Category Archives: Slow Food

venison root vegetable stew (the venison diaries, part V)

I started writing this post and realized- for once, I don’t have a lot to say. But that’s OK; the following is all you need to know: A small venison roast, some local root vegetables from the farmers’ market, some homemade stock, and a weekend day with enough time for a long braise can yield the following:

I don’t often get roasts from my dad, usually his venison is in burger form, so this was a first. I just treated it like I would any other tough cut of meat, braising it for a while in the stock at a low temp and then adding the vegetables later so they didn’t cook to mush. The result wasn’t earth-shattering. but it was homey, comforting and hearty, which was just what I was going for.

Venison Stew with Root Vegetables
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1 small venison roast (about 1.5 to 2 lbs)
a few Tbs bacon fat
2 cups stock, preferably homemade: beef, lamb or chicken will work (mine was actually turkey, leftover from Thanksgiving)
aromatics: a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, juniper berries, or a couple sprigs of rosemary or thyme would all work
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large or 2 small parsnips, peeled & cut into chunks
5-6 small shallots, peeled & trimmed
4 small potatoes, scrubbed and cut in halves or quarters
1 celery stalk, trimmed & cut into ½-inch pieces
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 225°. Warm the stock on the stove in a heavy lidded pot large enough to accommodate the meat. Rinse the venison and pat dry; lightly salt the meat and rub all over with the bacon fat. Add venison to pot, cover, and braise in the oven for 2 hours. You can turn the meat halfway through, but it’s not strictly necessary. Meanwhile, prep the vegetables. After the initial 2 hours, lightly salt the vegetables, add to the pot, cover, and cook for another hour or until vegetables are tender.

If the meat comes easily off the bone, feel free to serve your roast as-is; if meat is a little tough, you can either braise a bit longer, or do what I did: Remove meat from pot until it cools enough to handle, remove from the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces; return to pot to warm through. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed. If desired, serve with chopped parsley as a garnish.

oaxacan mole verde: a springtime stew

Everywhere I turn- on Facebook and Twitter and even *gasp* real-life conversations (remember those?)- people are, to put it gently, lamenting spring’s tardy appearance this year. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to ditch the scarf and gloves, and temps in the 60s would feel balmy right about now, but I try not to dwell on that which I cannot change. Instead, I’m trying to transition as best I can, by cooking foods which satisfy both the craving for something warm and hearty, and the desperate longing for something green.

When I prepared my prosciutto leg in January, I had a fair amount of meat (and bone; see above) left over from the trimmings. I took some out of the freezer a couple weeks ago to make a Oaxacan pork stew.  I’m sure the very word “stew” conjures rib-sticking, squarely winter food, but bear with me. The dish incorporates plenty of green things like tomatillos and squash and an herb purée that gives it a lively perk and, when stirred in, turns the color from olive-drab to a brilliant emerald.  The stew’s heat (both temperature and spice-wise) will fend off these last bouts of winter chill, while the vegetables and herbs will prime your palate for green things to come.

I served this one night to my friend Amanda, wh0 has visited Oaxaca with her Mexican beau, and she said it was very similar to something she had tried there. I wouldn’t expect anything less of a Rick Bayless recipe- this one comes from his book  Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. The only change I made was to use zucchini in place of the chayote because the market was out of it that day, but I think it’s a fine (if less authentic) substitution. I also used frozen green beans because I prefer them over the somewhat large, tough specimens that are found in stores this time of year.

If you still think that stew is too much of a winter dish, I would humbly remind you that in Mexico it is MUCH warmer than it is in most parts of North America, and they eat stews like this all the time! I won’t preach to you about not being deterred by the long ingredients list or prep time; this is unapologetically a recipe for those who may actually enjoy spending an afternoon in the kitchen. Might as well, since it’s still too cold to go outdoors.

Oaxacan Pork Stew with Vegetables & Herbs /Mole Verde Oaxaqueño (adapted slightly from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen)
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2 lbs boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1 lb pork bones, cut into 2-inch pieces
2/3 cup dried navy beans
4 garlic cloves, whole and unpeeled
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 medium white onion, diced
1 lb medium tomatillos. husked and rinsed
fresh green chiles to taste- about 2 jalapeños or 3 serranos
½ tsp cumin, preferably toasted and freshly ground
½ tsp black pepper, preferably fresh ground
pinch of ground cloves
1 ½ Tbx lard or vegetable oil
2 medium (1 lb total) chayotes, peeled, seeded and cut into ¾-inch chunks, or substitute 1 lb zucchini (do not peel)
1 ½ cups (about 6 oz) tender young green beans, trimmed and cut in half, or substitute frozen if no good fresh beans are available
2/3 cup fresh masa, or  generous ½ cup masa harina mixed with 6 Tbs hot water
about 2 tsp salt
4 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley, plus additional for garnish
2 small sprigs epazote (or 5-6 sprigs of cilantro if unavailable)
2 leaves hoja santa (or 1 cup roughly chopped fennel fronds)

Place the meat and bones in a large Dutch oven or cazuela and cover with 3 quarts water. Bring to a boil, skimming the gray foam that rises to the surface. When no more foam surfaces, add the beans, minced garlic and onion. Partially cover and cook at a gentle simmer until the beans are cooked and the meat is tender, 1 ½- 2 hours. Add any water as needed during cooking to keep the beans and meat covered.

Meanwhile, roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until soft and blackened on one side, about 3-5 minutes; turn them over and blacken the other side. Transfer tomatillos along with any juices to a blender or food processor. Heat a cast iron skillet or heavy griddle over medium heat. Roast the chiles and unpeeled garlic in the dry skillet, turning frequently, until soft and blackened in spots. (Note: I found it helpful to keep the garlic on the outer edge of the pan to avoid burning.) Peel the garlic and roughly chop it with the chiles. Add to blender along with the cumin, cloves and pepper, and purée until smooth.

When the meat and beans are tender, pour them into a colander set over a large bowl or stockpot. Remove the bones, picking them clean of any remaining meat and adding it back to the colander. Set colander aside. Skim the fat from the top of the broth.  Wash and dry your Dutch oven or  cazuela, set over medium heat, and add the lard or oil. When hot, add the tomatillo purée- it should sizzle sharply (test a drop first). Stir constantly for about 5 minutes to thicken. Add 4 cups of the pork broth, partially cover, and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the chayote or zucchini and green beans and cook 5 minutes longer.

In a small bowl, whisk 2/3 cup broth with the masa mixture, mixing well to remove lumps, then whisk into the stew base until thickened. Return the meat and beans to the stew pot. Season with salt to taste, usually about 2 teaspoons. Let the stew simmer gently while you prepare the herb mixture.

Purée the herbs with 1/3 cup broth in a blender until smooth. (If you are short of broth, you can use water.) Stir the puréed herbs into the stew. Add broth or water as needed to achieve a medium-thick consistency. Ladle into wide soup bowls, garnish with additional parsley, and serve immediately with warm corn tortillas. If not eating all of the stew immediately, stir a spoonful of herb mixture into each individual serving rather than the whole pot, reserving the remaining mixture to add to the stew when reheating it.

corned beef & cabbage, and soup! {charcutepalooza}

Have you noticed it’s been a bit heavy on the meat posts over here lately? I have some non-meat-centric recipes up my sleeve, but am trying to be timely for St. Patrick’s Day and the Charcutepalooza deadline (which I’ve already blown by 2 days). This month’s challenge was brining; specifically, corning (is that really a verb?) our own beef. (I told my friend Fred on the phone the other night what I was up to, to which he replied, “I like to hear a lady say she’s corning her own beef”. Yes, Fred can make innuendo out of just about anything. What would that even mean? Never mind…)

This was probably one of the easiest challenges- not that I know what the others will be yet, but as far as curing and charcuterie goes, this was a snap- make up a simple brine (salt, pink salt, spices and water), brine the meat for 5 days, and then simmer with more spices until cooked. No humidity or temperatures to monitor; in fact the biggest challenge was probably finding room in the fridge for the container of meat and brine.

I bought a brisket from Gratiot Central Market that was almost 8 pounds, the smallest they had. The recipe called for a 5-lb brisket, so I cut off the round (the thicker end) and stuck it in the freezer; I’ll probably do some kind of braise with it later. I made my own pickling spice according to the recipe in Charcuterie, which now has me wanting to pickle anything and everything just because I have a whole jar of it and it’s awfully pretty and intoxicating (photo shows coriander, peppercorns & mustard seed I toasted). But if you really want easy-breezy, it’s fine to use a pre-mixed pickling spice.

For our first corned beef meal, I made this braised cabbage instead of boiled. I just feel like it’s a little dressier, or maybe it’s just my comfort zone since I don’t make many boiled dinners. I used the corned beef cooking liquid instead of chicken broth for the braising liquid and it was fabuloso. The meal got big thumbs up from Marvin, who called the corned beef “sprightly” from the coriander and praised the cabbage’s sweetness. He was still carrying on about it the next day, saying it was the best corned beef he’s ever had. So there you have it- homemade really does make a difference!

Once we got down to about a pound of corned beef left, I decided to make a batch of corned beef and cabbage soup, loosely based on one at a restaurant where I used to work. Now, I know there are probably a thousand recipes out there for this soup, and I make no claims to any sort of originality or authenticity with this, but for you other Charcutepaloozers out there, this is a solid recipe and a good way to use up leftover stock and meat. It incorporates the highly flavorful cooking liquid from simmering the beef (waste not, want not!) and is ridiculously easy to throw together.

In other (sort of related) news: My latest SimmerD column is out; it’s a profile of P.J.’s Lager House in Corktown and you can read it here.

Corned Beef & Cabbage Soup
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1 lb corned beef, cut into whatever you determine to be appropriate bite-sized pieces
1 lb green cabbage, shredded on a mandoline or thinly sliced
1 large or 2 small carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
2 medium yellow onions, cut to your preference (I like vertical slices but you can also dice them)
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
1 cup sauerkraut with its juice
1 large russet potato, peeled and shredded (optional, see notes)
6 cups broth from cooking your corned beef (if very salty, use 4 cups broth + 2 cups water or whatever ratio tastes balanced)
olive oil

Notes: If you didn’t cook your own corned beef, you could try making this with deli corned beef- for the cooking liquid, use beef broth, and put a tablespoon of pickling spice in a tea strainer or cloth spice bag to cook with the soup. I didn’t use a potato since I’m off the white starch for the moment, but I probably would have otherwise. I didn’t miss it though. Your call.

Directions: Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot.  Sauté the onions and carrots until the onions are softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Raise the heat slightly and add the cabbage. Continue to sauté until the cabbage is wilted and softened, about 15 minutes, adding more oil if needed so nothing sticks.

Add the tomatoes, broth, meat and potato, if using. Simmer until cabbage and carrots are cooked to your liking. Stir in the sauerkraut and taste to check the balance of flavors, adding more salt, water (if too salty), sauerkraut juice etc. as needed. Serve with hunks of pumpernickel or rye bread and butter.

when life hands you a tough hen…

…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!

It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries.  Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin.  In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing.  Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.

So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale!  Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get.  They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.

Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection.  She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen.  In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her.  But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.

I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half.  Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong?  I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen?  Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh.  This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding.  However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.

The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene.  As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf.  The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce.  Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce!  I think I was more upset about it than anything.

That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left.  I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so.  It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them.  At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body  and flavor to my sauce.  I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).

I’m still not sure what happened with the meat.  I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled.  If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know!  Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.

P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley.  Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!

book review: “families of the vine” by michael sanders

It’s always a happy occurrence to come across a book that covers overlapping topics of interest to me- in this case, wine and France, and more specifically, malbec (a favorite grape of mine) and southwestern France (where I lived for a year).  I’m not quite sure why Families of the Vine sat on my shelf unread for as long as it did- it came out in 2006- but I’m very glad I finally got to it.  Reading it was a little bittersweet, as I regretted not having visited any of these vineyards when I last was in France, but I now have an itinerary for my next visit!

Over the course of two years, Michael Sanders (author of From Here, You Can’t See Paris, about a French village restaurant and also on my reading list) spent time with three winemaking families in the Lot valley near Cahors, the city which lends its name to the wine’s appellation.  In Families of the Vine, we are introduced to Yves & Martine Jouffreau-Hermann of Clos de Gamot, a vineyard dating from 1610 and whose signature wine is considered the quintessential expression of red Cahors;  Jean-Luc Baldès of Clos Triguedina, the prodigal son who returned to the family vineyard after studying in Bordeaux; and Philippe Bernède of Clos la Coutale, who favors fast cars and producing a more international (read: softer, fruitier) style of red wine.

Le vin de Cahors has, in recent centuries at least, always played second fiddle to its cousins from Bordeaux and Burgundy.  Sanders gives a bit of history explaining that due to geography and political power, Bordeaux gained the upper hand that it still enjoys to this day, in spite of the fact that the “black wine of Cahors” was once preferred by the English over the lighter claret (the Brits’ name for Bordeaux).  Cahors wine, by law a minimum of 70% malbec with merlot and tannat making up the remainder, received appellation status in 1971 thanks to native son Georges Pompidou.

The book takes place in 2002 and 2003, with Sanders writing about the 2003 growing season and the 2002 vinification process, in that order.  The 2003 growing season was unusually hot and dry, causing much stress on the part of the winemakers.  In some cases, hot dry weather can be a boon to the grapes, but in this case it wreaked havoc on them, causing the winemakers to have yields that were  50% or less of their normal harvest.  Coincidentally, I was visiting France at the exact time of the harvest Sanders writes about, and I well remember la canicule– the devastating heat wave in which hundreds of elderly people across France died.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was reading about vinification, and the struggle between old and new ideas among France’s winemakers.  This is a subject that has been on my mind lately, as some of my more winesavvy friends have been talking about natural wine and what it means.  The crux of the problem is that, although in an ideal world many French winemakers would love to make a more traditional product, the market demands wines that can be consumed just a few years after being bottled.  Many winemakers simply don’t have the resources to cellar the wine for the requisite time, which requires not only the space to do so, but the capital to be able to tie up their money for years on end.  Some, like Bernède, are embracing the more fruit-forward, “Parkerized” styles of wine, which are easier to sell internationally and don’t require as much investment.  Others, like the Jouffreau family and Jean-Luc Baldès, are trying to hang on to the more traditional style of Cahors wine, which typically requires at least 10 years in the bottle to reach its full potential.  Yves Jouffreau-Hermann has even gone to the extreme of planting a difficult hillside vineyard, Clos St-Jean, whose grapes he hopes will yield a truly outstanding wine in years to come.

The main thing I am taking away from this book (apart from a burning desire to return to southwestern France to sample some of the wines of the region) is the importance of supporting producers who are dedicated to making quality wine in the traditional manner, even if it means sacrificing easier profits.  Like any artisanal tradition, when these winemakers are forced to cut corners to survive, we will all suffer for the lack of variety and quality.  I admit that until now, I have never cellared any wines, instead just buying them as I needed them.  But after reading the personal stories of these families and how much work they do for relatively little profit, I think it’s time to start endorsing that by choosing more “challenging” wines; wines that require a bit of commitment.

The only thing this book sorely lacks is a map showing the region and locations of the vineyards and châteaux, but other than that, it’s a wonderful introduction to anyone unfamiliar with winemaking, and a great resource for anyone interested in Cahors wine or the lives and struggles of the people behind the grapes.

Note: The photographs from this post were borrowed from the internet. Clicking on the photos will take you to the websites where they were found.

a locavore meal: steak & mushroom pudding (daring bakers)

The April 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet.

I’ve never been one f0r deadlines.  I was always the kid who was up all night with a pot of coffee the night before a big exam, or mysteriously sick the day a term paper was due.  While I love the idea of Daring Bakers and have participated in several (most even on time!), the posting date always sneaks up on me and I usually find myself scrambling. I’ve missed the last couple DB challenges (shh, don’t tell the blogroll moderator) and thought I would miss this one as well, but I got a last-minute burst of inspiration.

Our hostess gave us a choice between a sweet or savory pudding (note: in Britspeak, “pudding” has a much more general meaning than in the U.S.), and gave total free reign with the fillings/ flavorings.  The dessert puddings looked much more foolproof, but the savory ones appealed to me more.  Besides, I was fascinated by the idea that you could steam a pastry crust and it would come out browned and/ or flaky.  I decided to go with a fairly simple steak & mushroom filling;  I used the hostess’s dough recipe and then made up my own filling based on looking at a few other recipes.  I went to Western Market in Ferndale for the ingredients because they recently started carrying local beef (from C. Roy Meats in Yale, MI).  I was also able to pick up organic lettuce and MI asparagus and mushrooms there.  (The mushrooms were Aunt Mid’s, which I know is a local brand- not sure if they’re grown here or just packaged here.)  Last but not least, I used Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout both in the recipe and to quaff along with dinner.  Cheers!

The main part of the challenge was to make a pastry dough using suet.  When I asked for suet at the butcher counter, they gave me (for free) several hunks of beef fat; however, I’m not really sure if it qualified as suet based on the description given in the challenge.  The challenge hostess made it sound as if you could just crumble it up as-is; however, what I had needed to be rendered to be usable, as it still contained a lot of connective tissue and even a bit of meat.  But I just set it over low heat and filtered the liquid fat through cheesecloth, then stuck it in the freezer to chill.  The pastry “recipe” was really loose, with specific amounts given for the fat and flour but not for the water.  I think I added too much water because I ended up with a pretty sticky dough which I had to flour quite a bit in order to roll out.

For the filling, I just used cubed chuck steak, mushrooms, a yellow onion, salt, pepper, some fresh thyme, a few dashes Worcestershire sauce, and a bit of stout to moisten it all.  I tossed the meat in a couple Tbs of flour so that a gravy would be produced when the meat & veg released their juices, and it worked perfectly.  Fortunately the quantities I used were also just the right amount to fit perfectly into my 2-quart bowl!

For my steaming apparatus I just used a stockpot with a pasta insert- this worked great because I could easily monitor the water level and lift the insert (with the pudding in it) in and out of the water.  The directions said to steam the pudding for anywhere from 2 ½ hours to 5 hours… I steamed it for about 3 ½ but by then it was getting late and we needed to eat before it got ridiculously late.  Unfortunately my crust didn’t get fully cooked, I’m not sure if a longer cooking time would have helped, or if it was simply because I had used too much water in the dough.  It had the consistency of a dumpling more than a flaky crust.  Still, the filling was so good that we just picked around the dough and mostly ate the meat and sauce. I have a little leftover dough that I may use to make some other small pie, but I may try baking it instead and see how that turns out.  Cheers to Esther for a great challenge!

Steak & Mushroom Pudding with Stout
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a 2-quart bowl, at least as tall as it is wide
a stockpot with a pasta insert (barring this, you may have to improvise some sort of rack to keep the bowl off the bottom of the pan- an overturned plate, a trivet, etc.)
1 quantity suet pastry (you can get Esther’s recipe here, just scroll down)
1 lb cubed chuck (approx. 1-inch pieces are good)
8 oz button mushrooms, cleaned and quartered (if larger, cut them in sixths or eighths)
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves
about 2 Tbs flour
a few dashes Worcestershire sauce
about ⅓ cup stout beer
salt & pepper

I did have some difficulty getting the suet crust to turn out via the steaming method, but as I said, I’m not sure whether it needed to cook longer or whether I just used too much water in the dough.  You may want to read around some of the other Daring Bakers posts to get some clarification!  I can, however, fully vouch for the filling, which was delicious.

Fill the stockpot with water enough to come about a third of the way up the sides of your bowl (put the insert with the bowl in while you’re filling it so you can check the level).  Remove the bowl and insert and set the pot of water to boil.

Put the mushrooms, onion, and thyme in a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl, sprinkle the flour over the steak until well-coated (I like to use a tea strainer so there are no lumps).  Add the steak to the mushroom mixture.  Sprinkle in the Worcestershire (I’d say a scant tablespoon).  Season generously with salt and pepper, tossing to mix.

Grease your bowl.  Set aside ¼ of the dough.  Roll out the remaining dough and line your pudding bowl with it (you will likely have extra if you use the recipe I did).  Place the filling in the bowl and pour the stout over the top. Roll out the remaining dough and place it over the top, sealing it around the edges.  Take a large square of foil or wax paper and place it over the top of the bowl; secure with string or a rubber band. Arrange it so that it “poufs” up and does not touch the dough (mine did touch, and tore the crust when I removed it. Boo!) .

Place the bowl in the pasta insert and lower it into the boiling water.  Put the lid on and steam until the crust is cooked, 3 to 5 hours (it will turn from a pasty white to a golden brown).  Check the water level a couple times and top off if necessary; it shouldn’t fall below the bottom of the bowl.  When done, invert the bowl onto a plate and serve.

venison & porcini ragù (the venison diaries, part I)

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
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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
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

for serving:
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.