A couple of hours before daybreak, during the coldest winter in living memory, sneak out of the house and into the woods with your black powder muzzleloader, and place a .50 caliber musket ball clean through the heart of a fine 2-year old doe. Or better yet, crank up the thermostat, pull the covers over your head, and let George Lightbody do it.
Roll over and plump the pillows while George drags the 120-pound carcass home and butchers it. Preheat one extra-large Buick. Roll into George’s driveway at a civilized 4:00 PM. Hang around until he gives up a beautifully trimmed 3 ½-pound boneless round roast. Continue to deprive him of sleep until he throws in the towel, along with a succulent 1 ½-pound piece from the loin. Ah, what compares to the thrill of the hunt!
Most traditional game recipes come down to us from a time when game was a more common item on the table than the meat of domestic animals–at least for those who were lucky enough to have any meat at all–or for that matter, a table. In the classic literature of cooking, game
dishes constitute the apotheosis of the chef’s art, for which the oldest and most noble wines in the cellar were set aside.
Typically, such recipes call for marinating the game in red or white wine, with the addition of root vegetables, herbs, and spices. The marinade may be cooked, or as in the case of the recipe that follows, raw. The period of immersion may be as short as a day, or as long as two weeks, during which time the well-exercised meat becomes tenderized, and its characteristic gamey flavor muted.
The marinade also furnishes a flavorsome liquid in which to braise the meat, providing the basis for a savory sauce. Braising is a technique where meat is first browned, then simmered in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid.
If you are not a hunter, and don’t have friends or family who are, or you simply can’t brook the idea of braising Bambi, you can substitute a 4- to 5-pound piece of beef rump, bottom round, or eye round. When marinated and cooked as described, most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Ranch-raised venison is another option. Either one will cook more quickly than wild venison, so start to test for tenderness after the second hour.
Using white butcher’s twine, tie the meat into a compact, attractive shape. This will make for easier handling, and more even cooking.
Place the diced carrot, celery, onion and garlic in a heavy plastic freezer bag. Add the salt, peppercorns, cloves, coriander, juniper berries, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley stems.
Pour in a bottle of red wine–not expensive but adequate for drinking–and a generous slug of decent-quality cognac. Add the meat, and marinate in the refrigerator for two or three days, turning it over every eight or twelve hours.
After trimming away the tough rind (which may be saved to flavor soup), cut the fatback into four- to five-inch strips about an eighth-inch in cross section. Marinate the strips in some cognac flavored with finely chopped garlic and parsley, and a half-teaspoon of quatre-épices.*
Ideally, these strips, called lardoons, should be threaded through the meat in the direction of the grain with a larding needle.** The lardoons will moisten the naturally lean venison from within while it cooks, ensuring a juicy result. And when the meat is carved, the lardoons will reappear in an elegant pattern of squares.
A functionally identical, albeit less visually prepossessing effect can be achieved without buying a larding needle. Cut and marinate the lardoons as described, but make them only half as long. Using a thin, sharp knife, make deep slits in the meat, inserting the lardoons as you go so you don’t lose your place.
Set the larded meat aside. Strain the marinade, setting aside the liquid, and reserving the vegetables, herbs, and spices.
In a heavy pot with a cover, brown the meat well in a few tablespoons of clarified butter,*** lard, or olive oil, according to your preference. Remove the meat to a plate.
Add the reserved vegetables, herbs and spices to the pot, with a little more butter or oil as necessary. When the vegetables have browned, add the marinating liquid, and bring it to a boil over high heat, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon or spatula to dislodge and dissolve any consolidated meat and vegetable juices.
Return the meat and any juices to the pot. The meat should be at least half-submerged in its juices and marinating liquid. Make up for any shortfall with stock, wine or water. Bring everything to a boil over high heat, cover tightly (if the lid is not snug, place a layer or two of aluminum foil between the pot and lid), and place in a two hundred fifty-degree oven.
Check the meat occasionally, turning it over when you do. Cooking time will depend on the roast’s thickness, the age and condition of the animal when it was taken, and how long the meat was allowed to hang. It may take as long as four hours before a fork can be easily inserted into the meat.
If not required immediately, both meat and gravy will greatly improve from a day or two in the fridge, and if properly packaged, can be frozen without loss of quality. Meat is much more easily carved into even, attractive slices after spending some time in the refrigerator. In addition, the fat in the gravy will rise to the surface and solidify, making it a cinch to remove.
Separate the meat from the gravy, placing the former in a heavy plastic bag, squeezing out as much air as possible. Put the gravy in a bowl or plastic container with a lid. The solids may be left in, or, for a more formal effect, strained out and discarded.
Alternately, the solids can be puréed to thicken the sauce–a stick blender is ideal for this. But however appetizing, the result will lack the shimmering translucence of a sauce thickened by means of one of the purified starches, more about which anon.
After a day or two in the fridge, the meat will be chilled through and through. Remove it to a cutting board, snip and discard the strings, and trim any protruding ends of the lardoons level with the surface of the meat.
Carve the meat evenly into slices approximately ¼-inch thick, arranging them in a pan with the defatted gravy, strained or not, according to your preference. If you are planning on serving the meat that same day, simmer the slices in the gravy until heated well through. The sliced meat will become even more tender and imbued with the gravy if allowed to simmer a while longer.
Here’s an effective strategy for freezing cooked roasts: after a day or two of refrigeration, slice the meat and remove the congealed fat from the surface of the gravy. Arrange the meat in a casserole suitable for serving, add the gravy, and place in the freezer.
After the contents have frozen solid, remove the casserole to the sink. Invert it under the tap, and let a stream of hot water run over the bottom. Catch the frozen roast and gravy when it falls out of the casserole in one piece, place it in a heavy plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and return it to the freezer. When you are ready to serve it, replace it in the original casserole, reheat it, thicken the gravy as directed below, and bring to the table.
Throughout Europe, it is traditional to thicken sauces for game with potato starch in place of roux. Sauces thickened with potato starch, or one of the other purified starches such as the cornstarch favored by Chinese cooks, have a characteristic sheen and translucency that roux-thickened sauces do not. The only downside to the use of a purified starch to thicken a sauce is that unlike a roux-thickened sauce, it may lose its thickening power when frozen and reheated, or held too long over heat.
Writing in the 1930s, Escoffier (often called “the King of Chefs and Chef of Kings”) enthusiastically predicted that a day would come when the purified starches would replace roux altogether in fine cooking. Though his prophesy has not yet come to pass, modified food starch, which remains stable when reheated, frozen and defrosted, or kept hot for prolonged periods, is found in practically every industrially manufactured food product. As of this writing, there is not as yet a counterpart available to the home cook.
Purified starches have twice the thickening power of all-purpose flour, meaning that for 1 cup of liquid, a tablespoon of corn or potato starch will produce what is generally accepted to be a sauce of medium thickness.
In keeping with the modern preference is for thinner sauces, I would start with half that amount or less. Potato starch can be found in any well-provisioned supermarket. If it isn’t in the baking aisle next to the cornstarch, look for it in the kosher section.
All purified starches are used in the same way: combine with an equal volume or more of cold water, stirring until completely dissolved. Have the liquid you wish to thicken at a simmer. Stir the starch again just before you use it, as it quickly settles. Add the starch slurry to the simmering liquid in a thin stream a little at a time, stirring gently but continuously. The liquid will thicken almost instantly.
Stop when your sauce has achieved the degree of thickness that you desire. If it thickens too much, thin it with a little water, wine or stock. Taste, adding salt and pepper as required. Just before serving, you may wish to add half a glass of the wine you will be serving, a few drops of old cognac, or a tablespoon or two of dry Madeira, dry Marsala, or Amontillado sherry. (You've gone this far. Don't attempt to economize here with New York or Californian knockoffs.)
Serve the meat directly from the casserole, or carefully lift the slices onto a serving platter, overlapping them seductively. Moisten with some of the delectable sauce, and send the rest to the table in a bowl or gravy boat.
If you like, you may decorate the platter with the vegetables and starch that will accompany the meat. Or these can be served separately, and the meat platter garnished plainly and elegantly with just some watercress.
A dish of currant jelly and a bowl of warm applesauce should be passed at the table. The watercress garnish doubles as our salad course, the sauce and meat juices on the platter combining to comprise a wine-friendly dressing.
Brussels sprouts, a vegetable at its best in cold weather, is an ideal accompaniment to venison. Trim the sprouts, removing all yellowed and blemished leaves. Plunge them into rapidly boiling salted water (Chinese cooks say to add enough to make the water “salty as the sea”), removing them while still slightly crunchy.
If you are not using them immediately, put them in a bowl of cold water, then drain, bag and refrigerate until needed. When you are ready to serve, you have only to reheat them in a little butter or cream, adding, if you like, a few tablespoons of the sauce.
Cooking vegetables in an abundant volume of rapidly boiling salted water, then plunging them into cold water to arrest the cooking and set the color, is called “blanching.” Blanching vegetables, then reheating them in butter or cream just before serving, is sometimes called the French method.
For a starch accompaniment, what could be better than mashed potatoes? Unless it’s broad egg noodles, tossed with a little butter and sauce, then topped with fried breadcrumbs. Rice, plainly boiled and buttered, would also be hard to beat–or a steaming bowl of polenta, always appropriate with game.
This is the dinner for which you’ve been hoarding that Saint-Emillion, Chambertin, Borolo, or the Stag's Leap cab from your Napa Valley vacation. Then too, a Spanish Rioja reserva would complement it commendably without breaking the bank.
And afterwards, you will never have a better excuse for blowing the dust off that vintage port, or for opening that Grande Champagne X.O. cognac. So, here’s to you, George–and of course, to you, too, my deer.
4- to 5-pound piece of boneless venison
1 large yellow onion, 1/8” dice
1 large carrot, 1/8” dice
2 celery stalks, 1/8” dice
4 or 5 garlic cloves, sliced or finely minced
1 tablespoon of kosher salt
½-teaspoon of black peppercorns
½-teaspoon of whole cloves
½-teaspoon of coriander seeds
½-teaspoon of juniper berries (see note)
1 bay leaf
6 parsley stems
2 or 3 sprigs of fresh thyme, or ¼-teaspoon dried
1 bottle of dry red table wine
2 ounces of cognac
1 tablespoon of parsley, finely minced
1 tablespoon of garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon of quatre-épices
4 tablespoons clarified butter, lard, or olive oil
Note: Whole dried juniper berries can be found in most supermarkets. Juniper is also found all over suburbia where it is grown as an ornamental plant. A few ornamental varieties are reputed to be toxic to the kidneys, so if harvesting your own, caution is advised. If gathering your own berries from a local bush, it is advisable to know the height of the tallest male dog in the neighborhood. A slug of gin, which owes both its name and characteristic aroma to juniper, may be substituted for the whole berries.
*Quartre-épices (pronounced kat-tay-peace), literally four spices, but often many more, ground and mixed together. It is often called for in recipes for patés and terrines, as well as in recipes for game. Quartre-épices, mixed spices, and spiced salt can sometimes be found in gourmet shops, but may be of dubious quality and freshness. Making your own couldn’t be easier, allowing you to customize the combination to suit your personal taste. For a good basic mixture, combine equal quantities of black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Pulverize in a blender or spice grinder, sift, seal tightly, and store in a dark cupboard.
**Larding needles are available from fancy food purveyors and restaurant supply houses.
***Clarified butter is made from whole sweet butter that has been cooked to separate the solid butter fat, which burns at a low temperature, from the butter oil, which will withstand high temperatures without smoking. It’s extremely easy to make:
Place a quantity of unsalted butter in a saucepan, and cook it over medium heat. While it simmers, a white foam will steadily rise to the surface. This is skimmed off with a spoon and either discarded, or saved to flavor vegetables. When the foaming subsides, allow it to cool, then pour off the clear yellow liquid, leaving behind any solids that may have sunk to the bottom of the pan. Tightly covered and refrigerated, clarified butter will last a long time.
This is very similar to ghee, the famous Indian frying medium. Traditionally, ghee is made from the milk of the water buffalo, though today, it’s almost always made from cow’s milk. To make ghee, follow the instructions for clarified butter, but continue the simmering until the clear liquid changes color from yellow to nut-brown.