Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas sparks interest in reindeer research

‘Tis the season when the phones are ringing madly at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program.

“It happens every year,” said Greg Finstad (pictured at left), manager of the RRP, in between calls from radio stations and newspaper reporters all around the country and Canada requesting interviews.

“They see reindeer as mythical animals that people made up for Christmas,” Finstad said, shaking his head. “They call me to get the real story. And the real story is much more interesting than the magical animals that pull Santa around. They are amazing animals that thrive in the most inhospitable places on earth. It’s dark and cold and their food is two feet under the snowpack. They are able to dig through and survive.”

Finstad is duly impressed that over thousands of years, man has developed husbandry to care for these particular animals. “It doesn’t make logistical sense to raise another type of livestock on a large scale in the north,” he said.

Reindeer are important to Alaskans in a bigger way than mere transportation for the Jolly Old Elf, Finstad asserts. “We see reindeer as meat. To think of them hooked up to a sleigh would be like hooking up cows or pigs to Santa’s sleigh.”

“We have one of the most insecure food systems and we import most of our food,” Finstad said. “We need to produce more of our own food.”

Those are the points Finstad tries to make during his numerous December interviews. Reporters and radio DJs inevitably ask the difference between reindeer and caribou. Finstad patiently explains that they are different subspecies. Because they are migratory, caribou are leaner with longer legs. Reindeer are much more sedentary, have a more robust body shape with shorter legs and a flatter face. When herded or chased, caribou spread out and scatter, while reindeer gather into a cohesive unit.

“I say the same things every year,” Finstad said. “People ask the same questions but it’s a great opportunity for outreach and to let people know that there is a university that does research on reindeer.”
Reindeer do not mind the cold.

RRP maintains a research herd at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm and works extensively with the Native herders on the Seward Peninsula. Challenges to reindeer as a food product include infrastructure issues, no roads to get the meat out of the Nome area and lack of slaughterhouses. The greatest concern recently has been predator attacks. Bears and wolves have wiped out entire herds, Finstad said. “It’s a big problem.”
A herd of reindeer on the Seward Peninsula.

Most questions start with an emphasis on Christmas, and Finstad proceeds to steer the conversations away from that and toward reindeer as a meat animal. “I just tell them reindeer are real,” he said. “They are a domestic animal that has been extremely important to people in the north for thousands of years and they play an important role in the food system. They are docile, gentle creatures, beautiful animals perfectly comfortable in 40 below and they taste good.”

Reindeer meat is low in fat and high in protein. When questioned about the taste, Finstad’s answer is: “Once you have had reindeer you will never go back to beef.”

The meat is high in myoglobin, making it much different to cook than beef. Because of that Finstad and his researchers worked with the culinary school at Kapiolani Community College, University of Hawaii, to develop gourmet recipes for reindeer meat. The cookbook, which will be published in 2013 by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, is targeted for high-end restaurants and people who want to incorporate reindeer meat into their diet.

“When the state of Alaska and most of North America are covered in reindeer then we’ve done our job,” Finstad said.

“Someday everyone will be able to buy reindeer in the grocery store.”

Asian Braised Reindeer Stew with Eryngi Mushrooms and Wasabi Mashed Potato
Yield: 4 servings
The Stew:
1 oz Butter
1 ½ lbs Reindeer Shoulder, 1 “ cubes
2 oz Onions, large cut
1 oz Carrots, large cut
1 oz Celery, large cut
4 each Star Anise
4 each Lemon Grass, 3” stalk
1 each Ginger, 2” lightly crushed
16 oz Red Wine
4 oz Soy sauce
3 oz Light Brown Sugar
16 oz Demi Glace or Brown Sauce
1. Sear Reindeer in butter until brown
2. Add onions, carrots, celery, star anise, lemongrass and ginger
3. Sauté for a minute and add red wine
4. Simmer for a minute and add soy sauce, brown sugar and Demi Glace or Brown Sauce.
5. Cover and simmer until reindeer is tender. If sauce reduces too quickly, adjust with adding a little water.
6. Remove Reindeer from sauce and reserve.
7. Strain sauce and return Reindeer to sauce.

The Mushrooms:
1 oz Butter
6 oz Eryngi Mushrooms, sliced
To Taste Salt
To Taste Pepper
1 Tbsp Chives, hallow, sliced
1. Sauté Mushrooms in butter until done
2. Add chives
3. Season with salt and pepper and serve

The Potato:
1 lb Yukon Potato, peeled, cooked
2 oz Cream, heated
1 oz Butter
1 Tbsp Wasabi, paste
To Taste Salt
To Taste White Pepper
1. While still hot, mash potatoes with cream, butter and wasabi.
2. Season with salt and pepper and serve

The Garnish:
4 each Lemon Grass Stalk, 4”
As Needed Fried Shoestring Potato

(The above recipe is a sample of what will appear in the upcoming reindeer cookbook.)

No comments: