In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
We’ve been hearing a lot these days about the deer problem. With the increasing overpopulation of deer, more and more people are being killed or maimed on America’s highways by running into them. As there is no longer enough wild forage for the hoards of deer that roam the American northeast, they come into our gardens and eat the landscaping. Deer carry ticks that spread Lyme disease; deer-borne tuberculosis is transferable to other species like cattle.
I have a suggestion. We should regard the wisdom of the Native Indians and help keep nature in balance by hunting and eating deer–and not just in November. Deer should become a staple in the American diet, just like corn. Why continue to fight nature and its abundance? Why continue to pay out millions of dollars in expensive car repairs? Why continue to be threatened by the pests and diseases that starving deer carry? Deer obviously thrive in the American environment and, understanding this, Native Indians thanked nature for its plenty with seasonal deer feasts.
In I Hear America Cooking, culinary historian Betty Fussell discusses how the Pueblo Indians of the desert Southwest enjoyed a communal meal of a deer and corn stew each fall and how they dried spare venison for the winter. The Indians honored the abundance of the deer–America’s most prolific and resilient indigenous wild animal. And because deer forage on wild plants and are not raised in confinement, it’s likely that venison is one of the healthiest meats–rich in minerals and free of synthetic antibiotics and hormones.
When I was in college, one of my dorm mates brought back some homemade deer salami she had gotten from her sportsman brother over the Christmas break. It was so delicious I can almost taste it right now–thirty years later. Some enterprising entrepreneur should start a business to make commercial deer salami. He or she would need persistence because such a venture would be fraught with government regulations about food safety and outcries from the meat, pork and chicken industries. However, a cursory review of culinary history reveals that cattle, pigs, and chickens are imports to American soil. In contrast, the deer was already here and thriving in coexistence with the buffalo. Why we have so overlooked our own fauna and gravitated to raising livestock introduced from abroad remains a mystery.
Instead of endlessly debating the deer problem, the government should be working towards a sustainable deer harvest, much like a plentiful harvest of Alaskan wild salmon–another one of America’s great wildlife treasures. A commercial harvest with licenses and limited access–just like for salmon–would allow professional hunters a means of livelihood, while supplying America with good quality meat. Another entrepreneur could start a chain of restaurants featuring game and good American cooking.
Cooking with venison is a perfect way to capture and exploit the true American terroir, a French term for the essence of the land expressed in its foods, like that country’s domestic cheese or wine. What America lacks is a true American cuisine, one that isn’t heavily borrowed from its European cousins. Such a cuisine would naturally contain the bounty of native American plants and animals, including the deer. The French and Italians are experts at this. Think of brie and you think of France. Think of chianti and you think of Italy. Think of deer and you should think of . . . America.
Remember that the Indians ate all parts of the animal, including the organ meats and intestines. Someone needs to develop a sausage product that uses all these nutritious parts. Meanwhile, if you use butter, cream or lard in your venison creations, you will be adding fat-soluble nutrients that are also found in the innards.
In his wonderful book Game Cookery in America and Europe, Raymond R. Camp praises venison for its delicious flavor. “Venison, like other forms of game,” he says, “is favored by the gourmet not because it happens to be rare, and in many instances extremely difficult to obtain, but because of its exceptional flavor. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, a large percentage of American cooks, including some professionals, prepare this meat in a manner that destroys not only its flavor but its texture. . . ”
To be tender and flavorful, venison needs proper curing. “Upon returning home the hunter should arrange to have the meat hung in a curing room (usually the local butcher will cooperate) for not less than three weeks.” We would also add that the deer should be hung upside down and thoroughly bled as soon as possible after the kill. Once properly cured, the meat can be cut into portions and packaged for the freezer.
“Overcooking is more destructive to the flavor and texture of venison than it is to beef for venison (except for the rare moose) does not have the layers and striations of fat as does beef, therefore it tends to dry out more quickly and thoroughly under the application of heat. The flavor evaporates and the fibers become tough and hard.”
According to Camp, results are best when venison is larded with a larding needle. This nifty device is a tool treasured by European chefs back in the days when fat was considered good. The “needle” has a hollow center that can be “loaded” with strips of salt pork or bacon and then inserted into the meat. The strips are cut 2-3 inches long and 1/4 inch thick. If the bacon or salt pork is too salty, it may be soaked first in milk, or briefly plunged into boiling water and then dried off. French cooks rub the lardons with garlic and other herbs. When a larding needle is unavailable, the lardons can be pushed into the meat with an ice pick.
According to Camp, venison must be cooked quickly in a hot oven, or seared in a hot pan. Roasts should be basted frequently.
Says Camp, “For those willing to devote a reasonable amount of time to the preparation of venison, the reward is great.”
Saddle of Venison
- 1 saddle of venison (full length of the fillet)
- 1/4 pound of fat salt pork or thick bacon
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons unbleached white flour
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 2 cups beef or venison stock
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
A “saddle” consists of a portion of the backbone connected to both tenderloins or fillets and is considered the prime cut of venison. Trim off the ends of the rib bones close to the fillet–a small saw is the best implement for this procedure–and add the bones to the stockpot. Cut half the salt pork or bacon into lardons. With a larding needle, insert lardons into each fillet, about 1/2 inch from the top. Slice two cloves of garlic into toothpick-thin slivers and insert at intervals along both fillets, puncturing the holes for the garlic with a toothpick or an awl. Place on a rack in a stainless steel baking pan with the rib ends down and cover the fillets with the remaining salt pork cut into very thin strips, or with the bacon. Preheat oven to 550 degrees. Bake the roast at this temperature for five minutes, then lower to 450 degrees. Continue roasting another 1 1/2 hours, basting frequently with the drippings.
Remove the venison saddle to a heated platter and keep warm in the oven while making the sauce. Place the roasting pan on top of the stove over a medium flame and stir the flour into the drippings, scraping the bottom of the pan in the process. Add red wine and bring to a boil, stirring with a whisk. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Skim off foam that comes to the surface and allow the sauce to reduce slightly. Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper.
To serve, slice the fillet lengthwise, not across, the fillet, making slices about 1/4 inch thick. The meat should be well browned outside and bright pink inside. Spoon the sauce over the meat.
Venison in Cream Sauce
- 8 1-inch thick slices of venison fillet or venison leg (medallions)
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 4 tablespoons lard
- 1/2 pound mushrooms
- 3-4 shallots
- 1/2 cup brandy
- 1-2 cups beef or venison stock
- 1 cup cultured cream
- 1 teaspoon dried green peppercorns
- sea salt to taste
Pound the fillets with a meat hammer and marinate at room temperature for several hours in the red wine. Remove from wine and dry well with paper towels. In a cast iron skillet, sauté the venison pieces in hot lard, two or three at a time, about 5-6 minutes per side. Remove to a heated platter and keep warm in the oven while making sauce.
Meanwhile wash and thoroughly dry the mushrooms. Slice the mushrooms in half and slice the halves into 1/8 inch slices. Peel and chop the shallots. When all the venison pieces have been cooked, sauté the mushrooms and shallots in the lard. Remove with a slotted spoon and strew over the meat. Deglaze the pan with brandy and the marinating wine. Add stock, bring to a boil and skim. Add the cream and pepper. Boil vigorously until the sauce is reduced to about half and thickened slightly. Season with sea salt.
To serve, place 2 pieces of venison on each plate with mushroom mixture on top and spoon sauce over.
Venison with Beans
- 2 pounds venison, cut into one-inch cubes
- juice of 2-3 lemons
- 4 cups dried white beans
- 4 large onions, chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and diced
- 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
- 1/2 pound bacon or salt pork, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1 bottle good quality beer
- 1 cup beef or venison stock
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- sea salt and black pepper
Soak the beans overnight in warm water and a squeeze of lemon juice. Meanwhile mix the venison cubes in the remaining lemon juice and marinate in the refrigerator. Drain the beans and place them in a casserole with the beer, stock, onions, carrots, tomatoes, salt pork, bay leaf and oregano. Bake at 350 degrees for 5-6 hours, adding water occasionally if needed. Rinse and dry off the venison pieces and add them to the casserole. Replace cover and bake another 2 hours at 250 degrees. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Venison and Corn Stew
You might be surprised to find bones on the ingredient list, but in I Hear America Cooking, author and scholar Betty Fussell explains. “Because they are close to their food roots, Indians know that bone is more important to flavor than flesh is. Venison tastes most itself not as a costly loin roast but as chopped shoulder, neck, and shank, in a mix of meat and bone.” Bones are a must to flavor the “cheaper” cuts of venison. Bones cooked in the broth also supply calcium, phosphorus and many other important minerals.
- 1 cup dried corn kernels
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup chopped beef suet, deer suet or lard
- 3 pounds venison stew meat
- 2 pounds deer bones
- 3 large onions, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 green chiles, roasted, seeded, and chopped
- salt and cayenne pepper to taste
- 4 cups beef or venison broth
Cover corn with 2 cups water, bring to a boil, boil 1 minute, and remove from heat. Cover pot and let sit for an hour.
Cut meat into 1-inch cubes. Heat the suet or lard in a heavy cast-iron pot. Sear the meat along with the bones, and when they are browned, remove and put aside. Sauté onions and garlic in the same pot until onions are translucent. Add the chiles and remaining seasonings.
Return the meat and bone to the stew pot. Add the corn with its liquid. Add beef stock to cover. Bring mixture slowly to a simmer and simmer gently until meat and corn are both tender, about 1 1/2-2 hours. Remove bones and serve.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2001.