My dad grew up on a Michigan farm, and has been hunting for most of his life. Even though he has a decidedly white-collar profession and hasn’t lived anywhere near a farm in decades, he still enjoys going deer hunting every chance he gets. I would often go hunting with him as a little girl, practicing with a toy bow and arrow set in the backyard and eagerly looking forward to being old enough to get my hunting license. Of course, by the time I actually reached that age, we had moved to suburbia and I was more interested in my sticker collection than hunting. But I still have fond memories of the one-on-one time spent enjoying nature and my dad’s company.
Ironically, although I enjoyed the hunting excursions, I hated venison as a kid. My mom would try to sneak it into recipes, but we always knew what it was and there was lots of whining at the dinner table on those occasions from myself and my siblings. Luckily, my tastes have matured and I now enjoy venison quite a bit. It doesn’t have the ferrous aftertaste I recall being turned off by as a kid- I don’t know if it’s a matter of kids having more “sensitive” taste buds, or if the venison I’ve had recently just happens to be milder due to the deer’s diet. Whatever the case, I have been enjoying the bounty that has been thrown my way- my dad has gotten 8 deer so far this year, and sent me home from my Thanksgiving visit with a couple packages of salami sticks and about 6 lbs of frozen ground venison. My goal is to create 6 different recipes and blog about them all- I figure I can’t be the only one with a bunch of venison in their freezer, and perhaps people are looking for some new ideas. I’d like to create recipes that compliment venison’s unique flavor, rather than try to mask it or pass it off as a ground beef substitute.
With that in mind, I present you with this first installment in “The Venison Diaries”. I made an Italian-style ragù (i.e. meat sauce) using techniques from The Splendid Table, enhancing the earthy flavor of the meat with cognac and porcini mushrooms (or cèpes, for all you francophones). Venison is an extremely lean meat, so don’t feel guilty about the pancetta and butter in this recipe! I also added a smidge of ground pork and veal to round out the flavor and texture, as ground venison can tend to be a bit dry and crumbly on its own. Simmering the meat in milk, as in some versions of the classic sauce Bolognese, also helped keep things tender, and gave body to the sauce. The results were just as I’d hoped- deeply savory and rich, and perfect with thick noodles and a sturdy red wine.
Venison & Porcini Mushroom Ragù
1 lb ground venison
¼ lb ground pork
¼ lb ground veal
2 oz. pancetta (as for a slice about ⅓” thick), diced small
1 medium carrot, diced small
½ stick celery, diced small
1 large shallot, minced
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
⅓ cup cognac
1 cup whole milk
1 Tbs tomato paste
1 Tbs butter
1½ tsp minced fresh rosemary
1½ tsp thyme leaves
4-6 sage leaves, minced
salt & pepper
tagliatelli or egg noodles
grated Parmigiano or Grana Padana
minced fresh parsley (optional)
Notes: If you don’t have all the fresh herbs and don’t want to spend the money, I’d at least go with the thyme. If you don’t have cognac you could substitute red wine and just use a bit more, like ½ to ¾ cup. But a little cognac is always a good thing to have on hand for impromptu pan sauces or the occasional after-dinner nip.
Directions: Bring about 2 cups water to a boil. Place dried porcinis in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Cover and let stand for at least 10-15 minutes. When mushrooms are softened, remove them gently so as not to disturb the grit at the bottom of the dish. Set mushrooms aside and strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter; reserve 1½ cups.
Place the venison, pork and veal into a large bowl. Season generously with salt & pepper and mix with a wooden spoon until the meats are well incorporated.
In a large skillet or Dutch oven, sauté the pancetta over medium heat for a few minutes until it begins to render some of its fat. Add up to 1 Tbs butter as needed so that there is enough fat in the pan to cook the vegetables. Add the shallot, carrot and celery and cook until the carrots begin to soften, stirring often.
Increase the heat slightly and add the meat to the pan. Cook the meat, stirring and breaking it up gently, until you no longer see any liquid in the bottom of the pan; this could take up to 15 minutes. Reduce heat slightly and cook for a few more minutes to give the meat a chance to brown. Stir in the tomato paste, herbs and mushrooms.
Add the cognac and simmer until the liquid has evaporated, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze it. Add the mushroom broth ½ cup at a time, letting it cook off before adding more. Add the milk and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened enough to coat a noodle. Taste for salt, adding as needed.
Serve over tagliatelli or egg noodles with a dusting of cheese and a pinch of fresh parsley.