As we roll into November, hunting seasons are winding down around the country (except for a few outliers in the Southwest). And as the hunting adventures that captured our focus most of the year become memories, we start to shift our focus to family, the holidays, and what to do with the freezer full of lean, organic, hard-earned game meat the Fall (hopefully) blessed us with. But, if you don’t know how to cook venison or you just run everything through the grinder and live off deer burgers (which are obviously delicious...I’m not knocking that), you’ll miss out on all the wonders that cooking wild game can really provide for you and your family.
Compounding the issue is that the holidays are obviously a time we tend to entertain more and gather with friends and families for home-cooked meals. One of the greatest ways to open a non/anti hunter’s mind is through the food. Unless your cousin is a militant vegan, even if they have a misconception about the ethics of hunting, they can appreciate a delicious, organic, well-cooked meal. This means the holidays provide an incredible opportunity to not only share the fruits of your deer/elk/whatever harvest, but to help someone broaden their understanding of exactly what hunting is all about. But, if you throw some backstrap on the grill, treat it just like a beef steak, over-cook it, under-season it, or make any number of other culinary missteps, they could leave extremely underwhelmed and you won’t have won anybody over to the “hey, hunting might be kind of alright” camp.
So, here are a few go-to recipes that can really help your wild game come to life. These are also ideas that are great for easing someone into the world of venison or game meat. If someone has never tried deer in their life and you just throw a steak in front of them, it will obviously be different from beef (their frame of reference for steak) and they may not jump right onboard.
Venison Zuppa Toscana
Soups are not the only way to ease someone into the world of wild game, but they are definitely one of the safest bets. Plus, with cold weather moving in across most of the country, a nice hot soup is usually a welcome appearance at the table. This venison twist on a classic Italian soup is incredibly easy and highly delicious. It’s also a great meal if you have to suddenly throw a dinner together for some unexpected guests.
2 lbs. Ground venison
¾ lb. red potatoes
1 bunch kale
32 oz. chicken stock
½ cup milk
Place chicken stock, milk (we use coconut milk as a substitute for the dairy-challenged members of our family), thinly sliced potatoes, and chopped kale in a pot on medium heat.
While the potatoes are cooking in that fine mixture, brown your ground venison. You can either have your processor make some as pre-seasoned Italian ground (mine does a great job), or if you just have some plain ground meat, use a little salt, garlic powder, and oregano to season it as you brown it.
Once browned, simply add it to the pot, stir, and let simmer on a medium heat for another 5 or so minutes to let the flavor really soak in. Once the potatoes are to your desired level of softness, serve alongside some hearty, crusty bread and watch your guests enjoy.
Coffee-Porter Deer Chili
Again, soups are not the only way to help non-hunters enjoy venison, but this chili blew some minds at a family celebration in my house a couple years ago. A friend of mine first turned me onto the recipe (originally from allrecipes.com), and I was incredibly impressed with his standard beef version. I immediately knew I wanted to try a version with some of the mule deer I had sitting in my freezer, and to me (with a couple small modifications) it was even better than the beef. This one is not as simple or as quick as the first soup, but it is well worth the time and effort.
2 lbs. Cubed venison (make sure the cubes are small so they’re easier to chew)
2T vegetable/olive oil
1 chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (14.5oz) can peeled and diced tomatoes w/ juice
1 (12oz) can/bottle dark beer (think Guinness or a similar dark porter)
1 cup strong brewed coffee
2 (6oz) cans tomato paste
1 (14oz) can beef broth
½ cup packed brown sugar
3.5T chili powder
1T unsweetened cocoa powder
1tsp dried oregano
1tsp ground coriander
2 (15oz) cans kidney beans
2 (15oz) cans black beans
3 fresh anaheim chiles, seeded and chopped
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook onions, garlic, and cubed venison in oil for 10 minutes, or until the meat is well browned and the onions are tender.
Mix in the diced tomatoes with juice, dark beer, coffee, tomato paste and beef broth. Season with brown sugar, chili powder, cumin, cocoa powder, oregano, coriander, and salt. Stir in 2 cans of the beans and chiles. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
Stir in the 2 remaining cans of beans, and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Serve hot, with some shredded cheese on top, and copious amounts of delicious cornbread on the side. I am the only hunter on my side of the family and served this to my entire extended family one New Year’s Day...no one could believe it was deer they were eating.
Beer Brine Smoked Quail (or other game bird)
I realize quail may or may not be available in your neck of the woods, but I would recommend trying this method on nearly any game bird you may have been able to harvest this year. Quail season hits right in November where I’m from, so on a good year you could have a bunch of these birds hanging out in the freezer just waiting to come out and steal the show at a big family occasion. Imagine laying out a plate of these as a substitute for wings while watching a football game with family and friends this Fall...sounds like America to me.
Quail legs & breasts
Dark Beer (amount depends on how many birds you’re cooking up)
1 Lemon (squeeze juice into the brine)
Fully submerge the birds into your brine mixture of beer, lemon and salt (use about 1T salt for every 2 bottles of beer) then refrigerate for 12 hours.
Remove birds from brine and rub your mixture of salt, garlic powder, paprika, and chili powder on them. Next, let them dry in the refrigerator. Allowing the skin to fully dry before tossing them in the smoker will lead to a much crispier wing-like experience.
Then, place the birds on a medium-high grill until they reach a temp of 160. I love the pellet-smoker style of indirect heat to evenly cook the wings, but you can achieve similar results with a standard propane or charcoal grill...just try to keep the heat to one side and the birds on the other. (It won’t have all the smokey goodness, but it’ll still taste great)
At this point, you’re good to serve them to your living room full of football fans. If you’re of the persuasion that a true wing needs some seriously gooey sauce, then you could certainly add your favorite wing sauce to the process by simply smothering the wings in sauce after the grill. Personally, I think they’re great without the sauce and taste like a wild-game twist on a dry-rub wing.
BONUS TREAT: Venison Jerky
Okay, hunters have been turning game meat into jerky for millennia, so this is far from original. But, jerky is so universally loved that I think we forget how appealing it can be to a non-hunter who is leery of venturing into the culinary world of antlered animals. I’ve tried a number of different methods and recipes for jerky over the years with varying degrees of success, but this past year my brother in law stumbled upon an incredible method that has changed the game of dried meat in my household.
DISCLAIMER: You will need a jerky gun for this method to work, but it’s well worth the investment for the extremely tender jerky you’ll get as a result. We used the Smokehouse Products system, but there are numerous options out there. You can also buy pre-mixed seasoning packets, or experiment with your own. Here’s what we did...
Pepperoni Seasoning (pre-packaged)
First, mix up your seasonings (if not using a pre-packaged jerky seasoning mix) in a ratio of 3:1:1. Use about 1T of seasoning mixture per 1lb of ground venison. Kneed thoroughly to get the seasoning evenly distributed. If the meat is too dry/tough to mix, add little bits of water until it mixes well.
Once mixed, load the meat into the jerky gun and lay out strips on the drying rack. Then you just place that rack in the smoker set to 180-degrees and leave it for 4 hours. Once thoroughly dry, let the jerky cool and then throw it in ziploc bags (or vacuum seal if you plan to store them for long periods of time).
Using the ground instead of strips/chunks of meat creates a much more tender jerky that is far easier to chew (we’ve all fun into leather-jerky at some point, and nothing ruins snack time like losing a crown to inedible jerky). The beauty of wild game jerky is that it creates something most every meat eater is familiar with. Plus, the copious amounts of seasoning and added smoke flavor help “soften” what may be an unfamiliar game-meat taste. This is also a great method for some of your more “exotic” meats like bear.
If you’re an avid hunter, then you have certainly trained your palette to appreciate a fine venison steak or roasted game bird. And believe me, I cut plenty of my harvests into steaks and roasts for my family to use, because we’re used to it and we love it. However, let’s be sensitive to those in our lives who are very unfamiliar with these meats. Yes, I think they’re better than any beef steak you could buy in the store, but it definitely takes some getting used to. So, if you’re sitting on a bounty of game meat from this past Fall, find an opportunity at some point in the holiday season to share that with friends and family...especially if they’ve never tried it before. But, let’s remember that we’re always trying to win people over to the pro-hunting camp, so let’s serve up a meal they’re sure to enjoy no matter what the meat happens to be.