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Recipe-phile: Deer hunting void produces a rave-review substitute: bear

Bear goulash, tender and spicy, over a pile of homemade noodles. (Amy Thielen / for the Enterprise)

Only a portion of the Hungarian Hunting Camp menu I dreamed up came to light - mostly because no one snagged a deer this weekend.

The theme - or rather, the idea to give hunting opener a culinary theme at all - was all mine. As designated camp cook I figured I had the power to give the meals an organizing principle. And I was dreaming of a rustic dish I saw once in a Hungarian cookbook: chunks of bacon, onion and venison liver, skewered and held over the fire, a self-basting tower with blackened, crisp edges.

But oh, the ominous cloud that surrounded the hunters as they shucked off their orange and sat down to lunch that first day of opener. It gave me a bad feeling. Potato leek soup with disheveled little eastern European dumplings did little to puncture the mood, but it did provide some warmth.

Thankfully someone had the foresight to bring some alternate game. A friend and avid bear hunter brought two legs of young bear, so at least we had some authentic wild meat to eat.

And I'm glad he did, because fresh venison, the object of all our desires, would have overshadowed the bear, and that would have been a shame.

Every time I try a new kind of meat I am reminded of the ridiculous protein prejudices I have. In popular culture it seems like our meat choices, which not so long ago in this region were really varied, have shrunk to the big three: chicken, beef and pork.

Very safe, and a little boring, too. What about quail? Duck? Goose? Venison? Elk? Wild boar?

And bear? I must say, the bear surprised me. Its flavor was mild, landing somewhere between beef and pork. Its flavor is close to wild boar, in fact, a meat that is gaining luxury status in fancy restaurants.

The color of the meat - dark and winy like an aged port - was a bit forbidding, but it had a fresh aroma and a fine grain. I dropped chunks into my goulash base, handful by handful, until the pot could hold no more. I set it at a low, burbling simmer. After an hour or so I went in for a taste, expecting the rubber-bandy texture of underdone stew meat. Instead, it was already quite tender. Two hours later, it was melt-in-your-mouth, but miraculously, had lost none of its juiciness, convincing me that this is one forgiving protein.

When we sat down to the table, the bear goulash was a hit. I constructed it according to the detailed goulash lesson that some Austrians cooks gave me a while ago, substituting the bear for the beef chuck roast of the original recipe.

It's a perfect recipe for any game meat, a stew that relies on a thick base of long-cooked caramelized onions (the meat to onion ratio should be equal, pound-for-pound) a healthy dose of both sweet and spicy paprika, a smattering of dried herbs and spices, a splash of vinegar and, most importantly, a bit of pickle juice added at the end.

It was so delicious that we didn't miss venison, the ghost in the room. And in keeping with the spirit of the holiday, we had the chance to toast to a main course that came to the table straight from the woods, taking no pit stops in processing plants or stores.

Bear Goulash

5 large sweet Vidalia onions (4 pounds)

4 pounds bear stew meat or beef chuck

3 red bell peppers

4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 teaspoons hot paprika (substitute sweet paprika, but add a pinch of cayenne pepper)

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

5 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar

pinch of lemon zest

2 tablespoons dry marjoram or oregano

1 ½ teaspoons thyme, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon rosemary, finely chopped

2 teaspoons freshly ground toasted caraway

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons fresh marjoram or oregano, finely chopped

2 tablespoons pickle juice (optional)

Salt to taste (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Cut the onions into small dice. Heat a large wide-bottomed stew pot and add the butter and onions. Season with salt and pepper and cook the onions slowly and evenly until light golden brown, about 40 minutes.

Halve the peppers, remove seeds and stems and steam over boiling water until very soft, about 20 minutes. Process until smooth in a food processor. (Or put through a food mill.)

Add the tomato paste to the onions and cook until it darkens, about 2 minutes. Add the paprika, stir quickly into the onions, and then immediately add 2 cups water. You want to bloom the paprika over direct heat, but for a mere 10 seconds. Then add the garlic, vinegar, lemon zest, red pepper juice, caraway seed, bay leaves and dry marjoram. Add half of the fresh herbs; wait to add the pickle juice.

Season the bear meat with salt and pepper and add to the pot. Add enough water to cover the meat by a half-inch. Bring the liquid to a bare simmer and keep it there, stirring only three or four times, for at least three hours. After two-and-a-half hours, add the rest of the fresh herbs and begin to check the tenderness of meat with a fork. When tender, scoop up the meat with a skimmer and transfer to a heavy serving dish, leaving as many onions as you can behind.

Blend the cooking liquid and onions with a stick blender, or in a blender or food processor. (The onions thicken the goulash.) Pour the blended liquid back over the meat and heat until steaming. Add the remaining herbs, taste for final seasoning of salt and pepper, and serve.