Tag Archives: game

pumpkin chili with venison (the venison diaries, part IV)

Two winters ago, I wrote a series of blog posts all featuring ground venison, since I’d been given 6 pounds of it from my dad. According to my first post in the series, my plan was to write a different recipe for each of the 6 packages, but somehow I fell off after three. I can’t recall what I did with the other 3 pounds,  but I’m guessing it’s pretty likely there was at least one batch of chili in there.

Chili is probably the most common dish made with ground venison- I suspect some people turn to it because the powerful seasonings can mask the venison’s taste, but that hasn’t been a problem for us since my dad’s deer always taste great with no “off” or gamey flavors. We just make it because it’s easy and we tend to have most of the ingredients on hand. However, I never really considered my usual chili (which consists primarily of chopping onions and garlic and opening a bunch of cans) to be worthy of writing down a recipe.

Folks, this batch is a different story. I did rely on a couple canned ingredients, and this is still squarely in the camp of weeknight fare (even with the experimentation factor and my own slow-pokiness, it only took me an hour and a half from start to finish) but the flavors are richer, deeper and, dare I say, more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill chili. Marvin may have to make good on his mention of taking up hunting himself in order to keep us stocked with sufficient quantities of venison, because rather than quell my cravings, this just made me hungry for more.

When my venison supply was replenished a couple weeks ago, I knew that this was the first dish I wanted to try. My dad’s wife Amy had told me about a pumpkin chili she had recently made for a cook-off (it took second place out of 20- not too shabby!) and I was intrigued. Amy hadn’t used a recipe, but she told me what ingredients she used and I tweaked it to my tastes. For example, her version used chili powder, pumpkin pie spice and a little brown sugar, and included lots of beans, corn and tomatoes. I omitted the sugar, added toasted and soaked guajillo chiles instead of chili powder, and used cumin, allspice and cinnamon for a vaguely Middle Eastern feel. In fact, I can easily see substituting lamb for the venison in this recipe (or grass-fed beef if you’re not a fan of lamb). I also left out the corn and cut back on the beans and tomatoes, wanting the pumpkin, chiles and meat to be the primary flavors.

For garnish, I stole Amy’s idea of reserving a little pumpkin to mix with sour cream, and added cilantro and scallions to brighten things up. Chopped jalapenos would be nice too if you wanted a little more kick. One authoritarian note, though- although I am generally very flexible with my recipes, I have to strongly advise against any temptations to use shredded cheese as a garnish- the flavors wouldn’t work with the cinnamon and allspice. I guarantee you won’t miss it, though.

Pumpkin Chili with Venison
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Prep time: 30 minutes active, 30 minutes inactive

Serves: 8

5-7 dried guajillo chiles (see note)
2 cups boiling water
2 Tbs olive oil or neutral vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground venison, lamb, grass-fed beef, or a combination
1 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 large (29-oz) can 100% pumpkin puree (check to make sure it has no sugar or other spices added)
1 small (14-oz) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
1 roasted red bell pepper, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small (15-oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained

optional but recommended garnishes:
sour cream
chopped scallions
chopped cilantro

Note: 5 guajillo chiles will yield a chili that is “warm” but not spicy-hot; feel free to add more, but I wouldn’t go too hot because you’ll overpower the other spices. You could also substitute dried ancho chiles if guajillos are not to be found.


1. Heat a cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Toast the chiles in the dry skillet, turning frequently and taking care not to burn them. Remove the seeds and roughly tear the chiles into pieces; place in a blender. Pour over the 2 cups boiling water and replace the lid; allow to soak while you prep the vegetables.

2. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy, lidded pot over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a minute more.

3. Increase the heat slightly and add the meat, salt, and all of the spices except the cocoa. Cook until the meat is browned- this will vary depending on your choice of meat; venison is very wet so it takes longer, but keep going until the liquid has evaporated. Meanwhile, process the chiles and water for 30 seconds in the blender.

4. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you add them to the pot, and all but 1/3 cup of the pumpkin puree; add the cocoa powder and stir to incorporate. Strain the chile water into the pot with a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth, pressing to extract all the liquid (guajillo skins are very tough; if you use ancho chiles you don’t need to strain them). Add more water to reach your desired consistency, allowing for some evaporation (I added about a cup).

5. Cover and reduce heat to a very low simmer; cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water if it looks too thick. About halfway through, add the black beans (canned beans often verge on overcooked, so I prefer to add them toward the end).

6. Taste the chili for salt and adjust as needed. Whisk the reserved pumpkin puree with a cup or so of sour cream. Serve the chili garnished with pumpkin sour cream, a generous sprinkling of cilantro and a few scallion slices.

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.