It's deer season. Some are out for big bucks, but seasoned hunters have their sights on tasty does.
It’s like getting a gigantic bouquet of flowers: thrilling, unexpected, perishable – only it bleeds and tastes a lot better.
Thanks to our friend Nathan Kennedy, a native of Abilene, Texas, and now a lawyer in Austin, we enjoyed our first ever venison meal Wednesday night. A longtime hunter, Nate “took” a doe out in Llano County last month, and being a generous fellow with limited freezer space, he kindly treated us to a medley of deer meat. A tenderloin, some home-ground sausage, and “backstrap,” which we’d assumed was an article of bungee-jumping equipment.
No, it’s the choice part of a deer, just behind the withers, a factoid we have now internalized.
Nate made venison cooking sound simple: “If all else fails, chicken fry it or make it into a stew.” So we thought we’d try failing first.
We’ve been studying up on German-American cooking and bumped into a recipe that seemed in line with Nate’s recommendations. “Venison is red meat, very very lean,” he explained. “It doesn’t have a beefy taste because it doesn’t have fat in it,” so lots of cooks add fatty ingredients for flavor.
How about bacon AND crème fraiche? We’d actually never cooked with the latter (a less sour version of sour cream, 28% butterfat), just like we’d never made anything with “crushed juniper berries,” but we liked the sound of them, a spice right out of Robin Hood’s larder.
Neighbor Tom Miles from Louisiana lit up when we told him about Nate’s gift of fresh deer meat. Tom said he always marinates venison backstrap in Wishbone salad dressing, so we added a marinade to this recipe, too: some olive oil, red wine vinegar, soy sauce, garlic powder and pepper. Otherwise, we followed the directions (below) with only one minor glitch: mistakenly turning off the oven between the vegetable cooking and the addition of the venison. We caught the blunder after about 5 minutes and turned the heat back on.
As it roasted along and new, slightly dark and delicious smells filled the house, we thought about Nate’s adventure. He and his uncle had gone hunting near Tow in Llano County, which calls itself “Deer Capital of Texas.”
“A lot of those counties in the Hill Country were formed right about at the same time Texas was,” Nate explained. “They had stricter rules on taking animals, and they got over populated.” Consequently, deer hunting regulations now are bit more liberal there than in many other parts of the state: licensed hunters are permitted to bag five deer – no more than two bucks.
In comparison with Madison County, where Nate also hunts frequently with his in-laws, Llano County deer are “a lot smaller because there’s not as much to eat. Deer are so plentiful there.”
But less plentiful by at least one as of November 6. Nate and his uncle Kirk Kennedy, in a blind west of Lake Buchanan, spotted about five deer that evening. “There was a bigger deer out there,” Nate said, but “she was looking at me.” “She” being now part of “us.”
Nate shot and the wounded doe bolted. So did his uncle’s dog. Finding blood on the ground, Kirk’s rat terrier “took off like a scalded ape,” Nate said, and tracked the dying animal into the woods about thirty yards away.
Nate and his uncle dragged the deer out of the woods and field dressed it. That’s a nice way of saying sliced it open and gutted it, making sure to cut away any body parts, like the anus, that could infect the meat. They then took the carcass back to Nate’s grandmother’s garage in Burnet County, “to dress it out” – hanging it by its feet, to skin and quarter it.
Nate explained, “You take off the front quarters, back strap, hind quarters,” and “put all that in an ice chest with a bunch of ice water. You just do it like you were taught to do it.”
From his wife Laura’s grandfather, who hunts in Madison County, Nate learned the ice water technique. After a day or so, it “sucks the rest of blood out of the meat.”
Most hunters skip this work. They take their deer to a locker plant to be skinned, quartered, and then processed into steaks, sausage, ground meat, and jerky, but not Nate. He processes his own right on the diningroom table.
“I get out my grinder and all my cutting boards and knives and get all the meat off the bones,” he said. “My wife’s not real impressed but she deals with it.” And for their trouble and indulgence, they now have 20 pounds of fresh venison stocked in the freezer, even after making meaty gifts to us and to others. The doe’s neck went to fellow attorney Terry Weeks, for soup. Even the deer guts were appreciated, by Mack, his uncle Kirk’s Great Pyrenees. There’s a lot to go around.
For Nate’s family, and for his wife Laura’s family too, deer season is a time to relish. Hunting is a deep breath of fresh air after the oppressive Texas summer finally ends. It also brings relatives and friends together. Nate said of his grandmother, 84 year old Charlene Kennedy, “You’d think she’d get mad at us,” when her sons and grandsons bring a deer carcass back to carve up in her garage. But instead she comes outside and watches the whole muscle-wrenching process. “She claims deer meat cures what ails you.”
After all these years, trophy hunting for deer doesn’t seem to have caught on with the Kennedys. According to Nate, “My uncle says, ‘It doesn’t matter how long you boil ‘em, those antlers just don’t taste good.’”
We enjoyed this very savory dish with parsleyed potatoes and a salad. Recipe says “serves 4.” But two of us ate every bit of it.
(Note: We first marinated the thawed backstrap meat in olive oil, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, garlic powder, and black pepper for about 4 hours.)
2 stalks of celery
1 medium onion
1 tsp. mustard seed, slightly crushed
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 lb. venison or elk steaks, 1/2 inch thick (We substituted backstrap)
1 tsp. juniper berries, crushed
2 tsp. black peppercorns, crushed
4 – 6 slices of bacon
1 c. dry, red wine
1 T. corn starch mixed with 2 T. red wine
4 oz. creme fraiche
Clean and slice the vegetables into 1/4 inch pieces. Lay them in the bottom of an oiled roaster or 9 x 13 inch pan, add the mustard seed, bay leaves, salt and about 1/2 cup water and bake at 385°F for 20 minutes.
While the vegetables are roasting/steaming, wash and pat dry your steaks. (You may also use a filet piece and carve it for serving.)
Mix together the juniper berries and peppercorns and rub the steaks with this mixture. Lay out the steaks and place bacon to cover (cover 50-90% of steak).
When the vegetables have softened slightly, remove from oven, place steaks on top (bacon side up), and place pan back in oven. (Make sure you haven’t turned the oven off!)
Bake for 10 minutes, pour the red wine over steaks and bake another 15-20 minutes.
Remove from oven. Test steaks for desired doneness (they will be medium-well to well done). Remove steaks to a platter, remove bacon and keep warm.
Pour off red wine into small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to half. Add the corn starch slurry while stirring and stir until thick. Add the crème frâiche and stir until blended. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.