Good Taste: Creative ideas for turning a deer into venison

Venison shanks with roasted potatoes and squash.
File photo by Ralph Stewart

Venison shanks with roasted potatoes and squash.

I became a deer hunter through my taste buds. It began with a rack of venison.

More than 20 years ago I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard with no particular opinions on deer. I had never struck a deer on the road, nor pulled a tick from my skin or tasted a well-seasoned backstrap steak.

One fall, Cooper Gilkes, the well-known Edgartown fisherman, told me he had shot a deer. I expressed passing interest until he offered me a choice piece of venison.

That evening I ate venison for the first time. I was surprised by the flavor and texture — rich, meaty, and tender. I also knew that in the future I could not count on friends for venison handouts. My motivation to become a hunter had arrived on a dinner plate.

Of course, if one agrees that “you are what you eat,” the fact that Island deer are very tasty should be no surprise. As any landscaper or gardener knows, our resident population eats very, very well.

This week and next, the sound of shotguns will echo around Martha’s Vineyard. Some will cringe in fear at an unfamiliar sound, while others will begin to salivate at the prospect of a freezer stocked with venison and the available culinary options.

The other day I sat in a tree stand considering the transformation from deer to venison as I watched a small doe make her way up a trail. I considered the likelihood of a clear shot. Even though I had yet to pull the trigger, my mind wandered through the menu possibilities.

As anyone who has hunted deer knows, they are remarkable creatures possessed of keen eyesight, remarkable hearing and a sense of smell that alerts them to the human presence well before a human can get close. My point is that the decision to hunt deer is no trip to the market for venison.

The wind shifted and the deer I was eyeing immediately picked up my scent. She did not know where I sat, but she did know it was time to leave. A larger doe that walked up a different trail a little later would not be so lucky.

I am not a chef. I have no culinary pretensions. But over the years I have settled on several pretty good recipes for venison that are popular in my house. One caveat: although I list measurements, these are really just guesses on my part. I do not measure much. I grab a handful of this and a spoonful of that and mix it together until it seems right.

So consider all measurements to be approximate. For those concerned with the details, most any recipe for hamburger or lamb can be used for guidance. Never ever forget that venison is very lean and can easily be overcooked — a cardinal sin.

I use a KitchenAid mixer with a grinding attachment for most venison recipes. I prefer to grind pork to add the needed fat content. A quick substitute is Jimmy Dean’s pork sausage.

Also, non-hunters should not despair. Many hunters are happy to share. An offer to help with butchering chores, or share in the cost of butchering, is one way to taste the Island’s natural bounty.

Venison meatloaf

1.5 pounds ground venison

1/2 pound ground boneless pork ribs

one egg

1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs

1/4 cup parmesan cheese

A splash of Worcestershire sauce

Mix together and form into a loaf. Slather with ketchup and bake at 350 for about 40 minutes. Great for sandwiches.

Venison meat pie

1 medium potato, peeled and cubed

1/2 cup of carrots

1/2 pound ground venison

1/2 pound ground pork

1/3 clove garlic, chopped

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon mustard powder

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon dried sage

1 (15-ounce) package refrigerated pie

crusts

I found this recipe at allrecipes.com and tinkered with it. This is a great dish

Boil the potatoes until tender, about 5 minutes, drain, mash, and set aside. Do the same with the carrots.

Place the ground venison and pork into a large saucepan, and add the garlic, onion and water. Season with mustard powder, thyme, cloves and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring to crumble the meat and mix in the spices, until the meat is evenly browned. Remove from the heat, and mix in the mashed potato and carrots. The potato will absorb the liquid.

Place one of the pie crusts into a 9-inch pie plate. paint the crust with Dijon mustard. Fill with the meat mixture, then top with the other pie crust. Prick the top crust a few times with a knife to vent steam. Crimp around the edges using the tines of the fork, and remove any excess dough. Baste the crust with an egg wash.

Bake for 25 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the crust has browned.

Vension backstrap steaks

Chop and sautée a sweet onion in a cast iron pan.

Rub backstrap steaks with some kosher salt.

Toss the steaks into a hot pan and sear on both sides.

Remove the steaks from the pan and let them sit until an instant thermometer reads medium-rare.

The key is to do nothing to the steaks. No foo foo sauce to mask the flavor of the steaks, no goopy coverings.

Venison shanks

2 venison shanks

1 cup red wine

1 cup beef broth

1 sweet onion diced

5 tomatoes

3 carrots

2 bay leaves

5 cloves of garlic roughly chopped

1 head of garlic

4 medium potatoes

1 butternut squash

pinch of fresh rosemary and thyme

Brown the shanks in olive oil in a Dutch oven. Remove the shanks and add onions and garlic. Deglaze the pot with red wine. Add tomatoes and carrots. Add natural beef, along with bay leaves and spices (rosemary, thyme). Return the shanks to the pot and cook for several hours at 300 degrees. Remove the shanks and blend the broth, cook to reduce and pour over the plated shanks.