I brought home my first deer carcass, a road kill, over Thanksgiving weekend. Some friends of a friend butchered it in their basement that night, and I arrived home with a crate full of unlabeled plastic zipper bags. As I sorted through them, I realized that I had no idea what to do with all this meat.
One piece was clearly a leg, and the ribs were obvious. I also identified shanks and the neck, but the rest was a mystery.
My usual Internet recipe favorite, epicurious.com, assumed that the cook was starting with farmed venison, and the recipes had few reviews. Hunters’ websites included a smattering of recipes, but most didn’t even have a space for comments, and again assumed that the cook knew what cuts they were dealing with. Allrecipes.com had the biggest selection of recipes, with feedback, and that’s where I started, with the ribs, because there was no way I was going to fit those things in the freezer.
Had I searched for “rack of venison” I probably would have found a bit more, but as it was, I found a satisfactory recipe for very slow-cooked ribs – 18 hours in a 200-degree oven – which seemed to do the trick. As I work my way through the 40 or so pounds in the freezer, I dig up more resources, and more advice that I should have looked up sooner.
First, starting from the bookshelf might have been a good idea. The old “Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook” (Louise Tate King and Jean Stewart Wexler, 1971) includes recipes for a roast, a pot roast, and a meatloaf. On youtube.com, I found a video about how to bone and roll a leg of lamb, which looked very much like the leg of venison I mauled for Christmas Eve, then marinated in wine, juniper berries, and assorted other spices and vegetables. The results weren’t photogenic, but they tasted just fine.
Local hunters and venison aficionados are united in their insistence that the initial treatment of the meat makes all the difference when it comes to taste.
“There shouldn’t be a strong taste,” said Fella Cecilio, of Fella Caters in West Tisbury. “If there is, it means the meat got damaged by lying on its side.” Fella is primarily interested in using venison for sausage, so he grinds almost all the meat. “Every year I shoot two or three deer,” he said. “The backstraps and the hindquarters, I will give them as a gift to people that let me hunt on their property. The rest of the meat I use for sausage. I buy a case or so of pork butt and mix it in with my spices and fresh herbs.”
Pork is a key ingredient in many venison recipes. Venison is a very lean meat, so bacon or pork can lend fat to it during the cooking process. It’s an essential part of the sausages, whether they’re flavored with fresh herbs, cheese and garlic, as linguica, or as breakfast sausage.
Flip Harrington of Chilmark has been hunting and cooking venison for more than 30 years. “A lot of people that don’t like venison have had venison that wasn’t properly dealt with,” he said. “There’s a lot you have to do to make it taste the way it should. When you shoot an animal, right away, you gut it out, and within an hour it needs to go in a cooler, and it needs to be skinned before it goes in the cooler.”
Mr. Harrington enjoys venison steaks, lubricated with a piece of bacon, and venison burger with no pork added at all. “You can’t get better meat,” he said. “The stuff you get in the market is junk. The way it’s treated…they’re allowed so much fecal matter under the law, and I don’t want any fecal matter in my meat.”
Mr. Harrington’s signature stew is cooked in a two-day process that springs off from a recipe in the “New York Times Large Print Cookbook.”
“I embellish the hell out of it,” Mr. Harrington said. “I like to use Madeira. I add venison sausage, too, cut into one-inch chunks. I pre-cook some potatoes, then about an hour before serving I put in whole mushrooms, and I add garlic, too, which isn’t in the recipe.”
He begins by frying diced salt pork in a big cast-iron skillet, then takes it out, browns the venison, then removes that to sauté onions, carrots, and celery. “Then you go ahead and you put it in the crock pot and you let it cook slowly. I’ll start it at noon and let it go until about 5, then unplug it and re-heat it the next afternoon. It turns out really well.”
So far, I’ve only made a small dent in my freezer stash, but I’ve picked up a few strategies. Ground venison is easy to use in everything from burgers to spaghetti sauce, lasagna, and more. As a stew meat, it’s as versatile as beef, and leaner. Making sausage is a project in itself, but the results can be tasty. Finally, a slow-cooked roast can go a long way, starting as the centerpiece of a big meal and going on for more.
The leftovers of my Christmas Eve roast went into a potpie, a couple of sandwiches, and a small batch of venison Stroganoff. The possibilities are endless, but I think my next step is going to be a big pot of stew.
Amelia Smith is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.