Forest to Table

My writers critique group here in Chicago recently released an anthology, Over the Edge Again: An Edgy Writers Anthology.

Samuel Durr, who also edited the anthology, used his experience as a hunter to explore the relationship between two people who didn’t seek each other’s companionship in his story, “Wild Heart.” In this essay, he shares the best part of hunting.

Forest to Table

By Samuel Durr

Scouting, hiking, climbing, freezing, spotting, calling, shooting, tracking, celebrating, gutting, dragging, hoisting, skinning, quartering, grinding, butchering, packaging, and finally, cooking, sharing, and enjoying. Deer hunting is hungry work, but the part that makes me consider buying a lifetime license is the last bit. Preparing meat harvested from the forest takes an enormous amount of time, money, and energy, but is worth the cold toes.

The first time I tried deer meat I was struck by its similarity to beef. Cue the eye rolls, but it’s true. The less desirable cuts on a cow, those which contain connective tissue like the shoulder and neck, are identical to the same cuts on a deer and can be used to substitute any beef recipe traditionally utilizing those cuts. Which is a long way of saying venison is fantastic for jerky, braised dishes like Italian beef, ossobuco, or beef stew. One of the great myths of deer meat is that it’s tough, but it’s only tough if it’s cooked inappropriately.

In truth, the sought-after cuts, those from the back legs, the back straps, and the tender loins, cannot compete. That’s because a cow has a great deal more fat between layers of muscle. That’s not to say these are terrible on a deer. They can be juicy and almost fork tender; wrap them in bacon and grill them if there’s any doubt, but consider that they’ve been taken from a lean athlete who’s been hounded by coyotes, fought for breeding rights, and slept under the stars. Not from a diabetic heifer who’s been so unnaturally bred it chews its own stomach contents like bubble gum.

Another, often-disdained, form of venison is ground venison. Just like the quality cuts on a cow, high quality ground beef is hard to beat, but that’s not to say ground venison doesn’t have a place at the dinner table. This stuff is fantastic and incredibly versatile. On a side note, if an outdoorsman says they have a lot of freezer-burned, six-year-old ground venison, it’s because they don’t cook as much as they should and will probably end up tossing it. I get offended by hunters who don’t cook in the same way that animal rights activists get offended by hunters. Point being, it’s a tragedy because this stuff is great for chili, tacos, and is a crucial ingredient for the best food harvested from these mystical forest creatures: sausage.

Sausage is the ultimate, the apex, the pinnacle. Good sausage is the most impressive stuff a hunter can prepare. If you hand someone a well-made sausage, regardless of whether they hunt or not, they will be impressed if they’re at least a skosh outdoorsy. But sausage also requires the greatest number of tools to get the job done right. A competitive sausager — my fancy, made-up term — may use a grinder, meat thermometer, stuffer, and a smoker just to make one kind of sausage. Last year, I spent close to fifteen hours making breakfast sausage, brats, Italian sausage, summer sausage, snack sticks, and Polish sausage, all from venison. Most of it was good, some of it great, some just so-so, but all worthy as a meal.

I’ve included a recipe for venison Italian beef which highlights the above-mentioned deer and beef similarities. It requires a slow cooker and access to venison, moose, or elk, but that’s it. Easy peasy. If it’s your first time trying wild game, it’s a great introduction to the part of hunting that, for millions of years, has always mattered most: the eating.

Easy Italian Beef (Venison) Recipe

READY: 3 to 5 hours

SERVES: 6 to 12

INGREDIENTS

2-3                   lbs venison roast

3                      beef bouillon cubes

1                      (5/8 oz) packet Italian salad dressing mix

1                      cup water

1                      (18 oz) jar of hot or mild giardiniera

1                      package of French rolls

Directions

  1. Place roast in crock pot.
  • Add Italian salad dressing mix, bouillon cubes and water.
  • Cook on high until tender (3 to 5 hours). Shred with forks. Serve on rolls with giardiniera.

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