Do you like venison? Ask that question and you'll likely get one of two extreme responses. There will be the folks who start rubbing their hands together and licking their chops. They profess their love for deer meat and can't wait to share a favourite recipe.
And then there are people who are a little less enthusiastic about it. They wrinkle up their noses and some even do the tequlia wiggle.
Of course it's best to follow your palate when it comes to what you like and don't like to eat. But I would make a solid bet the reason most people say they don't like venison is they've had it cooked in a bad way.
"The biggest mistake people make is overcooking," said Ben Kramer, executive chef of Diversity Food Services at the University of Manitoba. "Venison, like elk, is extremely lean. If it's cooked too long it becomes dry, tasteless and tough. It is a lot less forgiving than, say, pork or beef that's usually heavily marbled."
At the beginning of whitetail season last year, I offered to bring Ben a whole animal if I had the opportunity. He responded with glee. So early in muzzleloader season, I shot a dry doe, cleaned and hanged it for a couple of days, and then delivered it in quarters to Ben and his chef de cuisine, right-hand man and pal Aron Epp.
Ben and Aron represent a new generation of chefs who are aren't necessarily fixed on making plates that look beautiful for cooking magazines (although they can do that too). They're enthusiast about every aspect of food and cooking, whether it's an age-old technique like pickling or a new attitude such as sustainability. They were like two little boys in a candy store when the deer quarters were lined up in front of them.
"What a fantastic product! It was extremely fresh and in great shape. It was a joy to work with," said Ben.
"We love game meat. As chefs, we don't get the opportunity to get whole, fresh, wild meat as often as we like. Neither Aron nor I had butchered a whole deer before, and we love butchery. We were also curious about the differences between farm-raised meat and wild meat."
The boys went on to carve out roasts and steaks. They also made sausages and experimented with cured meats including the exotic bresola, an air-dried, salted product that needs a couple of months to mature.
Ben also pointed out that many home cooks don't realize different cuts of meat need to be treated differently. This goes for all animals, not just game.
"Some cuts, like loins and tenders, need to be quick cooked and kept rare while other cuts, like legs, are better suited to moist cooking -- slow and long."
I would have to agree that most people who say they don't like venison have really never had it cooked properly.
A new attitude
The Globe and Mail published a story called An urban foodie longs for a deer of his own last October. The author, Mark Schatzker, admitted to being an anti-hunter for years. But then his palate changed and he started longing for meat with more flavour. "The closer an animal is to Mother Nature, the more flavour its meat will have," he wrote.
He developed meat envy of a guy who was picking up deer meat from the local abattoir. After getting his hands on some venison from a friend and sautéeing it with porcini mushrooms, carrots and onions, then tossing the mixture over fresh papardelle, he had a change of attitude. His story ends with this statement: "After one bowl, then another, a final thought ran through my head: I'm buying a gun."
Ben can clearly understand Schatzker's attitude.
"I think it's great that people are trending away from factory farm meat. It is not only better from a sustainability and environmental standpoint, it just tastes better! It is a clean meat, no drugs, no steroids, no growth hormones, just pure, unadulterated meat," he said.
On a Saturday afternoon, when you feel like investing in a special meal, give this recipe a try. It's not something you can whip together in an hour after a long workday, but the results of your time will be well work it. Recipe by Chef Ben Kramer.
1.5 lbs. venison loin
1.5 tbsp. sea salt
2 tbsp. pepper
3 tbsp. ground juniper
2 tbsp. grapeseed oil
Heat the oil in pan over medium heat. Season the venison with salt, pepper and juniper. Sear both sides of the loin until meat is rare or medium rare, approximately 5 min. per side.
Venison red wine sauce
1 small white onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup red wine
1 cup venison stock (chicken or beef stock will do)
2 tbsp. truffle butter (regular butter will do)
Using the pan that the venison was cooked in, sauté onions and garlic until soft. Add the wine to the pan to deglaze, stirring to remove any cooked bits from the pan. Reduce wine about halfway. Add venison stock and reduce by half again. Stir in butter to slightly thicken the sauce. Season as needed with salt and pepper.
Parsnip and celery root puree
1.5 lbs. parsnips
1 large celery root
2 tbsp. salt
6 tbsp. butter
0.5 cup cream
Boil parsnips with 1 tbsp. salt until cooked and tender.
Puree using some of the cooking water if needed.
Boil celery root with 1 tbsp. salt until cooked and tender.
Puree using some of the cooking water if needed.
Combine parsnip and celery root. Stir in butter and cream. Season with salt and white pepper if needed.
Shel Zolkewich writes about the outdoors, travel and food when she's not playing outside, travelling or eating. You can reach her with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org