RICHMOND, Va. - Let me say upfront that I don’t hang around in deer stands. Nor have I ever shot any living thing. However, I am a proud owner of an authentic deer-stalker — the hat made famous by Sherlock Holmes. It’s perhaps that cap that has emboldened me, through the years, to let my friends and loved ones know I’m always up for the gift of what in England is known as “ven-zon,” with a missing middle syllable.
I think it must be my youthful days eating it, and then cooking it, in England that made me an aficionado. And while venison is easy to come by there now, being a farmed crop available in the grocery store, back in the day, it was always wild and somewhat difficult to obtain. It was considered a great treat, accompanied by red-currant sauce and fragrant from the infusion of gin-like juniper berries.
In England, I learned the nature of the beast and techniques for taming its gamey tendencies. The challenge is to keep the meat moist and tender. When cooking a roast or a stew, some people advocate a long marinade with a heavy wine component. Others call for “larding” the meat with bacon fat or fatback. I tend to fluctuate between the two, depending on what I’m making.
The key, however, is always to serve it as pink as you dare with deer. There really isn’t any internal fat to be found; so if you attempt to roast it to well-doneness, you’ll end up with a dry, tasteless disaster.
So what do I do with it? Venison comes to me in many raw forms: sausage and ground, roasts and tenderloins. If it’s a shoulder roast, or something tougher or more sinewy, my tendency is to cube it for stewing, where a long, slow braise works wonders.
Recently, I perfected this chili recipe, which hits the mark if you’re looking for some smoky heat. I made it from ground venison, but it could easily be made from cubes, too. It’s Texas-style, which means there’s nary a bean in sight. I like to make it pretty spicy, but feel free to tone it down to suit your taste. Served up with blue-corn chips, shredded cheddar and sour cream, it chases away winter chills.
I also love this fabulous stew recipe that I received from a friend on the Eastern Shore. It knocks it out of the park with the earthiness of the rutabaga, combined with the sweetness of dates and the zing of caramelized fennel. Always use decently sized chunks of meat, so it doesn’t break apart into nothing over the long cooking process.
For me, the best part of the deer is the tenderloin. When I can beg a gift of some, I inevitably resort to my former schoolmate’s wonderful recipe. Tamasin Day-Lewis included this in her wonderful 2002 cookbook, “Good Tempered Food.” While I’ve tried many recipes for this cut, this is the one to which I inevitably return. Brimming with flavor from the traditional juniper berries and rich gravy, I position the lovely pink venison around a mound of grated roasted beets. Talk about a gorgeous taste sensation.
So if a friendly hunter proposes to send some venison your way, for goodness’ sake, thank him or her for the bounty, and plan a feast to do it justice. And while I first fell in love with it in a grand dining room in a stately English home, I can assure you that venison is just as alluring when served right here, around the kitchen table, no matter how you pronounce it.