Winter, also known as “clean out the freezer” season for foragers.
If you’re a chef, have game in the freezer, or buy large quantities of meat from a local producer, you’ll experience with the scenario of having a little of this, and a little of that. last week, what I had, was one lone Canadian goose breast, and a venison leg roast, along with a good hunk of my homemade venison bacon I make from flap and trim: the perfect thing for some kind of winter stew, but what?
After letting everything thaw, I could smell the goose was going to be strong, so I needed something rich, punchy, and aggressive. I also knew I still had some wild grape reduction in the fridge that I could use to marinate the game meat in.
The grape reduction is great, and functions a bit like concentrated red wine, but also limits the uses, as whatever it’s used to make will have a purple-mauve tone. I needed to find out how to embrace the purple, or grimace, referring to the purple McDonald’s character in kitchen parlance.
Purple, purple, what goes with purple? I’d already done a coq-au-vin-style dish glazed goose confit with the wild grape juice, and it was great, but, if you’ve been in the Midwest for 2019 you know it’s been a rough one, and I needed a stew, or some long-cooked braise. Then it hit me I needed to invoke borcht, the most purple dish I know.
Instead of having to work around the color my wild grape juice would add to a dish, if I used it in borcht, the color would actually be complementary, blending in, to become just another character in an equation where the sum will always be purple. Another bonus was the flavors would be a perfect compliment to the dish, adding gentle dark fruit tones that would make the beets sing.
The beauty is that 2 key elements of borcht, namely beets and cabbage, particularly red cabbage I use here, have a very strong affinity for dark, ripe fruit. Whenever I make braised red cabbage, I like to add raspberry vinegar, and when I cook roasted beets, one of my favorite things to do is to add fruit based vinegar, like in these beets I posted about here.
Borcht generally has the addition of some kind of acid or a touch of sweetness, or both, to help balance the flavors, especially a little vinegar if the beets are very sweet. The river grape reduction, and a vinegar I’d made out of the pits, would be a great compliment, and would give it a haunting sour note, with a suggestion of fruit.
It was the best borcht I’ve had. I did make a couple changes from your typical version though: instead of the usual potato, I used celery root, which adds a great dimension, and in along with the requisite dill and sour cream, I added some toasted wild caraway seed to finish. If you like borcht, rich winter stews, or just want a different way to serve game that has a stronger flavor for some loved ones, you might give it a shot sometime.
Wild Game Borcht, with River Grape and Wild Caraway
- 1.5 lbs wild game, cut into 1 inch pieces, I used a venison leg roast, 3oz of small diced venison bacon and a goose breast
- 4 Tablespoons wild grape reduction, or substitute 1/2 cup red wine and 1 Tablespoon maple syrup
- 4 Tablespoons wild grape vinegar, or substitute 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 2 cups red cabbage, diced 1/2 inch
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced 1/2 inch
- 1/2 lb celery root or russet potato diced 1/2 inch
- 8 oz carrot, cut into pieces the size of the celery root
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 lb red beets
- 2 qts meat stock, or water
- Fresh dill, for serving
- Sour cream, for serving
- Toasted wild caraway seeds, for serving (optional)
The night beforehand, marinate the meat in the teaspoon of salt and the wild grape reduction or red wine. The next day, sweat the bacon if using to release some fat, then add the onions, garlic and ginger and sweat until until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except the dill, sour cream, and caraway and simmer, covered for 1.5 hours or until the meat is fork tender. Adjust the seasoning for salt, pepper, and sweet and sour. Depending on the sweetness of the beets you may not need any sweetness, it should only be a hint of sweet, balanced by a little bright acid, and should be well seasoned. Serve garnished with healthy dollops of sour cream, a sprinkle of the wild caraway, and plenty of chopped fresh dill. The borcht will taste better the day after it’s made.