When I wrote about my recent trip to Lake Lacha, I mentioned the abundance of wild game in the area and the many alleged health benefits of consuming bear meat and bear fat. I marveled that you could even buy jars of locally made bear stew in nearby Kargopol, but complained that simple soups and stews were the practically the only form in which you encounter bear meat in Russia. I guess this makes sense at a hunting lodge, for hearty winter meals in the Far North or to preserve the meat longer. But how about something different? Just like pigs and cows, bears have legs, shoulders, bellies, butts, ribs, necks… Surely all these parts don’t need to be tossed into the same pot. And what about that bear fat that’s supposed so have many virtues? Can’t we do anything other than spread it on bread?
Yes, we can. This isn’t even the first I’ve explored this line of thinking. Way back in 2011, I posted the Vladimir Poutine, the improbable love child of two Frozen North cuisines. This time, I’m making a longitudinal move rather than a latitudinal one, and I’m contrasting wild ingredients from the Russian forests with hip urban dining from the capital. Russian Far North lodge meets Moscow gastrocafé, Austin meets Arkhangelsk. Margarita and the Bear. The Pastor and Margarita. I give you: tacos with smoky bear brisket slowly cooked in its own fat.
As I live in East Harlem, there’s no shortage of good Mexican restaurants in my neighborhood, and many of them turn out classic tacos that make breakfast tacos look the stupid American foodie trend they really are. This certainly played a role when I decided to take a chance with bear tacos; some of my go-to eateries serve lamb, beef tongue, tripe, so why not bear? By choosing a bear brisket cooked with smoked salt, I’m even adding a Texan touch to the dish. To seal this union of Tex-Mex cuisine and Russian flavors, I enrolled a whole cast of supporting ingredients:
- Buckwheat, a favorite of mine, used to make the tortillas.
- Birch syrup, another fave, which, combined with the meat and the buckwheat, forms a fantastic flavor match.
- Pickled lingonberries and ramps. Lingonberries because how can one make a game dish from the Russian Far North without berries, and ramps because of their kinship to bear’s garlic!
- Red radish, a cousin of the more Russian black radish and a taco classic.
- Crème fraîche, chives, shallots… all variations on the classic cream and onion pairing.
Now, this list has lot of hard to find ingredients! But do not fear. Bear brisket (as well as many other cuts of bear) can be purchased at ElkUSA. They also carry bear fat, but only in the raw form, so you’ll have to render it yourself (instructions here – turns out this guy uses it to make tortillas, like me!) There also seem to be people selling rendered bear on Etsy. Otherwise, replace it with beef or bison tallow, both of which can be found on Amazon these days. I hear that bear fat can sometimes have a very pronounced flavor. That wasn’t the case for the one I bought (at the Arkhangelsk airport), but if you have such an issue you can use half bear fat and half tallow. I buy my frozen wild lingonberries (and many other rare berries) from Northwest Wild Foods. Buckwheat flour is widely available but I’ve been using the “rustic aromatic buckwheat flour” from Anson Mills. The best birch syrup I know is sold by Alaska Birch Syrup.
Serve with a shot of Zubrovka, a dash of smoked salt, and a wedge of lime.
Yields about 8 tacos
300 g bear brisket
about 4.5 g smoked salt (see below)
about 1 g black pepper, ground (see below)
60 g rendered bear fat or bison/beef tallow
- Measure 1.5% of the bear brisket’s weight in smoked salt, and 0.3% in ground black pepper. Combine the salt and pepper in a small plastic container, then rub it on all sides of the brisket.
- Transfer the brisket to a sous-vide pouch with the bear fat or bison/beef tallow. Vacuum-seal, then cook in a water bath at 71 C / 160 F for 24 hours.
- Keep in the water bath until ready to serve. The brisket can also be prepared the day before and reheated in the water bath at the same temperature for about an hour.
Yields about 8 tacos
100 g peeled shallots (halved if large)
25 g butter
- Season the shallots with salt, then place in a sous-vide pouch with the butter, and vacuum-seal. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, add the shallot pouch to the pot, cover, and simmer over low heat for 1 hour.
- Take the pouch out of the pot, and keep warm (for example by putting the pouch into the water bath used for the bear confit).
Pickled ramps and lingonberries
Yields about 8 tacos
40 g cleaned ramp bulbs, thinly sliced
40 g whole lingonberries
40 g red wine vinegar
- Place the ramps, lingonberries, and vinegar into a bowl. Combine with a spoon, then let rest for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
- Drain and discard the vinegar. Reserve.
Yields 8 tortillas
35 g rendered bear fat or bison/beef tallow
80 g buckwheat flour
65 g AP flour (plus some extra for dusting)
2.5 g salt
70 g cold water
- Melt the rendered bear fat or bison/beef tallow in a small saucepan over medium heat. Reserve.
- Place the buckwheat flour, AP flour, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed. Add the melted fat and water, and mix on medium speed until homogeneous. Scrape down the walls of the bowl with a spatula, then mix for another minute. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces, about 30 g each, and roll each one into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap so the dough doesn’t get dry.
- Heat a non-stick or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Place one ball of dough on a lightly floured surface and flatten it with your hand. Using a rolling pin, roll to a thin, round tortilla of 12 cm diameter. Place the tortilla in the skillet and cook until the top bubbles and the bottom side has brown spots, 15-30 seconds. Flip the tortilla and cook until the new bottom side develops brown spots, another 15-30 seconds.
- Transfer the tortilla to a plate, and cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with remaining balls of dough. Proceed immediately with assembly.
Yields 8 tacos
80 g crème fraîche
pickled ramps and lingonberries
40 g red radish, thinly sliced
8 g chives, minced
20 g birch syrup
- Take the bear sous-vide pouch out of the water bath and let cool for 10-15 minutes, until the meat’s internal temperature is down to about 60 C / 140 F.
- Slice the bear brisket into 0.5-0.75 cm thick slices, and transfer to a bowl. Pour some of the liquid from the sous-vide pouch over the meat.
- Transfer the shallot confit to a bowl, discarding most of the liquid.
- Serve the tortillas and bear meat with the crème fraîche, shallot confit, pickled ramps and lingonberries, radish slices, chives, and birch syrup. While a person may choose not to use all the ingredients in any single taco, I recommend always including the crème fraîche, bear, and birch syrup – together with the buckwheat tortilla, it’s a winning combination.
- My favorite goes something like this… Spread 10 g of crème fraîche over a buckwheat tortilla, place 2 slices (about 25 g) of bear meat on one half, then top with 10 g shallot confit, 10 g pickled ramps and lingonberries, 5 g sliced radish, 2.5 g birch syrup, and a bit less than 1 g chives.