David Hughes helps deer hunters infiltrate the household menu
An hour or two after darkness falls, the intrepid deer hunter returns to the expectant household –the rest of the family are already halfway through their dinner. Lifting their gaze from their chicken and chips, the hunter of the house presents as a dirty, rugged figure, yet with a beaming smile and proudly raising a bag of hard-won venison for the family.
The long-suffering cook rolls their eyes to heaven in anticipation of the blood-oozing treasure about to challenge the suburban refrigerator. From prior experience they can already picture the unrecognisable lumps of deep crimson meat, swimming in red exudate and with a few coarse dark hairs thrown in for good measure. Confusion arises about what to do with this culinary blessing.
This scenario clearly plays out with increasing frequency in Australian households. In recent years, the proliferation of deer and deer hunting guarantees that the traditional household menu is under threat from venison. To boot, the eating of red meat is ever-increasingly portrayed as some sort of barbarian rite, and since venison is a dark red meat, it is understandably a little bit beyond the comfort zone for the average Aussie home cook.
This article is aimed squarely at making the hunter’s hard-won treasure readily acceptable to a sceptical culinary audience. This is a two-stage strategy to win the hearts of the unconverted. The first stage overcomes the modern household’s dogma that meat must be presented in convenient hygienic packages, free of bloody drip-loss and inconvenient contaminating hairs. The second stage provides an easy recipe that the erstwhile hunter can himself prepare as the crowning glory to their hunter-gatherer endeavours.
Stage one addresses the presentation of the venison. Ideally venison should first be aged under refrigeration for up to a week to allow the meat to naturally tenderise. The muscles should then be separated into meal-sized portions according to the intended cooking method – roast, steaks or whatever.
Most silver skin and sinew should be removed, along with any bruising or other blemishes. Using a small cryovac machine (readily available from department stores), the venison cuts can be hygienically refrigerated and then frozen. Venison can be stored in this fashion for long periods; certainly more than a year. The vacuum packaging eliminates freezer-burn and the absence of air also reduces development of rancidity due to the slow oxidation of any fat that is present.
Having transformed the wild-caught meat into a form that is more presentable, and hence recognisable as potential fare for the family, the next step is to generate a tasty meal. This cunning plan will anchor future support for venison to appear on the menu more regularly.
The following recipe is one that I cook routinely at home. It passes the ‘family test’ – and let me tell you this is no small feat, as my wife is a fantastic cook (whereas I never progressed much beyond ‘meat and three veg’).
Venison stir-fry recipe
Ingredients (serves two)
- A piece of venison (250-400 grams), preferably from tender yearling animal – backstrap, silverside, girello and topside all work well. Trim off any residual silver skin or sinew. Slice into pieces about 1cm thick and 4cm long.
- Black pepper.
- Light soy sauce.
- Sesame oil.
- Canola or peanut oil.
- One heaped teaspoon of cornflour, slurried in about 50ml cold water.
- Small clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped.
- One fresh chilli, finely chopped.
- Small knob of ginger, finely chopped.
- 1-2 spring onions, sliced.
- 2-3 bunches bok choy – separate tops and stalks, large slices.
- ½ capsicum, sliced according to taste.
- Generous handful of snow peas, or similar amount of sliced green beans.
- 1 zucchini, thinly sliced.
- 1 carrot, thinly sliced.
- Half cup of water.
Sprinkle venison liberally with freshly ground black pepper and light soy sauce.
Allow to marinate for a minimum of half an hour.
Heat oil in the wok until smoking (refer also to tips for wok cooking outlined below).
Add about a third of the garlic, ginger and chilli.
Stir with a wok spatula (aka wok chan) until spices are lightly browned and the oil infused with flavour.
Add the meat slowly, and stir slowly for 1-1½ minutes until sealed.
Remove the meat from the wok and set aside.
Repeat the infused oil steps, then add vegetables in the order of their required cooking times ‑ first carrot and bok choy/choy sum stems. Allow one minute.
Add capsicum, zucchini and peas. Allow another minute.
Add tops of green vegetables.
Immediately add half cup of water around the inside of the wok above the food, then put a lid on for one minute to steam all the vegetables.
Reduce heat, stir in 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 6-10 drops of sesame oil.
Add venison, the rest of the fresh chilli, ginger and garlic, then stir to combine.
Make a well in the middle of the wok and pour in the cornflower suspension.
Stir the cornflower through until it thickens and creates a glossy sheen all over the vegetables and meat.
Avoid over-cooking at this stage – the steps post-steaming should take no more than a couple of minutes.
Pour the contents of the wok onto a warmed platter, call the troops to order, and place it in the centre of the table for immediate serving.
Serve with steamed rice.
The quality of the outcome is heavily dependent on the ability to deliver plenty of heat to the wok at the right time. Gas is the only real option for stir-frying, especially for bigger quantities of food. Burners are available for both LPG and natural gas. LPG has a higher pressure compared to natural (town) gas. Wok burners using the latter have a bigger diameter jet to compensate for the lower pressure and hence deliver about the same calorific output.
The average wok burner on a free-standing barbecue is rated at 12-14 Mega Joule/hour heat capacity ‑ roughly equivalent to the same number of kilo-British thermal unit (kBTU) for those imperial-minded folk. However, for professional-quality stir-frying, you need several times this heat capacity. Admittedly, a standard barbecue wok burner can be made to work, but only if you are cooking for two people and you are adding room temperature meat very slowly.
In fact I persevered in that fashion for some years. However, more often than not stewed and tough meat is the result of inadequate heating capability. If you want to seriously stir-fry, consider a rig that is rated at 50MJ/hour or more.
Even though I am not much of a cook, I could easily see the difference after I upgraded to the Rambo wok burner. My venison slices would be lightly browned in under two minutes and no matter how many vegetables were dumped in together, it would furiously sizzle rather than stew away in laboured fashion.
With the right equipment and a little practice, deer hunters who were formerly a bit frightened to take charge in the kitchen can be stir-frying like contestants on ‘Iron Chef’. With familiarity, other vegetables can be substituted according to seasonal availability, or what just happens to be in the fridge. Rehydrated shitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, celery and various Chinese greens can all supplement the ingredients previously mentioned. Pretty soon, converts to venison stir fry will be clamouring for more. Imagine family pressure to do MORE hunting. Maybe it’s not a dream?