I have a memory of my grandmother recounting her dread to work with venison after an encounter with deer that ate wild sage in Montana, making the whole house smell like a smudge when they hit the pan. For a lot of people, venison can conjure up similar traumatic kitchen memories for trying to cook unknown pieces of meat wrapped in butcher paper, considering themselves lucky if they can still make out the date on the package. Cooking cuts of meat that are oddly shaped or from an unknown muscle is only one difficult element of many though, since the meat is so lean it can be as tough as nails, too unless you’re eating backstraps. Wild animals being, well, wild. have their diets vary too, which in turn reflects the flavor.
There’s a thing called farmed venison though, and it is unlike any venison you’ve ever had. First and foremost, it’s mild tasting. There’s enough interesting flavor to let you know it’s not beef, but it’s mild and pleasant. If that wasn’t good enough, it’s tender, and I mean really tender, especially if the beasts have been finished on a little grain to soften the meat. A few Valentine’s Days ago, I served roasts cut from a Denver leg on a tasting menu, (just calling it a “roast”) and most of the people who had it thought it was tenderloin-it’s that good.
Personally, I like both the taste of wild venison and farm raised for what they are, but in restaurant scenarios I generally only get to work with farmed, since serving wild venison in a restaurant is illegal since it hasn’t gone through the proper food processing channels recognized by the FDA.
A relatively unappreciated cut, and one that you can use wild or cultivated venison for is the shank, which is terrific braised, in Italian they’re known as osso bucco, or roughly “bone with a mouth”, the mouth referring to the open part of the shank filled with marrow, where a type of hollow spoon (it’s name is scapela, or something similar if I remember) was put in so the eater could suck out the marrow like using a straw.
Here the shanks are marinated overnight in wine, then braised the next day with some aromatics and stock until soft and fork tender, then the sauce is reduced, mounted with butter and used to glaze the shanks which are served with some potatoes and bitter greens. At the end, in lieu of the traditional gremolata mix of chopped parsley, lemon zest and pine nuts, I top it with a few dandelion capers to brighten it up, although I did have them another time with both gremolata and capers and it was great too.
Venison Osso Buco With Red Wine and Dandelion Capers
- 4 eight ounce venison shanks or roughly similar sized shanks from lamb or pork, tied with twine to hold their shape
- 1/4 cup dandelion capers refer to my recipe here
- 4 cups venison stock preferably made from roasted venison bones (beef stock can be substituted)
- 2 cups dry red wine
- 6 filets of highest quality possible anchovy (warm water/expensive ones will be less fishy), rinsed quickly under cold water then minced
- 1/2 lb escarole washed and cleaned (another bitter green of your choice can be substituted)
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter plus another small knob for wilting the escarole
- Bouquet garni: 5 sprigs fresh thyme two 3inchx1inch strips of orange zest, 1 large clove garlic, 1 fresh bay leaf, 5 black peppercorns (optional)
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- Mashed potatoes for serving (I pass mine through a chinois strainer at the restaurant and use unholy amounts of butter and cream, but you don't have to)
- 2 tablespoons lard or high heat cooking oil
- Season the venison with salt and pepper.
- Heat the lard in a saute pan, then brown the venison all over. Remove the venison from the pan and add the anchovies and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Deglaze the pan with the red wine and scrape up the browned bits, then transfer the venison shanks and the wine to a shallow baking dish and add the bouquet and stock then cover the pan tightly with foil.
- Bake the shanks at 275 degrees for 2 hours or until very tender.
Glazing the Shanks and Plating
- Remove the venison shanks from their liquid and keep warm in a preheated oven, covered so they don't dry out. Reduce the juice in the pan until 1/2 cup remains, then whisk in the unsalted butter until thickened like gravy. Put the shanks back in the pan and start basting with the sauce, keeping the heat low to avoid breaking the emulsion you've made with the butter. Continue basting the shank until they are glazed and shiny from the sauce.
- Double check the seasoning and keep warm. Spoon some mashed potatoes in the middle of 4 preheated dinner plates, then top with a venison shank, spoon over some of the sauce, and top with the dandelion capers you've braised in some of their liquid and butter until tender, don't brown them though, just take off the chill.
- Meanwhile, wilt the escarole in the remaining tablespoon of butter, adding a tablespoon of water and covering the pan to help wilt it. Season the escarole lightly, then remove, blot dry quickly to remove excess water, and place alongside the venison shank and serve immediately.