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Feature Fri Jan 23 2009

Venturing Into Venison

This year, I returned from my family's Christmas bearing a cooler full of individually butcher-paper wrapped and black-stamped parcels, in addition to my more traditional gifts.

I grew up in a home that always had an extra full-size freezer for storing these mysterious papered and ziplocked packages -- perhaps a phenomenon many hunting families would recognize. And now, eating such exotic fare as pheasant, wild turkey and goose is something I experience more often in my restaurant-starved hometown than in our great culinary city, it seemed only appropriate to dip into the freezer on my most recent trips home. This is the game locker, where the spoils of all my dad's forays into the wild are preserved until we discover just the right recipe. And now, I seem to have started my own, with ten packets of custom-processed venison, and only a vague idea of what to do with it.

This is not to say that there aren't places to both purchase and eat wild game in Chicago. Chicago Game and Gourmet has been sourcing and shipping wild game to city-dwellers for years, along with mushrooms, cheeses and other delicacies. And venison shows up on menus all over town, from game-happy purveyors like The Bristol, where one can also enjoy wild boar and goat ragu, to less obvious eateries like Kaze Sushi or Le Lan.

game lockerWhile it's nice to know that wild game is widely available in a broad range of tantalizing preparations all over town, none of this really helps me clear out my freezer. My first attempt was a simple (bordering on banal) seared steak. Venison steaks are smaller and rounder than supermarket beef, and cook very quickly. But add a little salt and pepper, a little butter in the pan, and they're still not very easy to screw up, yielding a juicy, pink protein centerpiece that goes well with mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. Many skeptical diners object to the "gamey" taste of meats like venison -- a flavor that actually comes from the deer's adrenaline and other bodily chemicals. An unstressed and well-processed cut of venison should taste distinct, more rich and sharp than beef, but not gamey.

As with many foods, it's easy to get too creative for my own good when it comes to game. I want to make it a star, not just an excuse to eat some wild rice. A UK recipe for venison simmered with pomegranate and walnuts was too tempting for me to pass up. Walnuts, onions and stock were meant to create a slow-braising sauce for venison stew meat, and I foolishly left the meat in larger pieces. Reducing pomegranate juice down to a syrup turned out to be an interesting candy-making experiment, but an old and low-quality stock pot left me with a jelly more brownish and ruby red...which then turned my simmering venison inky black. Awesome. Nothing looks more appealing than black meat. The flavors were good, with earthy walnuts and tart pomegranate balancing out the spectrum, but the final product was far from my best work.

venison empanadaIn addition to chops, steaks, stew meat and burger (which I haven't been brave enough to tackle yet at all), I also came home with two long links of venison sausage. It seemed to have the texture and consistency of chorizo, and I'd been craving puff pastry, so empanadas seemed like as good an option as any. This attempt, I'm pleased to report, went much better. I seared the sausage in a small frying pan, breaking it up into chunks and away from it's casing when possible, letting some of the pieces get a crispy carmelized edge, while others stayed chewier. Venison is a lean meat, even in sausage form, and there was none of the flood of red grease I would expect from chorizo. Minced, seared sausage combined with some of those left over chopped walnuts from the Pomegranate Disaster, golden raisins, and just a little ricotta cheese rounded out the filling. The final product was rich and flavorful -- familiar and still distinctly venison.

I have many packages to go, and many Chicago restaurants from which to draw inspiration, so I sense that the story of my personal game locker is only just beginning. Convincing my friends to give these dishes a try may be challenging, but if they're hesitant, there's just more for me. And if nothing else, I'm confident I won't be iron-deficient for quite some time.

 

art / January 23, 2009 12:21 PM

Great post! I think there are a lot of people like you that have had the ubiquitous and intimidating white packets in the freezer.

Your recipes sound delicious and you should make them for your friends. That may give them the confidence to try cooking with their own "packets" instead of letting them hibernate in the freezer.

One of the great things about venison, besides being delicious, is that it is a local, sustainable meat. Most of the restaurant venison is farmed in NZ but the wild venison, like the kind I butcher here, http://thepleasanthouse.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/getting-the-most-out-of-your-food-whole-animal-butchery-venison/ that feeds on corn and soybeans is much tastier.

Oh, and currant jelly is an awesome ingredient to pair with venison.

Gretchen / January 23, 2009 10:57 PM

Funny you mentioned the cooler full of venison, I did the same when traveling back from Michigan over the holidays. Got curious looks and questions through airport security, but have a freezer full of the same cuts of venison including loin. I braised the steaks so far in red wine with rosemary, shallots, tomato paste, beef demi-glace, garlic, and nutmeg. Delicious. A fellow chef is going to show me how to stuff the loin with blackberries and roast, can't wait. Those who haven't tried venison are missing out on such a rich, chewy, savory meat!

Jen Thomalla / October 20, 2011 2:07 PM

My name is Jennifer Thomalla. I find this article quite stunning. For one, the author's name is also Thomalla. For two, venison is a huge part of my family's diet. Maybe it's a Thomalla thing... I am from Minnesota.

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