To venison, or not to venison? Okay, it’s not “the” question, but it is indeed an occasional question. For instance, if we’re in a restaurant and I see a venison dish on the menu, I’m usually tempted to order it, because I always expect it to be tasty and different and even a bit exotic. Usually, good sense kicks in, and I order something else.
The problem with venison is that it’s actually fairly dry (because it’s so very lean), and so it can be not only chewy but also surprisingly short on taste. Consider our latest venture into venison land.
It all started with a recipe for tourtière that I happened to see in the online version of The Globe and Mail of Toronto. Tourtière is a classic Quebec recipe, featuring ground pork that’s heavily seasoned and baked in a two-crust pie; it’s moist and fragrant and delicious — a perfect autumn dish. The twist in the recipe that I discovered, which had been offered up by a well known chef in Toronto, is that it called for a mixture of ground pork and ground venison.
Thinking that we should try it, I headed up to the butcher at Castelnaud and asked if they had any chevreuil, which is French for venison. Naively, I had assumed that they would have a few chunks of it somewhere in the counter up front, but no — instead the butcher disappeared into the back of the shop and emerged with a frozen leg of venison. Even though it was much more than I needed, I could hardly say no, could I?
So I returned home, and explained to my wife Jan that she could use part of the meat to make the new kind of tourtière, while I could use the remainder to prepare Civet de Chevreuil — or “Rich Venison Stew,” as it’s called on Page 238 of my favourite cookbook, Saveur Cooks Authentic French. She agreed.
Of course we had to start by thawing the frozen leg of venison, so that took a day. But then Jan carved all the meat off the bone, and ground up what she needed for the tourtière. (The rest was kept in the refrigerator for my stew.) When the tourtière was all done and baked, we had quite a huge meat pie, easily enough for two lunches for the two of us. And here is a serving, along with some broccoli and a bit of red currant jelly:
How was it? Well, as you may be able to tell from the photo, the meat mixture was fairly dry, so we weren’t exactly thrilled. But we soldiered on, and finished our lunch.
Then, for lunch the following day, we finished the tourtière by creating a rich beef-and-mushroom gravy to pour over the meat, which added enough moisture (and taste) to make it pleasant. Later, the recipe was put into the garbage, never to be attempted again.
And now we come to the Civet de Chevreuil. Here’s how my cookbook describes it: “A hearty game stew, civet is traditionally thickened with the blood of the animal used; our venison stew substitutes flour, for a lighter, more easily accomplished version.”
The recipe is actually a pretty close parallel to the recipe for Boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which I’ve made previously (using the recipe on Page 204 of Saveur Cooks Authentic French). That means you begin by marinating the meat in a mixture of red wine, herbs and chopped vegetables for 24 hours (“to tenderize venison,” as the cookbook says). So it’s not a quick dish.
Then, when it’s time to cook the meat, you first have to brown it, and then simmer it for something like two and a half hours in the strained marinade.
Admittedly, the final result looked pretty good. Here’s a serving, accompanied by mashed potatoes, my sweet-and-sour red cabbage, and some red currant jelly (obviously a favourite of mine). As you can see, the sauce is rich, and it includes mushrooms as well as pearl onions:
But once again, we were let down. Despite all the slow cooking, the meat remained a bit too chewy and dry to be worth all the effort.
The bottom line? I think we’re going to leave the little deer in our region alone, so they can enjoy themselves in the forest. We’ll stick with beef, pork, lamb, duck, chicken and so on. (For Christmas dinner this year? Capon. Stay tuned.)