Even a chef and instructor at New York City’s French Culinary Institute–a man whose family must surely be accustomed to elaborate and elaborately messy kitchen procedures–gets grief for butchering deer in the kitchen. “The blood,” says Sixto Alonso, with a brief roll of his eyes, as he slices through a purple slab of venison top round in the small kitchen of his Freehold, New Jersey, home. “It’s always an issue with my wife and daughter, so I have to be very careful.”
It’s hardly an issue, however, for Sixto, a Barcelona-born, French-educated chef who began hunting deer in the New Jersey woods almost as soon as he emigrated to the United States in the mid-1970s. He was drawn to Manhattan for its culinary scene, and to deer hunting by his romantic boyhood notions of game trails on the American frontier–and the culinary bounty that whitetails provide.
“Venison tastes like no other meat,” says the 49-year-old chef, “with a flavor that can change from deer to deer. You want to let the intensity of that flavor come through. I like to eat the straps plain, grilled, with nothing on them at all.” He takes a similar tack with his signature venison dish: a homemade sausage that he spices lightly with the classic addition of juniper berries, and a less classic flourish of ginger, so that the full, autumn-woods flavor of the meat bursts out, like hot fat, on the first bite.
After coarsely grinding the meats–Sixto calls for a half-venison, quarter-pork-loin, and quarter-pork-fat blend, though a little extra fat will further ensure a moist filling–he seasons the venison with dried herbs and finely ground juniper berries. “Juniper berries can easily overpower,” he warns, “so you don’t want to get carried away.” A third of the total meat mixture gets pulverized in a food processor. “You want to be sure that the meat is cold,” he half shouts over the machine’s electric whine. “Otherwise it will heat up, and break down the proteins.”
After he has stopped the blades, he dips a wooden spoon into the pink paste. “See, it’s like a pound of glue now. Nice and smooth. That’s one of the things that keeps the sausage moist.” When all the elements are combined–the processed mix, along with separate batches of pork and venison that have been ground to the consistency of lentils–Sixto sautes a pinch or two to check the flavor. “Ah-ha, see, I forgot black pepper,” he says after a taste. “At this point you could also add some fresh thyme or sage leaves, which would be very good. But not dried thyme or sage–those I never use. I’ve also made it with chopped dried cranberries.”
Once he’s stuffed the sausages, using an antique attachment for his KitchenAid mixer, Sixto poaches most of the links to freeze for later, but takes a few outside to grill for lunch. Dressed in his chef’s whites, with his thick European accent, Sixto hardly strikes you as the average New Jersey hunter; but then, perched in a tree stand in full camo, he also strays far from the rarefied image of the Manhattan chef. “If you’re in the business of food,” he says, “how can you not like to go to the raw material?” With that, he grabs a handful of leaves and twigs from beneath a cherry tree in his yard and piles them atop the grill grates beside the sausages. “Instant smoke,” he explains, and shrugs. “I’m a cook. I go above and beyond–otherwise, why be a cook?”
CHEF SIXTO’S RECIPE
2 pounds venison (large tough cuts, like those from the shoulder, flank, or neck)
1 pound pork loin and/or shoulder
1 pound fatback and/or pork jowl
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 tablespoon powdered onion
3 tablespoons ground ginger (or 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground juniper berries
1 cup egg whites
1 tablespoon arrowroot or cornstarch fresh hog casings, soaked in water for 10 minutes and rinsed
Coarsely chop the venison and then the pork and fat, keeping the venison separate.
In a bowl, combine the pork and fat and 1 tablespoon of the salt.
Using a meat grinder or food processor, process the pork mixture to the size of lentils, then set aside.
In another bowl, mix the venison with 2 tablespoons of salt and the pepper, garlic, onion, ginger, and juniper berries.
Process two-thirds of this mixture in the meat grinder or food processor to the size of lentils, and set aside.
Combine the remaining one-third with half of the pork mixture, along with the egg whites and arrowroot, and pulverize in a food processor until it forms a smooth paste.
Stir all the elements together, then form a small patty and fry it to check the seasonings.
Stuff the casings, then twist them at 6-inch intervals to form sausage links. Using a skewer, puncture each link 4 or 5 times.
To cook, poach the sausages in barely simmering water for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a meat thermometer reads 150 degrees. You can freeze them at this point.
Just prior to eating, grill them over a medium fire until heated through and nicely browned.
You may also skip the poaching and grill the sausages immediately after stuffing for about 15 minutes over a medium-low fire.