I grew up in a fairly large family. There were seven of us and during “deer season” we were divided into two camps; the hunters and the hypocrites. My sisters and I were in the hypocrite camp. Mom actually was a hunter and a fabulous wild game cook, which was a principle reason the remainder of the females ended up labeled by my brother as hypocrites. You see, though my sisters and I claimed we did not like the idea of hunting, none of us refused a place at the table.
In my family, hunting had been a tradition and a means of putting food on the table, for generations. Looking back, that appeared quite common for most families I knew in this region. I’m not sure that is the case today. Invited to join a friend’s family for dinner, it was not surprising, or unusual, to be served a meal comprised of venison, wild rabbit, or some wild fowl. Deer hunting season (rifle) began in late October and ended sometime in early December as I recall, and it seemed that all adult males were among the missing for these several weeks. I resented the daylights out of deer season because it meant my territory for horseback riding was restricted; Sugarfoot and I had to stay off our favorite wooded trails. Autumn’s cool crisp days were some of the best times for riding. Why didn’t they move the darn hunting season?
Dad always took vacation time from work during November to spend the entire time at hunting camp. My brothers joined him on weekends... but it was a male thing. My sisters and I were never even invited, not that we would have opted to go anyway. Hunting success meant we might see Dad briefly when he rolled into the yard with a large dead animal, deer or bear, draped over the hood of his jeep. It was expected of us to drop everything to go admire and praise his achievement. Mom always appeared delighted, but the rest of the family females lingered only as long as we felt necessary, exchanging sideways eye glances. He would drive off to do whatever it is they do to dead deer and celebrate I’m sure.
Fortunately the next time we saw anything of the beast was when it arrived all neatly divided and ready for the freezer in labeled paper-wrapped packages. What happened in between I’d rather not think about. I really don’t want to know - and I admit that if I had to hunt, kill, and process any meat I ate, I would be subsisting on a great deal of fish. Nevertheless, I do distinctly remember some fabulous meals Mom created from those tidy packages.
I never did get her recipes for preparing wild game. I wasn’t a hunter so it didn’t seem necessary once off on my own. My mother really didn’t work from written instruction anyway, and I’m not sure I could have taken notes since all of her food preparation seemed to come more from instinct, taste-testing, or years of experience and practice. Most wild game meals I’ve had in recent years have been prepared by my brother, who somehow absorbed the talent from mom - though I can’t recall ever seeing him in the kitchen growing up. He recently argued that with, “who do you think got the squirrels and helped Mom make the stew?” Well, I knew that wasn’t me!
One brother never really got all that much into hunting, but the other, the fabulous wild game cook, became an avid hunter, trapper, and fisherman. He keeps an entire freezer full from which he and his wife create all sorts of tasty meals. That’s exactly where I went to learn about cooking venison.
“Funny you should mention that,” he said. “I just finished a batch of venison spaghetti sauce.” I was sure he had been diligently checking his freezer for available space preparing for this season’s stock rotation. He gave me a picture of what was left and I asked how it turned out since I hadn’t been invited to join them. His wife chimed in, “Great!” He humbly added, “Well, it passed the spoon test!” For my brother, the best spaghetti sauce is very thick and will hold a spoon in an upright position. But, like my mother, he doesn’t really follow a recipe. He informed me he’d used ground venison, venison Italian sausage that he has prepared by his favorite deer processing site, and a bit of ground beef. From there he added ingredients “like you’d make any regular spaghetti sauce.” I told him I was looking for some specific recipes and he explained, “You can substitute venison for any recipe using beef, you realize.” He did agree to give me some basics about cooking venison and I will share with you what I recall from that conversation.
Most venison is very lean meat, 90-some percent lean, he told me. No cuts are really marbleized like beef. His personal preference is that any fat found on cuts be cleanly trimmed off. If not, it can be rather waxy and coat the inside of your mouth. I immediately thought of candle making, specifically tallow candles. He said he makes certain to chill all soups and stews so any residual fat will rise to the top and can easily be skimmed off prior to reheating and eating. I remembered Mom doing this exact same thing.
Basically the gist I got from our conversation is that there are two types of venison meat: quick cooking meat like steaks, filets and tender cuts, and long-cooking meat like shoulder, neck and ribs used in soups, stews, roasts, etc. The tender cuts can easily be ruined by over cooking, and need to be cooked briefly on high heat. His recommendation is that the cuts only be about 3/8” thick. “It needs to be at least pink, regardless of your normal beef doneness preferences, or it can be very dry and tough. Venison doesn’t have a lot of moisture content.”
He knows that over the years I came to grips with the whole hunting thing and he no longer refers to me as a hypocrite. My sisters escaped the hypocrite camp by becoming vegetarians. At least I occasionally get wild game dinner invitations.
The Lake Champlain Region is loaded with NYS land open for hunting, and licensed guides are prepared to help you find your game. Deer processing sites, like Norm’s Bait and Tackle, can easily be found. Happy hunting and if successful, come back here to share your tips on cooking wild game.