Food for the Soul

Story Jeff Clark | Photographs Birney Imes & Lee Adams

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I’m no avid hunter. Hell, I’m not even a casual hunter. My uncle took me deer hunting once when I was a kid. We were in the shooting house by 5 a.m., and before 7 a.m., I was home in my Batman Underoos eating cereal and watching “Fat Albert.” But my lack of enthusiasm for hunting deer or any animal doesn’t dampen my fondness for lean and flavorful deer meat. Although I like to call it “woods beef” or “yard cow,” for literary and culinary purposes, it shall henceforth be known as venison.

Venison is as synonymous with fall as generic trick-or-treat peanut butter candy wrapped in orange and black paper or riding around on back roads listening to 38 Special or Bob Seger.

Hunting for deer is a rite of passage for many Southerners. Everyone knows someone who keeps a freezer full of venison throughout the year. When you are attending a cocktail party and one of the appetizers is venison summer sausage served with yellow hoop cheese and saltine crackers, you know you are at the right party.

With a deep crimson hue, this “other red meat” is lower in both fat and cholesterol than other popular sources of protein, which is good because I also quite enjoy pork skins and Crockpot weenies.

Erich Ogle, director of the Culinary Arts Institute at Mississippi University for Women, is also not a hunter. But he does understand and appreciate the popularity of venison, particularly in the South.

“Venison is as versatile as beef,” Ogle says. “I love to use it whenever I can get it, especially the tenderloin or back-strap.”

But, there is a major drawback to venison as deer eat nothing but what they can find — usually leaves, grass and weeds, so the meat can sometimes have a gamy taste, giving it a livery, dirty, mineral flavor which can be unappetizing.

To reduce the gaminess of venison, Ogle suggests marinating the meat for at least 24 hours in buttermilk or yogurt. The bacteria not only improves the flavor, it breaks down the muscle tissue, effectively tenderizing the meat.

Ogle said venison should be prepared in the same ways one would prepare beef. However, because venison contains far less fat than beef, cooking times should be shortened to prevent the finished product from becoming tough or chewy.

While black market, back door venison trading occurs in abundance, the meat is not readily available in grocery stores, nor is it what’s for dinner in diners and cafés. Take a trip down any backwoods road in the South and eventually you are going to run across a deer-processing shack.

But deer processing isn’t what it used to be. What was once something done by your drunk uncle with a dull knife has evolved into a boutique industry. Fork ’N Road Deer Processing in northern Lowndes County makes several types of sausage, jerky and even tamales from your kill of the day.

“We make all of our sausage by hand — the jalapeño and cheddar smoked sausage are best-sellers,” said Josh Boyer, a processor/meat cutter at Fork ’N Road. The venison tamales, also handmade on the premises, are especially popular, added Boyer.

Whether served as a holiday roast, in a variety of sausages or in haute cuisine recipes, venison has been a versatile meat for generations. And as long as the weather continues to turn cold and the leaves fall from the trees, venison will always be a Southern tradition.

— All recipes courtesy Erich Ogle


VENISON ROAST with Apple Cider

Yields 6 to 8 servings

4 pounds venison roast
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic salt
1 1/2  cups unfiltered apple cider
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup water

• Cut several slits in roast and rub with oil.
• In small bowl mix pepper, salt, flour, oregano, thyme, rosemary and garlic salt. Add just enough water to make a paste. Rub paste into meat, working into cut slits.
• Place meat in baking dish containing apple cider, lemon juice and water. Bake uncovered in 350-degree oven for 45 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 130-135 degrees.
• Baste with juices and cider mixture. Cover. Roast another 1 1/2 hours or until well done, basting every 15 or 20 minutes.


SMOKED VENISON

Yields 7 servings

2 pounds venison (tenderloin or back strap)
1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
4 cups soy sauce or teriyaki sauce
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup mustard
1 cup molasses
3 tablespoons black pepper, freshly ground
3 tablespoons garlic Tabasco sauce
1/2 cup vegetable oil

• Mix all ingredients and let stand for at least 2 hours stirring occasionally.  Add venison. Marinate for 2 days.
• Place venison in smoker (use apple or pecan chips) and smoke 3 to 4 hours or until meat reaches internal temperature of 130 degrees.


VENISON MEDALLIONS with Mushroom Risotto and Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Yields 4 servings

Oven Roasted Tomatoes

1 pound tomatoes, (4 medium-sized)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
10 branches of fresh thyme
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly cracked pepper

• Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
• Pour olive oil into shallow baking dish or pan and add garlic, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper.
• Cut tomatoes in half horizontally and use sharp knife to remove stems, if you wish. Toss tomatoes with oil and seasonings, lay cut side down in dish.
• Bake two hours, or until tomatoes are completely softened and wilted and start to wrinkle.

Venison Stock

1/4 cup unsalted butter
Bones and trimmings from venison loin chopped into pieces
5 medium shallots, coarsely chopped
1 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon pepper, coarsely cracked
1 cup port wine
2 branches of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
3 garlic cloves
1 quart red wine
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock

• Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
• In large roasting pan, heat half of butter over medium-high heat. Add bones and trimmings and sauté for 5 minutes, turning to brown all sides.
• Add shallots, carrot, pepper and remaining butter, stir to combine and roast for 15 to 20 minutes. Stir several times during the cooking process, until dark brown and well caramelized. Remove from oven and pour off fat.
• Return pan to stovetop and over medium-high heat, deglaze with port wine, stirring and scraping bottom and sides to release all fond from pan.
• Add thyme, bay leaf and garlic, and continue to cook until liquid has reduced by half.
• Add wine, stir, and simmer until most of wine has evaporated.
• Add stock, bring liquid to a simmer, cover, and cook for 1 hour.
• Strain stock through a chinois, and discard solids.
• Return stock to stovetop, return stock to a simmer and reduce by two-thirds.

Mushroom Risotto

2 1/2 quarts venison stock
4 ounces butter
5 ounces onion, minced
1 1/2 pounds Arborio rice
8 ounces dry white wine
10 ounces mushrooms, sliced
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

• Bring chicken stock to a simmer.
• Heat 3 ounces of butter in large, heavy saucepan. Add onion and sauté without browning until translucent.
• Add rice to onion and butter. Stir well to coat grains with butter. Do not allow rice to brown.
• Add wine and stir until completely absorbed.
• Add mushrooms. Add simmering stock, 4 ounces at a time, stirring frequently. Wait until stock is absorbed before adding next 4-ounce portion.
• After approximately 18-20 minutes, all stock should be incorporated and rice should be tender. Remove from heat and stir in remaining 1 ounce of butter and grated cheese.

Venison Medallions

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 medallions of venison loin
Salt and fresh ground white pepper

• In large sauté pan, heat butter over medium-high heat.
• Add medallions and cook for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, reduce heat, cover and cook for 2 minutes more.
• Season to taste with salt and white pepper.