Jim Casada

Enjoying the many virtues of venison

A few days ago, a friend of mine, Jeff Rizzo, who oversees things at The Echoes Nursery down in Chester County, reminded me of a promise to do some game cooking for a group of folks who will be visiting the spot for an early November deer hunt. We talked a bit about what would be offered and arranged to get together for some pre-meal planning under ideal circumstances; namely, spending an afternoon in a deer stand.

Primarily though, our conversation got me to thinking about all the after-the-hunt joys associated with the whitetail quest. Simply put, venison is a wonderful meat. Properly handled and prepared, it is tasty, nutritious, and far healthier than anything you'll fine on meat market shelves. Sadly though, far too many folks somehow have been turned off when it comes to venison. In some cases it's nothing more than a mental barrier that might be called the Bambi syndrome. More often though, it's related to a bad culinary experience which finds folks dismissing venison as being too "gamey," "wild tasting," or "tough."

Let's look at the flip side, and as someone who has been the co-author of eight or nine wild game cookbooks, two of which were devoted exclusively to venison, I hope I've learned a few things about this wonderful meat. Growing out of that experience and decades of wonderful meals featuring venison as a main dish, here are some pointers for the timid, the uncertain, those who have a bad experience, or maybe those who have hopes of taking their venison cookery beyond the level of grilled backstraps or ground meat.

Fine fare beings with proper handling of venison from the field to the freezer. Field dress (literally -- do it in the field) and cool the deer as soon as you can, and the same goes for getting the gutted animal in a cooler posthaste. Most commercial processors won't do two things which can really be beneficial -- leaving the hide intact while the meat ages and letting it age for at least a week -- but if you have those luxuries they are a plus. Aging should take place at a temperature within a degree or two of the 38.

Cleanliness is imperative, and if you are paying a processor you should insist on getting your own meat back, not someone else's, and you should be able to look at the operation behind the scenes. Packaging of the processed meat, no matter what cuts you select, is also important. Double wrapping with butcher paper is good, but being vacuum-sealed is far better. You'll extend shelf life and avoid freezer burn by using the latter approach.

When it comes to cooking, the biggest mistake, by far, is overcooking. Any choice cut -- the backstraps, tenderloins, haunches cut into steaks, or cube steaks -- can be ruined by too much heat for too long. If prime cuts aren't pink in the middle when served, they are overcooked.

As for a common complaint, the meat being too "dry," that is the nature of venison. But with burger or sausage the answer is an easy one in the form of adding a bit of suet, while roasts and steaks can be addressed through the use of marinades, sauces, injection, and the like. For stew meat and lesser cuts, the crockpot or use in soups or stews offers an answer.

Don't forget that there are certain accompaniments which make a world of difference. Venison goes especially well with fruits and berries which have a hint of tartness to them -- cranberries, currants, sauces made from blueberries or raspberries, apricots. It is also a grand option for a new twist on "surf and turf," and one of my two or three all-time favorites is tenderloin with a shrimp and crabmeat sauce. Similarly, ground venison works nicely in all sorts of ethnic dishes from an English shepherd's pie to Italian meat-and-pasta offerings and Tex-Mex meals.

Whatever your approach, don't expect it to taste like beef. That's a mistake, for there are differences in taste, texture, and health benefits. Venison is the healthiest red meat you will find. It has no known inoculants, antibiotics, dietary supplements, or anything except nature's offerings. It contains very little fat (any which is there should be carefully removed), is low in cholesterol, and is often the only "red" meat individuals with heart problems are allowed to eat.

There are cookbooks aplenty dealing with venison, and you can adapt many beef recipes to venison. Be willing to experiment, even though you can't go wrong with a good chili, gussied-up burgers, or stew. Beyond that, keep firmly in mind the importance of handling and processing, cooking time, and the meat's great versatility.

One other thought -- bon appetit!

We are still dry as a buffalo chip, but at least recent rains make it possible to move through the woods without sounding quite so much like a run away rhino. With cooler weather on tap, hunters need to take to the woods in earnest. Game will likely move more, especially in the middle of the rut where we presently stand. Cooler weather also should trigger feeding binges in fish answering age's old urges to get ready for winter, and come to think of it, there's something mighty invigorating for us humans in the bracing air of chilly weather. In short, the message is one of "get out in the woods."