sometimes the too-pink color just doesn’t look like tuna to me. Frozen tuna that has traveled a several thousand miles to market just doesn’t have the rich, dense flavor of a just-caught, dark-red color of a Pacific Yellowfin or Bluefin loin.

You work with deer meat frequently. Does The Joy of Cooking method of preparing deer meat still stand the test of time?

I actually had to go online to read what the Joy of Cooking had to say about preparing deer meat. What I could find is that different parts of the animal require different methods of preparation, which is 100 percent accurate. A lean and sinewy shoulder is best slow-cooked at a lower temperature, preferably with some liquid. Braising is ideal for shoulder, neck roasts and any of the tougher cuts and there’s no practical way to speed up the process. After several hours of braising, the shoulder bone should put away from the pot roast-like meat. If not, keep cooking. Primal cuts like loins, tenderloins and some of the better hindquarter muscles from a younger animal, are best prepared “hot and fast” and not cooked beyond medium-rare.

I ate deer meat once at age 15, when boys at my school brought it in. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed really greasy. Is there a healthier way to prepare it? Did they simply use too much oil for the deer meat tacos?

Don’t blame the deer. There is much less fat on antlered game than cattle. If it was greasy, something was added to the meat during preparation. Venison is lower in fat and free from steroids, hormones or antibiotics. It is a healthy, sustainable source of protein. Often, home cooks will go to great lengths to make venison taste like something other than venison. If you trim the fat, season judiciously and don’t try and disguise the true, almost sweet flavor of properly handled deer meat, it is wonderful. Some people describe venison as tasting “livery” or “gamey.” As much as I love venison, I’m not a big fan of liver, especially from four-legged animals. If your deer tastes like liver, it was either mishandled in the field or I did something wrong in the kitchen.

A really long time ago, my uncle got sick when he cooked a squirrel. What probably happened? Is this a common thing you hear from inexperienced fans of yours?

If he ate squirrel brains, which is not all that uncommon in some parts of the country, he could come in contact with transmissible spongiform encephalopathy which is basically a form of what is commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. I’m guessing that that’s not the case or his sickness would have progressed beyond what we would normally associate with a food-borne illness.

Both wild and domestic animals can carry diseases that are transmittable to humans, but safe handling and preparation will drastically reduce the risk of illness. I’m not sure if your uncle got his squirrels cleaned and on ice as quickly as possible, but, if not, he should have.

Where are your best spots for fishing and hunting?

I live in Northern California where we have some of the best waterfowl hunting in the U.S. Although better known for surfers and movie stars, California offers an incredible diversity of both hunting and fishing opportunities. Within a couple of hours from my home near Sacramento, I can catch Dungeness crab, go offshore fishing in the Pacific, hunt deer in the Sierras, catch salmon, striped bass and steelhead in the coastal rivers and wash it all down with some great wine.

For anyone who doesn’t want to actually hunt down their dinner, what businesses do you recommend where they can simply buy it?

Broken Arrow Ranch supplies restaurants and home cooks with free-ranging antlered game, wild hogs and some game birds.

D’Artagnon has just about any game you can imagine.

I’d also recommend checking with your local butcher shop, which unfortunately is becoming a thing of the past. Many carry exotic meats. Do keep in mind that purchased game is pricey as compared to farmed beef, pork or poultry. Expect to pay more, but you will also consume less game than beef. A 6 to 8-ounce portion of elk or deer is enough for most people. Of course, you could take up hunting and bag your own, but hunting is not for everyone.

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