Thanksgiving week this year meant hunting on my farm — as it did for many others in West Virginia. My family was eager to take their first dive into making real use of our full 100 acres, not just the fenced pastures that we use for our livestock.
There was an old falling-down deer stand way back in a clearing by the woods that gave evidence this had been fine hunting ground in the past. My oldest son carried off a few pieces of leftover lumber from some construction projects around the farm and made some minor repairs to the stand. By the time the week was over, we had two deer headed for our table.
Having never been in possession of two deer before in my life, I did a little research on my upcoming culinary pleasures.
Venison, aka deer meat, is a healthy red meat. It has a fraction of the fat found in beef, and having been "raised" and harvested with no antibiotics or additives, it's the original organic alternative. It's low in calories and high in nutrients, particularly iron. If you're lucky enough to have some deer in your freezer this hunting season, you can use it the same way you use other red meats. It fits well into most any beef recipe in your favorite cookbook.
If you're new to cooking with venison, the roasts and sausage and trimmings for jerky may be familiar from your experiences with beef, but don't overlook the special cuts from deer that are hunters' perennial favorites. I spoke with several hunters to find out their traditional uses around here.
The tenderloins are the short loins under the spine. Many times, butchers will grind them up if you don't specifically ask for them, so hunters often remove them before taking their deer for processing. A prized possession, they are often the first part of a deer that a hunter takes into the kitchen. A popular way to prepare them is the simplest-sliced thin and pan-fried in butter, maybe with a little garlic and some potatoes and eggs. This is the hunter's breakfast of champions.
The backstraps are the long loins above the spine. Located in a part of the deer that doesn't get much of a workout, these are highly tender cuts. While gourmet recipes abound, the simple, traditional preparation is nothing more than butterflying thin slices and grilling or broiling with a light seasoning of garlic and pepper.
Don't forget the organ meat. Deer liver and deer heart are high in nutrients and can be delicious. If you like liver and onions, deer liver and onions is a treat. Deer heart is amazingly tender when pressure-cooked or slow-roasted in a gravy.
For tougher cuts, try pressure canning your venison. Not only will it tenderize the meat, it will preserve it against power outages! Spray the inside of jars with oil and pack raw chunks in the jars, as full as you can, leaving 1-inch headspace. It's not necessary to add anything else, but you can include some garlic or beef bouillon cubes if you like. The venison will make its own broth. Pressure can 75 minutes for pints, 90 minutes for quarts, at 10 pounds pressure (adjusting for your altitude if necessary). If you're too busy to can right away, it's okay to freeze the meat first then take it out to thaw and can on a day when you have time.
Learning to cook with venison is both delicious and satisfying. Whether the meat comes from your own farm or land where you're permitted to hunt, it creates a truly visceral connection with a self-sufficient life. If you're just getting started in cooking with deer meat, don't be shy to talk to the hunters around you-it's usually one of their favorite topics, and everybody's got a recipe to share.
My dehydrator's been busy ever since Thanksgiving week. I've shared my sweet and hot jerky recipe.
Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at www.chickensintheroad.com.
Sweet Fire Jerky