Friday, October 23, 2009

Deer Prudence

Deer season has come so now we're constantly running into neighbors wearing camouflage. Every third person you see seems to be heading out to hunt, coming back from hunting, or at the very least sitting down to tell a few good lies about hunting trips past.

We had a very experienced hunter in our area get lost in the woods for five days. It was quite a relief to hear he'd found his way out. I know I felt a bit lost when dealing with my first deer carcass. It's nice to bag a buck, bring it back home, and start bragging...but then what to do with the darned thing?

Finding Calaveras County hunters to survey on this question was pretty easy. We just sat in the parking lot outside Starbucks during the opening week of deer season, and laid in wait for the trucks' approach. Our patience and careful placement soon paid off...the lure of the coffee was too much for them to resist.

After a few tall cups and even more tall tales, we did arrive at a consensus on a few basic points:

Before you even get to the kitchen, letting your meat cure a while is critical. Almost anything raised or harvested on the hoof, no matter how high the quality, can be ruined by being butchered before it's ready. After dressing out our deer we let the clean carcass hang in a fridge for 7 days before butchering. When you do this you'll see a significant darkening of the meat that'll tell you it's ready. Be patient.

If you don't have a fridge you can dedicate to this task, or if your animal is too big for that (congratulations!) you can just hang him in the garage. Keep him loosely covered (air circulation is very important) and cool. Try to keep the critters out.

If you want to go medieval and do a huge outdoor roast for a party, pour a nice red wine marinade over it for a few days while it ages. Once the curing and marinating are done you can score the carcass and add garlic cloves. These'll slowly release as you roast...but remember to keep it moist. Olive oil is nice here. Try alternating every other time with the marinade. Whatever you use it's a lot of labor. Work it in shifts because you don't want to let it go dry after all that trouble. This is a great job for the older kids who want to help out.

Fire roasting something like this is tricky since it's so lean, so for the first time you might take an easier approach. My uncle in Oregon likes to do the big feast every few years or so, but it's a bit much for me. Work your way up to the big roast. Cut your carcass up and take it inside.

Here's a great video that helped me learn to butcher:

Venison is incredibly flavorful, but about as lean as it gets. Standard tricks for dealing with this usually begin with pork fat of some kind. You can just brown your venison with lard, or do as my family does and go straight for the bacon grease for a little extra flavor. If you're oven roasting you can paint the meat with butter or oil, or wrap it in bacon slices for a slow release. Lay it on.

Slow is another word that kept coming up. Venison cooked poorly can be on the tough side, so it's pretty common to go with a slow simmering stew. Electric crock pots are are the tool of choice for many, but remember...size matters. Get the big one. Let your venison cook at the very lowest setting for a whole day. Really...24 hours or more. Once it's done that it'll literally fall off the bone.

What you're after here is an approach that emulates the action of a smoker, but without the smoke. Extremely low heat for a very long time...and then you've got meat you can work with. Brown it a bit, then make up your stew.

I like to spice things up a bit, particularly as winter approaches. Nothing warms better than a little I go for a nice chili. Game meats like this serve you really well underneath strong flavors like peppers and onions. As much as I like beef in chili, something a bit stronger just seems naturally suited to the heat.

David and I gave this one a try and found it almost perfect: It came from Danerin2 at

Healthy Venison Chili

1 pound venison
salt & pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon canola oil, divided
3 medium onions, chopped
2 small carrots, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 serrano chile, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 canned chipotle in adobo, chopped
2 Tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 Tablespoons water
1 bottle dark beer
2 14 ounce cans diced tomatoes
2 14 ounce cans beans of your choice, drained and rinsed

Preheat oven to 275 F.
Season venison and brown in oil in large heavy pot,
remove as pieces brown.
Combine the dry spices in a small bowl and add water,
blend into a paste.
Add remaining oil to pan and cook onions, celery
and carrots until softened.
Add garlic, chile, and chipotle and cook for 2 minutes.
Add spice mixture and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly.
Add beer and tomatoes, and cook, stirring until
completely combined and simmering.
Add meat and beans to mixture and put in oven for 2-3 hours.
Or, cook in pressure cooker for about 30 minutes, or
in slow cooker for about 8 hours on low.
Chili is finished when meat is fork tender.

Here's another, more traditional European approach that's a bit more ambitious. We haven't tried this one, but thought we'd share it with you because it just sounds so good. I think my next deer will go this way:

German Braised Venison

3 pounds of venison rump roast
3 Tbsp rendered pork fat, chicken fat, or olive oil
6 cloves garlic, mashed
6 cups of thinly sliced onions (about 1½ pounds)
2 to 3 cups of a German Pilsner type beer
2 Tbsp light brown sugar
Bouquet garnish made of 6 parsley sprigs, 2 bay leaves, several fresh
sprigs of thyme all tied up with a string
1½ Tbsp of cornstarch blended in 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 cup beef broth
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Cut the venison into slices about 2 inches wide, 4 inches long and
1/2 inch thick.
Dry the meat on paper towels.
Melt a thin layer of fat in a skillet until it is almost smoking hot.

Brown the meat a few pieces at a time quickly and then set aside.
Reduce heat and add onions. Add more fat if necessary and very
lightly brown the onions for about 10 minutes.
Take off the heat and season with salt and pepper.
Add garlic.
In an oven proof casserole, arrange 1/2 of the meat slices. Spread
half of the onions over the meat. Repeat with the rest of the meat
and onions.
Heat the stock in the pan in which you browned the meat, scraping up
all the little brown bits.
Pour this over the meat and onions.
Add enough beer to just barely cover the meat and onion mix.
Stir in the brown sugar.
Bury the bouquet garnish in the venison slices.
Bring the casserole to a simmer on the range top. Cover the casserole
and place in the oven.
Smmer the braise for 2 & 1/2 hours. This may require adjusting the
heat of the oven. At the end of the cooking period, the venison
should be fork tender.
Remove from oven, remove the bouquet garnish.
Pour the cooked liquid into a sauce pan and defat it.
Whisk the flour and vinegar mix into the liquid and simmer for 3 to 4
minutes, until the sauce thickens. There should be about 2 cups of
Taste for seasoning and correct at this point.
Pour sauce over meat and simmer for five minutes.
Serve the meat in the center of a large, heated platte, surrounded
with new potatoes or spatzle. Pour the sauce over the meat.

YUM! Makes me want a beer!

Have you got a venison recipe or technique you can share?

Give us your best!

Patrick and David
The Calaveras Carnivores

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