Savory meat pies are all the more delicious with wild game (and stout)

Autumn is a pretty magical time in Utah. As the temperatures drop and the leaves change, the air itself seems to invigorate the senses. It’s my favorite time of year to go camping and fly fishing in the mountains, with fewer people on the trails and rivers—plus those nasty mosquitos are zapped after a good, hard frost. Our family weekends are often spent wearing blaze orange, trudging quietly over the mountains with a game tag in our pocket, looking for mule deer, elk or antelope to fill our freezer and jerky jars through the year.

One of our family’s favorite places to experience the wonders of fall is at Tavaputs Ranch in central Utah on the West Tavaputs Plateau. Situated above Desolation Canyon at almost 10,000 feet elevation, the private cattle ranch is owned and operated by Butch and Jeanie Jensen and is the oldest family-run guest ranch in Utah. Access to the plateau is only allowed June through early October by booking lodging or activities with Tavaputs Ranch in advance. The graded dirt road up to the plateau climbs over 1,000 feet and requires a high-clearance vehicle and some tricky driving on muddy or snowy days. Even in good weather, it takes over an hour to reach the ranch from nearby Sunnyside.

In the early 1980s, Butch and Jeanie’s fathers coordinated a Rocky Mountain elk relocation program on the plateau, with great results. An award-winning rangeland conservationist, Butch Jensen emphasizes that by keeping native vegetation healthy and avoiding over-grazing, a healthy ecosystem can support abundant wildlife and cattle. The elk herd now exceeds 1,600 head, and we’ve been fortunate to see mule deer and sage grouse. Jeanie maintains dozens of hummingbird feeders to attract what seems like dozens of the hummers zipping around the ranch patio. The plateau is also home to black bears, mountain lions, wild turkeys and even a few “problem” moose that have been relocated to Tavaputs from golf courses along the Wasatch Front.

In the fall of 2013, my family visited the ranch for the first time, and my sons (who were already experienced small-game and waterfowl hunters) were thrilled to see the huge record-breaking elk and mule deer brought in by hunters visiting Tavaputs from all over the country.

Last fall, our youngest son, Garrett, was thrilled when we gifted him with a guided Tavaputs cow-elk hunt to commemorate his 13th birthday. After hiking 12 miles over two days, Garrett harvested his elk with a 258-yard shot.

When we returned home, I butchered the elk into primal cuts, grinds and sausages, stocking our freezer with delicious bounty to enjoy over the winter. With the dehydrator and smoker going seemingly nonstop for days, I put up jerky, pastrami and charcuterie, then roasted the bones with herbs and veggies to make rich stock for pho or onion soup on a snowy day. It’s exhausting work, but elementally satisfying, knowing that very little goes to waste when I do it myself.

One of our family’s favorite ways to enjoy game meats of any kind is in a hearty single-crust pot pie, which can easily be assembled as a one-pot-meal in a large cast-iron Dutch oven. It’s very good with elk, deer or antelope, but can be prepared with lamb or beef from your grocer.

Guinness & Game Pot Pie
Makes 6 generous servings

2/3 cup flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons bacon fat (or vegetable oil)
1 ½ pounds elk, venison or beef cut into ½-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons flour (reserved from dredge)
1 14.9-ounce can Guinness Stout (or other dark beer)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
8 ounces brown mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
2 cups small yellow potatoes, scrubbed and cut in ½-inch cubes
1 cup green beans, cut in 2-inch lengths (fresh or frozen)
3 cups strong game or beef stock
1 cup fresh or frozen sweet green peas
1 prepared pie crust (homemade or pre-packaged)
1 egg, slightly beaten and mixed with 1 tablespoon water

In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt and pepper. Dredge meat in the flour mixture.

Meanwhile, melt bacon fat in a cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the fat is hot, shake excess flour off of about ½ pound of the meat and add to the hot pan, making sure there is room between pieces. Turn meat a few times to ensure all sides are completely browned. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, then repeat two more times with the remaining meat, adding more bacon fat if needed to prevent sticking.

After all meat is browned and removed from the Dutch oven, reduce heat to medium-low. Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of remaining flour-salt-pepper dredge over the hot oil. Use a wire whisk to combine the roux. Cook over very low heat for about 15 minutes, whisking frequently to prevent burning, until the roux mixture smells nutty and is a pecan-brown color.

Turn off the heat. In a slow steady stream (keep back and watch your eyebrows!) pour in the beer while steadily whisking the roux to avoid lumps; whisk until the mixture is smooth and glossy.
Return heat to medium. Add the browned meat, stock and all veggies except for the peas (they’ll get mushy if you add them too early) to the Dutch oven.

Bring to a low boil, then immediately reduce to low heat. Simmer for at least 1 hour, with the lid slightly cracked, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. The filling should become quite thick.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Add peas to the Dutch oven, stir well to combine. Layer the entire pie crust over the top of the filling, crimp edges, and cut a vent hole for steam to escape. If desired, add an egg wash for extra glossy crust.

Set the Dutch oven on a rimmed baking sheet (to catch drips) and bake on the center rack of the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until golden brown.