It’s lean and local. And although it once was an indigenous staple, venison is still new enough on many modern American tables to stoke a lively culinary conversation.
Fresh from the wild, it’s a healthful, flavorful, alternative red meat.
Vegetarians, or anyone who can’t hear “deer” without picturing Bambi’s slain mother, can just scroll further down on Stir It Up! to the chocolate fondue.
If you’re a fairly adventurous eater who can live without a USDA stamp and the cookie-cutter perfection of the meat-aisle offerings – and if you hunt, or know a hunter (venison is not widely available in stores) – then this meat could be one of your favorite occasional protein sources.
It’s become one of mine. Christmas at my German in-laws’ house in New York’s Hudson Valley – America’s Rhineland – means goose, red cabbage, and klösse (potato dumplings). But my in-laws are close friends with an avid hunter, so the door prize for our visits during a certain season is often venison.
This year, we get a lot of it. Double-bagged, it nearly fills a 54-quart cooler.
It is also barely butchered.
Hung to cure, skinned, and quartered, this buck has been passed along to us as a most of hind quarter and a foreleg. There are still some stray, coarse hairs. (Again, to skip to chocolate fondue, click here.)
When we get the meat home, my best knives come out. I did some small-game hunting (ruffed grouse, rabbit) as a kid. I watched my father field dress a white-tail.
Now I set a cutting board in a tray on the kitchen island and begin to work. Leaving the muscle, I try for big chunks suitable for roasting or for cutting into medallions. Pieces of deep red meat begin to pile up.
It looks like raw tuna.
The biggest challenge: cutting away tendons and carefully removing the “silverskin,” a tight membrane that looks like melted-on shrink wrap. That requires a sideways blade, nimble fingers, and patience (see photo).
About halfway through I start wondering whether I’d have been better off letting my in-laws’ hunter friend – a talented man who makes a spiced venison sausage – intercept my meat locker.
But before long, there it is: a bowl of cleaned stew meat, several roasts, and some long pieces of loin. The loin will be sliced into half-inch medallions, dredged in seasoned flour, and sautéed in oil for maybe a minute a side. Larger pieces are natural for the grill. Good venison cuts are neither "gamey" nor tough. But they contain very little fat; there's virtually no marbling. Marinades that work well often include some olive oil to add fat. Juniper berries are a classic addition to venison marinades. Keep in mind this is art, not science.
Venison juniper berry marinade
1 lb. venison meat
1/4 cup of olive oil
1/4 cup of red wine (or red-grape juice, with a tablespoon of red-wine vinegar to cut the sweetness)
1/4 cup dried juniper berries
3 medium cloves of garlic, crushed
Put a single piece of meat in a Zip-loc bag and add olive oil, red wine (or substitute), juniper berries and garlic. Press the marinade into the meat and squeeze the air out of the bag. Refrigerate for an hour or two. Grill over hardwood charcoal.
There’s nothing quite like that in the supermarket.
Clay Collins is the Monitor's weekly print edition editor.
All readers are free to make ingredient substitutions to satisfy their dietary preferences, including not using wine (or substituting cooking wine) when a recipe calls for it.