As I perused the freezer recently, seeking sustenance and taking stock of the available space I'm going to need come meat gathering time, I was confronted with yet another of those yearly moments in the life of an outdoorsman. And not one I enjoy -- the final pack of venison.
I don't watch a lot of hunting or fishing on TV, mostly because there are very few shows that depict the sorts of hunting and fishing I like to do, and certainly not on a level based in reality. But this time of year, I do find myself parked in front of the tube at the end of the day, watching some dude pass on bigger deer than I will ever see because they aren't up to his inflated television host standards.
It's a fine diversion, definitely gets the blood flowing for hunting, but it doesn't relate to my personal proclivities very well. I don't hunt over farm fields because there are none where we hunt, I can't score deer on the hoof mostly because I've never seen anything bigger than a rack the TV hosts would scoff at in the woods, and most of all, because the great majority of the time, I'd rather be following a dog with shotgun in hand.
And while we're at it, a slightly grumpy aside: Would a well shot and produced upland hunting show be too much to ask among the tsunami of Bubba and His Tree Stand deer hunting shows currently flooding the market? I realize birds like grouse and woodcock would be extremely difficult to shoot with cameras (try it with a 20 gauge), but other than that pesky detail you've got all the makings of great TV there. The guns and gear, the dogs, the fall woods -- throw some thoughtful Flip Pallot-esque narration over the top, get a slow pull on the campfire or a macro shot of some dew in the grass... boom. That show is never coming off my DVR. At the very least, we should give some serious consideration to banning all hunting hosts from recording their own theme song on an ill-tuned guitar in their basement. Think about it.
If it weren't for the deer camp life, that awesome crew of guys, and the treasured delicious meat, deer hunting would be somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as things I want to spend time in the woods doing. As it stands now, it remains at the pinnacle of my outdoor year because of those two factors -- the men I love to spend time with next to the glowing fire and the venison.
So, I can say without much of a wry grin that finding the last pack of venison in the freezer is an important moment in my year. It means that venison will not again grace my table until I spend time in a blind or stand. Until I wait patiently, shoot true, and spill some blood. Kinda.
I'm lucky enough to hunt with a group of men who have agreed by long tradition to split all the venison we gather evenly between us. As it happens, I finished last year's deer hunting endeavors, both during the normal gun season and using crop damage permits on a farm, without ever having fired a rifle shot. I had a deer in the scope once during gun season, but it was bald and I was without a doe permit. That was it. I sat and pondered, I shivered, I got up in the dark and shuffled around with sleep in my eyes, I listened and hoped on the stand; but I was never granted the opportunity. I believe most of us hunters would grudgingly agree that it should be that way sometimes.
Thankfully, my generous hunting partners had more luck, and I found my freezer full at the end of November.
None of that makes the final chunk of venison loin, wrapped in white butcher paper with a tiny rivulet of blood-gone-brown frozen on one end, any less special to me. If anything, it makes me thankful for the company I keep in deer camp. If it weren't for them, this would've been a winter conspicuously void of venison, a privation I do not wish to endure.
I try to have all the unprepared venison (that not made into breakfast sausage, bratwurst, etc.) out of the freezer and into my belly by early spring. It tastes better that way, and has been a habit for so long that it just seems "right" somehow now. The brats do taste better on the grill during summer though.
Finding a hidden venison tenderloin, the very namesake of this blog and its profile picture on Facebook, in the depths of the freezer near the end of August is a bit of a blessing in disguise. Even well cared for, properly cleaned and wrapped, it will not taste so outstanding as fresh venison. Nor will it even taste as good as it would've 6 months ago, whether that be a function of time in the freezer or my mindset that I should've eaten it in March. Probably a bit of both going on there, though it was certainly no longer in absolute pristine condition in this case.
Now, here's the part where the cook in me went just a bit off the rails, I think. Not that the results weren't completely delicious and satisfying, it's just that I could have chosen a better time and place (and a fresher hunk of Bambi) for the dish I decided to prepare.
One of the problems with having unlimited access to information at the tips of one's fingers throughout the year is that it can sometimes leave the more adventuresome cooks among us flailing about with grandiose plans of suspect origin.
I'd seen a picture of venison carpaccio somewhere in the vast cosmos of the internet back in early winter, and thought to myself... Oooo... I need that in my face, pronto. Then it was August and, never having put together the carpaccio, I spied a clump of edible yellow wood sorrel and the thought of it popped back to the fore of that enthusiastic, if slightly capricious, cooking corner of my brain.
|Some confuse wood sorrel with clover thanks to those tri-lobal leaves|
I gathered up some wood sorrel from the edges of the woods, paying particular attention to find some of the minuscule yellow flowers because I wanted them on the plate. Horseradish seemed like a good idea so I dug up a gob from the corner of the garden where they are currently staging for a world takeover. Last to join the party was a leftover beet from the garden I'd thrown in the smoker on a whim earlier in the week with some pork. That seemed like a good idea too, next to the chopped sage and rosemary I planned to roll my tenderloin in.
There's no real story in the cooking of the carpaccio... because there's almost no cooking carpaccio. I seared it very quickly in a hot cast iron pan, rolled it in the chopped herbs from pots on the deck, and wrapped it in plastic wrap to chill out in the freezer for a couple hours. Once thoroughly chilled it was ready to be sliced thinly and laid on the plate with the rest of the players. If you count grating the horseradish and mixing it up with some Greek yogurt as "cooking," I did that too.
|Thumbprint, 2 o'clock. Keep yer meat hooks off the plate, numbskull.|
The verdict: The horseradish sauce was really quite good, and the smoked beet -- something I'd never even considered until I was walking by the running smoker with a fortuitous armful of beets from the garden -- may have been my favorite part. Although I will admit that the fun (if a little pretentious) knife work did mitigate some of that smoke flavor. Most of it was obviously on the outer reaches of the beet, where it was conveniently enjoyed by the chopper guy before the uniform little cubes from the center of the sphere ever made it to the plate.
The venison itself tasted like, well... it tasted like it'd been in a freezer for the better part of a year; sage, rosemary, and sear notwithstanding. It was still delicious, and every bit was gobbled up with alacrity and horseradish sauce, but my brain and mouth both knew full well that it will be so much more robust and alive come November when it will be that much fresher... more fresh... whatever. The capers and sorrel added what I thought was just about the perfect amount of zing and salt to the entire gathering.
Bringing us to the point and lesson that every cook worth his favorite knife learns well early on -- cook with the season and your food will be that much better, artfully plated or not. It remains only to wait for deer shooting season, and to smoke some more beets. Those things were amazing.
|Gratuitous Food Porn|