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Adventures in Venison

If you're one of those deer hunters who leaves a perfectly good gut pile in the woods, you don't know what you've been missing.
Photo by Field & Stream Online Editors

At the deer camp I used to frequent near Crystal Springs, Mississippi, we called it "the autopsy": In an open-sided shed, the deer would be hoisted up by their hind legs on a gambrel and inspected by our camp butcher and amateur forensic expert, Bill Peavey. An irascible man, tough as a camp skillet, Peavey always took meticulous care in showing us precisely where and how our bullets had penetrated the deer and, more importantly, where we should have aimed those bullets to avoid damaging the meat. Lesson completed, he'd begin butchering the deer by slicing out the entrails, along with the heart, liver, kidneys, and other organs, letting them all drop into a 25-gallon plastic "gutbucket" that he'd later haul off on his four-wheeler to a distant fenceline-a gift to the local coyotes. Once, watching a gorgeous purple liver hit the bucket with a forlorn splat, I voiced a meek protest, but Peavey would hear none of it. I might as well have asked if I could steam an antler for breakfast. To him, the organs weren't meat: They were scraps. Away went the gutbucket, and with it the gorgeous liver.

The Swahili, however, have a saying: "Every meat is meat." The backstraps, roasts, steaks, and other assorted muscle cuts may be delicious-and for me and many others, a primary reason for hunting-but they're only a start. Inside that humble Mississippi gutbucket, amidst the inedibles, was a wild set of eating pleasures. For some folks, this is hardly news-eating the heart remains a post-kill tradition in some deer camps, and there are those who still celebrate a successful hunt with a plate of venison liver and onions. But these hunters, mostly old-timers, are becoming scarce. As offal-an all-encompassing title for the edible organs of an animal, otherwise known as "variety meats" or, more nobly, viscera-disappeared from household supper tables in the last century, so too has it faded from the dinged-up dinner-and-poker tables of this nation's deer camps. Perhaps the American culture's squeamishness has spilled over into the hunting world, maybe laziness is to blame, or it could just be the benign neglect that comes from living in a prepackaged, vacuum-packed age. No matter: The hunter's loss is the coyote's gain.

But as Americans are slowly rediscovering the joys of eating offal-in recent years, cheeks, tripe, brains, and marrow have become staples at chic urban restaurants (at New York's Babbo, celeb chef Mario Batali offers an innards-only tasting menu)-so too should hunters, who have access to the freshest organs and, in the case of venison, to some of the rarest and most prized.

"It seems only polite to the animal you've killed," says Fergus Henderson, the legendary London chef widely credited with rescuing offal from the culinary gutbucket, and the author of The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating (Ecco Press), a cult-classic cookbook that just recently became available in the United States. "And it's all fantastic," he says, "the brains and tongue and liver and kidneys and all the other bits. There's a texture and unctuous flavor to them that nothing else can quite match. And it just makes so much sense to eat them, especially if you're a hunter. At my restaurant, people can't get enough of venison offal. They munch it up happily."

If there's delicious irony in the idea of London diners paying top prices for cuts that many of us wantonly leave for coyotes, the deliciousness, I'm afraid, belongs solely to those lucky scavengers. What Henderson calls nose-to-tail eating is, like hunting, about encountering the wilderness in all its visceral glory, and it's about the wild adventure lying at the big red heart of carnivorousness. Consider the recipes that follow, then, as a kind of field guide to the adventure that begins only after your deer is down.

[NEXT "THE HEART"] The Heart
"The heart," says Fergus Henderson, "encapsulates theeast that it comes from-the whole essence of the animal is in there." Hence the Native American hunting tradition of eating the warm heart of your prey in order to gain its spirit. For a muscle that never stops working, the heart is surprisingly tender, "firm and meaty but giving," says Henderson, "with just the right amount of bite." Besides containing your deer's spiritual essence, the heart is also loaded with protein and B vitamins and contains very little fat. In this recipe, adapted from The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, Henderson marinates the heart in a simple mixture of balsamic vinegar, thyme, and salt and pepper, and then sears it quickly over a hot fire. For a variation, amp up the marinade with some ground chile peppers and cumin seed in the style of Peruvian anticuchos, the grilled skewers of beef heart that street vendors hawk in Lima.

Grilled Marinated Venison Heart
(serves two to four as an appetizer)
1 venison heart
n chopped fresh thyme
freshly ground black pepper
coarse sea salt
a healthy splash of balsamic vinegar

1. Trim the heart of anything that looks like sinew (this is easy enough to spot) and excess fat (which tends to be around the open top of the heart), and remove any blood clots lurking in the ventricles. Slice the heart open in order to lay it flat and complete the process. You want pieces 1 inch square and up to 1/4 inch thick; if the flesh is thicker than that, slice horizontally through the meat before cutting the squares.

2. Toss the pieces of the heart in the vinegar, salt, pepper, and thyme. Marinate for 24 hours.

3. Cook the pieces on a grill over a very hot fire, for about 11/2 minutes per side. (They're best served somewhere between medium-rare and medium. Overcooking produces tough squares resembling jerky.) Serve with a salad of watercress or white beans and shallots.

[NEXT "THE LIVER"] The Liver
Of all the viscera represented here, liver is the most familiar to us. Many people, myself included, were raised on weekday suppers of calves' liver and onions (I used to bathe mine in unholy gobs of ketchup), and in my experience, venison liver is the least-neglected organ meat among hunters. Why? For one thing, when it comes to butchering, the liver is big and obvious and easy to handle, and for another, it's famously easy to cook: All you need is a skillet and a pat of butter for a great deer camp dinner. "Venison liver is the sweetest, happiest liver you can eat," says Henderson, a devoted fan. In this recipe, I've amplified that sweetness with some caramelized onions and apricots and heightened the "happiness" with a hefty shot of Yukon Jack, a Canadian liqueur that's been a longtime companion of far-north hunters.

Seared Venison Liver With Bacon Chunks, Caramelized Onions, and Yukon Jack
(serves four)
8 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/2-inch squares
3 medium red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 venison liver (about 11/2 pounds), cut into eight generous slices
All-purpose flour for dredging
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon
2 cups Yukon Jack
3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Heat a large skillet over low heat. Add the bacon and slowly cook until the fat is rendered and the meat is starting to crisp, about 12 to 14 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove it onto a layer of paper towels. Add the onions to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 16 to 18 minutes, until they're soft and lightly browned. Remove them to a bowl, add salt and pepper, and set aside. (Reheat the bacon and onions in a warm oven or microwave just prior to serving.)

2. In a shallow dish, season the flour with salt and pepper and dredge the liver slices, shaking off any excess. Pour off any remaining fat from the skillet and wipe out the pan with a paper towel. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until it begins to foam, and add four pieces of liver. Cook for about 3 minutes per side, or until slightly past medium-rare (cut into them to be sure), then remove them to a plate, covering it with foil to keep the slices warm. Repeat with the remaining four slices, adding more butter to the pan if needed.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the Yukon Jack to the pan. Once it's warmed-15 seconds or so later-ignite it with a long match or wand-type butane lighter. (The flames will go high, so be careful.) Shake the pan lightly until the flames subside. Simmer the Yukon Jack until it reduces to a syruplike consistency, scraping up any browned bits lingering on the bottom of the pan. Remove it from the heat and whisk in the remaining tablespoon of butter.

4. To serve, place two liver slices on each plate and top with generous heaps of the warmed onions and bacon. Spoon the Yukon Jack reduction over the liver and garnish it with parsley.

[NEXT "THE KIDNEYS"] The Kidneys
Kidneys are a tough sell for many people, who are often put off by the dirty work that these organs do, and if they've dared try them are sometimes scared off by the sheer intensity of the flavor-"liver squared" would be an apt description of their taste. (Anecdotal evidence: Lamb kidneys were served at my wedding dinner, and I think I was the only one who ate them.) To experience venison kidneys in all their flavor-bomb glory, do as the Argentineans do with beef kidneys: halve them and grill them plain. The recipe that follows, however, is a gentler introduction to eating kidneys, a south-of-the-border variation on the famed British pub standard of steak-and-kidney pie. This is a great way to use the kidneys of a single deer, since a little goes a very long way. For some added bang, try serving the empanadas with a sauce made from charred tomatoes (blacken a few seeded tomato halves in your broiler) blended with spicy chipotle peppers and some venison stock.

Venison Steak-and-Kidney Empanadas
(serves four)
1 cup masa harina*
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
n 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin plus 1 teaspoon
1/4 teaspoon chile powder plus 1 teaspoon
1 tablespoon lard or shortening
1 cup warm water
1/2 pound venison top round or any tender cut, sliced into 1/2-inch cubes
2 venison kidneys (about 1/4 pound total), diced small
1/2 teaspoon each crushed red pepper and paprika
11/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 poblano pepper, aking off any excess. Pour off any remaining fat from the skillet and wipe out the pan with a paper towel. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until it begins to foam, and add four pieces of liver. Cook for about 3 minutes per side, or until slightly past medium-rare (cut into them to be sure), then remove them to a plate, covering it with foil to keep the slices warm. Repeat with the remaining four slices, adding more butter to the pan if needed.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the Yukon Jack to the pan. Once it's warmed-15 seconds or so later-ignite it with a long match or wand-type butane lighter. (The flames will go high, so be careful.) Shake the pan lightly until the flames subside. Simmer the Yukon Jack until it reduces to a syruplike consistency, scraping up any browned bits lingering on the bottom of the pan. Remove it from the heat and whisk in the remaining tablespoon of butter.

4. To serve, place two liver slices on each plate and top with generous heaps of the warmed onions and bacon. Spoon the Yukon Jack reduction over the liver and garnish it with parsley.

[NEXT "THE KIDNEYS"] The Kidneys
Kidneys are a tough sell for many people, who are often put off by the dirty work that these organs do, and if they've dared try them are sometimes scared off by the sheer intensity of the flavor-"liver squared" would be an apt description of their taste. (Anecdotal evidence: Lamb kidneys were served at my wedding dinner, and I think I was the only one who ate them.) To experience venison kidneys in all their flavor-bomb glory, do as the Argentineans do with beef kidneys: halve them and grill them plain. The recipe that follows, however, is a gentler introduction to eating kidneys, a south-of-the-border variation on the famed British pub standard of steak-and-kidney pie. This is a great way to use the kidneys of a single deer, since a little goes a very long way. For some added bang, try serving the empanadas with a sauce made from charred tomatoes (blacken a few seeded tomato halves in your broiler) blended with spicy chipotle peppers and some venison stock.

Venison Steak-and-Kidney Empanadas
(serves four)
1 cup masa harina*
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
n 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin plus 1 teaspoon
1/4 teaspoon chile powder plus 1 teaspoon
1 tablespoon lard or shortening
1 cup warm water
1/2 pound venison top round or any tender cut, sliced into 1/2-inch cubes
2 venison kidneys (about 1/4 pound total), diced small
1/2 teaspoon each crushed red pepper and paprika
11/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 poblano pepper,

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from nicholaskheinrich wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

What is the recipe for venison kidney? It shows the ingredients for it, and then displays steps 3 and 4 of the liver recipe. Then, it repeats the intro to kidneys, and then the list of ingredients.

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from nicholaskheinrich wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

What is the recipe for venison kidney? It shows the ingredients for it, and then displays steps 3 and 4 of the liver recipe. Then, it repeats the intro to kidneys, and then the list of ingredients.

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