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.
“The heart,” says Fergus Henderson, “encapsulates the beast 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
Ingredients • serves two to four as an appetizer
- 1 Venison Heart
- Freshly Ground Black Pepper
- A Healthy splash of balsamic vinegar
- Chopped fresh thyme
- Coarse sea salt
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 ¼ inch thick; if the flesh is thicker than that, slice horizontally through the meat before cutting the squares.
Toss the pieces of the heart in the vinegar, salt, pepper, and thyme. Marinate for 24 hours.
Cook the pieces on a grill over a very hot fire, for about 1 ½ 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.
The heart is easy to identify and easy to trim–just cut away anything that doesn’t look like muscle, slice it open, then trim whatever light-colored, spongy-looking bits you might have missed. As with all organ meats, try to cook the heart as soon as possible. In a pinch, however, it can be frozen.
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
Ingredients • (serves four)
- 8 Ounces Slab Bacon, cut into ½-inch squares
- 3 Medium red onions, peels and thinly sliced
- 1 Venison liver (about 1 ½ pounds), cut into eight generous slices
- All-purpose flour for dredging
- Course salt and freshly ground pepper
- 3 Tablespoons butter, plus 1 tablespoon
- 2 cups Yukon Jack
- 3 Tablespoons chopped Parsley
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Avoid any venison liver that doesn’t look purple-pink and evenly beautiful; if it’s spotted or mottled, it could be diseased, so trash it or use it for catfish bait. Deer don’t have gallbladders, so you don’t need to get all surgical about removing the liver–just cut it out and trim away the obvious odds and ends. Freshness is key. Try to cook the liver the same day the deer was killed, or at least by the next day.
Kidneys area 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
Ingredients • (serves four)
- 1 Cup Masa Harina*
- 1/2 Cup flour
- 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 ½-inch cubes
- 2 Venison kidneys (¼ pound total), diced small
- 1/2 Teaspoon each crushed red pepper and paprika
- 1 1/2 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 Medium onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 Poblano pepper, finely chopped
- 2 Cloves garlic, minced
- 1 Cup venison or beef stock, plus 4 tablespoons
- 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 Large egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 Cup yellow cornmeal
- 1/2 Teaspoon baking powder
Combine the masa harina, cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, and ¼ teaspoon each of cumin and chile powder in a bowl. Mix in the lard and then the water, adding a little at a time, working it with your hands until a dough forms. Mold this into a ball, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine the cubed top round and kidneys with the remaining teaspoon each of cumin and chile powder, along with the crushed red pepper and paprika. Salt and pepper to taste.
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet. Add the seasoned meats, stirring until the pieces are well browned. Put in the onion and poblano pepper, and cook for an additional 3 minutes, until just softened, then add the garlic and cook for another minute. Pour in 1 cup of stock and bring it to a simmer. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of stock and the cornstarch. Add this to the pan and stir to incorporate. Simmer briefly until the liquid thickens to a gravylike consistency. Remove it from the heat and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Fetch the dough from the refrigerator and cut it into eight equal-size pieces. With a rolling pin, roll out each portion of dough between sheets of plastic wrap, into 8-inch circles. (Allow yourself some time here; this is a bit of grunt work.) Beat together the egg and water until frothy, and working one by one, brush the dough rounds with the egg wash and place ¼ cup of the meat filling in the middle of each. Fold the round over into a semicircle (use the plastic wrap to avoid touching and cracking the dough). Seal the edges; if desired, crimp them with a fork. Brush the tops with more of the egg wash.
Place the empanadas on a sheet pan lined with parchment or wax paper and bake them for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden. Serve them hot with a charred tomato-chipotle sauce.
*Masa harina is hominy flour carried by most large supermarkets. If it’s unavailable at yours, try a Latin grocery.
The culinary quality of venison kidneys can vary widely, with occasionally unpleasant results. I’d skip cooking those of an old deer or a rutting buck–they can be seriously pungent. Kidneys are encased in a creamy, waxy fat called suet, which is easily removed by cutting into it and then peeling it away. (Birds love venison suet. Pop some in a winter feeder and watch the invasion.) Also strip off the thin membrane covering the kidney and cut out the bean-size core of tube and membrane at its center–a far easier task if you split the kidney lengthwise.
According to one U.S. survey, tongue ranks with kidney as the foods most likely to be refused at dinnertime. In the case of the former, it’s all in the looks–it is instantly recognizable, and what’s more, a tongue is a tongue is a tongue, meaning that what you see on the plate isn’t that far off from what you see in the mirror.
We Americans, as a rule, don’t like our meats to be so visually…precise. But hunters should get over such squeamishness: Venison tongue, like that of any ungulate, is a lean, boneless muscle that’s packed with protein, sublime texture, and great meaty flavor. A deer’s is fairly small, sorry to say, but about the same size as yours, apart from being longer. You can freeze and collect them as the season goes on or, for this preparation, mix in some thinly sliced venison sirloin to flesh out the meat quotient. This recipe is a deer-camp variation of Vietnamese pho, the hot, fragrant noodle soups made with beef, chicken, giblets, or pig hearts and sold on the streets of Hanoi. The Vietnamese consider pho the ultimate restorative, and it’s easy to see why: After a cold day in the stand, a bowl of this will instantly thaw your frozen bones.
Braised Venison Tongue With Cinnamon and Star Anise Over Rice Stick Noodles
Ingredients • serves four
- 4 Venison tongues (about 1 pound total)
- 1 Teaspoon vegetable oil
- 5 Garlic cloves, lightly smashed, peeled, and thinly sliced
- 2 Cinnamon sticks
- 2 Whole cloves
- 2 Whole star anise
- 1 Teaspoon hot chile paste
- 9 Cups water
- 1/2 Cup soy sauce
- 2 Tablespoons Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce (optional)
- 2 Medium onions, peeled and halved
- 1 3-inch piece ginger
- 8 Ounces spinach, trimmed, rinsed, and drained
- 8 Ounces medium rice stick noodles*, cooked according to package directions, rinsed and drained
- Chopped cilantro or sweet basil and minced scallions for garnish (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the tongues, reduce the heat, and simmer slowly, covered, for about 2 hours. Remove the tongues with tongs, let rest until just cool enough to touch, and peel off the skin. (It will come off easier when the tongues are warm. If the skin still adheres, trim it with a paring knife.) Cut into ¼-inch slices and set aside.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the garlic, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and hot chile paste and saute until fragrant–only 15 seconds or so. Then add the water, soy sauce, and fish sauce and bring to a boil. Put in the tongue slices and reduce the heat until you have a slow but steady simmer.
Using tongs, char the ginger and onion halves directly over a gas flame, until evenly scorched. (For electric stoves, heat a heavy dry skillet over high heat and sear the ginger and onion on all sides until nearly blackened.) Add these to the pot.
Let simmer, covered, for about 2 hours, or until the tongue slices are very tender. Remove the cinnamon sticks, star anise, ginger, and onions, reserving the onions. Cook the noodles. Chop the onions roughly and return them to the pot along with the spinach. Bring to a boil, and then remove from the heat.
Divide the warm noodles among four bowls and ladle the meat, broth, and spinach on top. If desired, add minced scallions and either roughly chopped cilantro or sweet basil.
*Rice stick noodles are available at Asian markets. You can substitute fettuccine if needed.
Cutting up through the bottom of the jaw, in the soft middle part, is the easiest way to get at the tongue. Use a sharp knife to detach it.
Drawing the Line: Are There Limits to Nose-to-Tail Eating?
Apart from CWD concerns, not especially — it all depends on your taste buds and the amount of prep work you’re willing to do. I’ve heard tales of venison chitterlings and Rocky Mountain oysters (souped-up names, respectively, for the intestines and testicles), but I’ve never tried them, which is due more to a lack of cooking ambition than to any qualms on my part.
Harold W. Webster’s The Complete Venison Cookbook contains a recipe for venison “mouffle,” which he defines as the “loose covering around the nose and lips of deer.” Even for me, though, that’s vaguely unappetizing, and I must confess, mouffle sounds suspiciously like a French dessert. Henderson, the dean of whole-beast eating, shies away from cooking lungs. “They’re not something that you can do a whole lot with, though that could just be a flaw in my cooking,” he says. Yet there’s only one organ he absolutely refuses to cook: the penis. “I just don’t think,” he says dryly, “that it would make a great lunch.”
What Not to Eat
If deer in your area are known to carry chronic wasting disease you might want to back off from full-blown nose-to-tail eating. Though the risk of contracting the human variant of the illness is low (and scientists are still unsure if food-borne transmission of the disease-carrying prions is possible), it’s best to take precautions. First and foremost, don’t shoot or eat any deer that appears sick. The brains (despite their tastiness), eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen, and lymph nodes are all off-limits. Of the remaining parts and organs, only two should be avoided for CWD safety: the shanks and bones, due to the possibility of infected prions in the marrow. Wear rubber gloves and bone out the meat. ––Jonathan Miles
How to Field Dress a Deer for the Best Venison
How your venison tastes is directly linked to how quickly you field dress your deer, so you’d better not procrastinate. Be sure to separate the liver and the heart and put each in individual zip-seal bags for later consumption. Here’s the best way to get it done.
1. Make the First Cut
Horse the deer over on its back. Its head should be uphill from its hind-quarters. Grab a handful of belly skin, make a nick in it with your knife, and slide the blade in, edge upward, not letting the point ride down into the body cavity. Slit the belly skin from crotch to sternum, taking extreme care not to puncture any of the innards.
2. Remove the Organs
When the body cavity is open, reach inside and haul everything out, cutting carefully to free stuff where necessary. If you like to eat the heart and liver, set them aside.
3. Drain the Blood
Reach up into the throat and cut out the windpipe. Cut around the anus, free the lower intestine, and remove it. Now, get behind the deer and lift it as though you were doing a Heimlich maneuver; let all the blood run free of the body cavity. If there’s snow on the ground, shovel it into the cavity and let it soak up the blood.
4. Keep it Cool
If you’re ready to drag, tie the critter’s forelegs alongside its head and start pulling. If you have to go for help, prop open the body cavity with a stick so that heat can escape. That’s all there is to it. ––David E. Petzal
The Gear You Need to Gut a Deer
Store-bought field dressing kits often include a bunch of unnecessary items for a hunter who’s faced with gutting a deer and getting it home. This D.I.Y. kit fits into a gallon-size plastic zippered bag, which also serves as a handy place to put down a knife while you wrestle with a transcending colon. At the truck, stash 3 gallons of clean water for rinsing out the body cavity, and a hatchet if you want to open the pelvis.
1. Latex Gloves: Lots of field dressing gloves go up to your armpit, to turn blood away from clothing and any open cuts. But wrist-high gloves are form-fitting for a better feel and grip and still prevent blood and nicked guts from infecting small cuts.
2. Zip-Seal Bags: Have two gallon-size bags for the heart and the liver.
3. Paper Towels: I like to keep 15 paper towels, folded up, to use as cavity and hand wipes.
4. Bandages: Pack these for knife nicks.
5. Ibuprofen: If I’m farther than a few hundred yards from the truck, I make my back happy with a dose of Vitamin I within minutes of pulling the trigger.
6. Zip Ties: Tie off the intestinal canal with one hand. Snazzy.
7. Gut Hook: Tons of small gut hooks have hit the market. The Buck PakLite Guthook provides a firm, safe grip ($32).
8. Butt Out 2: It works. Enough said ($12).
9. Deer Drag: Store-bought deer drags have a handle that makes them too bulky for this kit. Tie a loop in each end of an 8-foot length of 9mm climbing rope. Now you can slip a choker loop around the doe’s neck or buck’s antlers and cinch the other end of the rope around a sturdy stick for a handle.
10. Hand Sanitizer: Bring a small bottle for field treatment of knife nicks, and overall cleanup.
11. Parachute Cord: P-cord has a million uses. But in this situation, keep a 5-foot length of cord in the kit and use it to tie one leg to a sapling and hold it out of the way for easier gutting. ––T. Edward Nickens