Tastes like chicken?
Not so much. More like a lean piece of pork with a wild-game finish.
That was the verdict of Steve Mueller and some of the other 25-plus people who tasted mountain lion meat last week at the Outdoor Campus West's first wild-game cooking class to include cougar on its menu.
"I thought it was ... good," Mueller said, somewhat tentatively after taste-testing the meat. "I didn't know what to expect, so I just came into it with an open mind. It was more like a low-fat kind of pork."
Rapid City sportsman Jeff Olson, who recently left his eight-year tenure as a South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks commissioner, teaches a monthly cooking class at the new GF&P center. Olsen has cooked every other type of game, fish and fowl that GF&P sells licenses to hunt, but he had never tasted, nor prepared, lion before the Jan. 15 class.
"That's sort of what the Internet said to do," Olson said of his decision to grill the lion much as he might cook a pork tenderloin. He borrowed recipes that he uses for antelope — a sesame seed and bacon-wrapped tenderloin and a backstrap stuffed with dried cherries, grated cheese and croutons. He also did a stovetop skillet of cubed lion tenderloin marinated, batter-fried and mixed with peppers and pineapple that he topped with a sweet and sour sauce.
In addition to lion meat, the class also included a cottontail rabbit chowder and a bighorn sheep barbecue sandwich, but it was the mountain lion that brought out the curious tasters. One of them was Jennifer Hickman of Custer.
Hickman's aunt signed her up for the class. "I'm originally from California, so she thought this would be a new experience for me," she said.
It was. Hickman had eaten rabbit before, but never the meat of bighorn sheep or mountain lion.
There was no "ick" factor in eating the big cat for Mueller, who has also dined in the past on porcupine, rattlesnake, bear and sparrow. "My brother cooked that once. There's not a lot there," he said of the bird.
Unlike his friend and fellow hunter Rob Wilson, Mueller does not have a lion license for this season, but he said if he ever did harvest a lion, he might eat it.
"I would, I guess," he said. "It would be kind of interesting to have a bite with nothing on it at all, so I could discern the original taste. It was a little like those samples at Sam's (Club). I didn't eat enough to really judge it as a meal."
Wilson said if he manages to kill a mountain lion before the season ends, he's more interested in having it mounted than in eating it.
"I'd mount it. I'd take it to the taxidermist," he said.
But Wilson, who works as head of security at Rapid City Regional Hospital, hasn't shot one of the lions killed so far this hunting season. The season ends March 31, whether or not the quota of 100 lions has been reached.
"I've seen more lions by the hospital than I have in the Hills," Wilson said, referring to the numerous lion sightings in southeast Rapid City over the years.
Mueller has seen plenty of evidence of mountain lions around his central Black Hills property, but he's never shot one or tasted it before.
"I've never seen a cat up there, but I'm sure they've seen me," said Mueller as he shared his smart-phone gallery of lion photos he'd captured on a motion-detector game camera with Wilson and Jean Houle.
Houle was one of the few class participants who had eaten lion previously. He cooks for an annual wild game feed at the Eagles Lodge, where he has served bacon-wrapped bits of lion before. Mountain lion will be on the menu again this year during the Friday event, Houle said.
"You gotta cook it well done," he said of lion meat, because it can carry parasites.
In addition to the lion cooking class, Outdoor Campus West staffers offer a "What to Know About Mountain Lions" class.
"This is a fun, informational class on mountain lions that will teach about mountain lion biology, habitats, behavior. There will be furs, skulls, tracks and some fun games for the kids and family," according to instructor Karen Berger, a naturalist intern at Outdoor Campus West. "There will also be information on what to do if you see a mountain lion."
That class will be offered again on Feb. 7, but the cooking class won't be repeated until next year. The following recipes are from Jeff Olson's wild-game recipes.
Sweet and Sour Lion
1/2 pound lion tenderloin, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 each yellow, red and green bell pepper
2 rings of pineapple, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
oil for frying
Marinate the lion meat in:
1 teaspoon soy sauce
rice wine to cover the meat
1-2 teaspoons of corn starch
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon starch
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon oil
Mix batter, coat meat and fry. Set aside and drain oil.
1 1/2 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon plum sauce
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons water
In a wok or large saucepan, brown garlic in a small amount of oil. Add peppers and pineapple. Heat for 5-10 minutes. Add sauce and let thicken. Then add meat. Serve over steamed rice.
Sesame Lion Backstrap
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoon sweet basil
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 mountain lion loin (backstrap)
1 pound bacon
Marinate meat for 8 hours. Roll backstrap in sesame seeds. Wrap with bacon. Tie off or skewer. Grill over medium to high heat.
Diced backstrap meat from 4-5 rabbits
1 bunch green onions, chopped
4-5 pieces bacon
4-8 cups chicken broth
8 ounces heavy whipping cream
1 diced potato
3-4 diced carrots
1 can whole corn
salt and pepper to taste
Brown onion and bacon in a pot. When onions are clear, add meat and brown. Add broth and bring to slow boil. Add vegetables and cook on medium heat for one hour. Add cream and simmer on low heat for another hour.