Venison Stock: Essence of Deer

So there was a blizzard on today. The roads were impassable, the wind is still howling and while I will have to plow out the laneway and the school bus turnaround, I’m not doing that until the snow stops.  Getting to my place of employment is not an option.

Alberta at its finest.

Alberta at its finest.

So what do you do on a day fit for nothing more than staying inside and sipping warm drinks by the fire?  I make venison stock (technique pictured below).

Go to any fine dining establishment elevate food and you can best that they are using in-house produced stocks to make their soups and sauces – it is these stocks that make fine dining establishments stand out from the chains and diners of the world which primarily use prepackaged stocks and bouillons.  Many wild game recipes call for the addition of beef stock somewhere in the process.  Beef stock is fine if you have no other options however, it seems only natural that you should be using stock derived from the animal you are cooking, otherwise the dish can be confusing in the flavours it presents.  Whereas store-bought beef  stocks and broths are weak and watery and tend to depend heavily on salts to provide the flavor, homemade stocks are rich, thick and bursting with flavour – requiring little additional salt and allowing the cook to season the dish at the end as opposed to continually accounting for the salinity of prepackaged ingredients.

Once you’ve made a stock you can do a number things with it. Simply cutting up some vegetables and meat and adding it to the stock with pasta/rice/barley quickly produces a hearty soup.  Using it in recipes to replace the water and/or store-bought beef stock called for completely changes the flavors in the dish – and always for the better. You could, like me, slowly reduce the stock down until it is almost syrupy in nature and then freeze the stock in little cubes that I keep in the freezer and toss around like little flavour bombs whenever I feel a soup or sauce needs a meaty punch to liven it up.

When I fry up a deer steak and want a quick pan sauce, a cube of the reduced stock, a splash of red wine, a spoonful of apple jelly and some chopped shallots  makes an amazing pan sauce when taken off the heat and finished by swirling in a couple of cubes of ice cold butter.  Should I decide to make a quick soup, ten  or so cubes reconstituted in a large pot of water makes a flavorful broth that only needs vegetables and some added meat or pasta to round it out.  Even if I’m making a recipe that has not called for the addition of broth or stock I will often fire a cube or two of my own stock in to help deepen the flavors.  Heavily reduced stocks are also the basis for many of the classic sauces used in French cooking. Espagnole sauce and demi-glace are both made from a basic reduced stock and are the basis for a whole series of other sauces.

Making stock is not hard but it does take time – especially if you are making large amounts of it from the bones of large animals.  In our house, making stock is essentially a two, sometimes three, day affair.  On the first day we roast the bones and  vegetables, add the water and bring it to a simmer on the stove-top.  The whole pot is then popped into a low oven for 10 to 12 hours to steep like an extremely meaty tea.

You could use veal or beef bones to make a great stock, however, I tend to use whatever is at hand from the pieces of animals I might have.  Duck  and pork stocks end up being the basis for a lot of the Asian dishes I cook, while pheasants and grouse stocks work really well when cooking wild rice or risotto to go with these birds.  The most common and versatile stocks that I produce however, tend to be venison and/or moose/elk stocks simply because one animal can provide many liters of flavorful liquid.

I save the long bones of nearly every big game animal I get. These bones consist of the shank bones along with the femur and humorous bones. So on Saturday as I was butchering the deer pictured below I carefully saved the leg bones.  The young buck had been hanging in the slightly above freezing garage for just over two weeks – about average for hanging time around here when dealing with large game.

Young whitetail buck headed for the meat pole.

Young whitetail buck headed for the meat pole.

The bones were then cracked to expose the marrow inside and then roasted in a hot oven for approximately 45 minutes and turned several times that they were brown all over. Vegetables (carrots, onions and celery are usually the main ones but feel free to do a crisper cleaning and add anything else that may be getting near its best before date — the veg are for flavouring only and are discarded) were added on top and those roasted again for another 20 minutes. The pot was filled with water and brought to a simmer (never boil) and the impurities skimmed off the top as they floated upward.  Once the impurities stopped rising the whole pot was slipped into a 250° oven and left to steep all night.  This morning when I woke to the news that I wouldn’t be going to work due to weather I popped the pot out of the oven,  strained out all the solids and set the remaining liquor onto the deck so that the fat on top could cool and solidify.  Once the fat was removed,  the stock was again strained through cheese cloth to remove any little bits that might be left behind and I was left with a rich and velvety soup base. It now sits on the stove top on low — slowly reducing down through today with me occasionally skimming off any little impurities that rise to the top.

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Long bones cracked to fit the pot and expose the marrow.

After 45 minutes at 425 degrees.  Turn them half-way through to ensure browning.

After 45 minutes at 425 degrees. Turn them half-way through to ensure browning.

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The veg added. I also added crimini mushrooms, ancho chilis, bay leaves and a halved head of garlic. Basically a stock is a great opportunity to clean out the vegetable crisper.

The stock coming to a simmer.  The foam on top is what you want to skim off. Never let it come to a boil. Once the foam stops forming, cover the pot and put it into a 250 degree oven and go to bed. 10-12 hours later you strain it through a fine mesh strainer and then again through a strainer lined with cheese cloth.

The stock coming to a simmer. The foam on top is what you want to skim off. Never let it come to a boil. Once the foam stops forming, cover the pot and put it into a 250 degree oven and go to bed. 10-12 hours later you strain it through a fine mesh strainer and then again through a strainer lined with cheese cloth.

Cool the stock completely and allow the fat layer on top to harden and then remove it.  You should have a relatively clear stock like pictured.  This has all now been moved from the 16 L pot to an 8 L pot.  It will be reduced to 2 L before the process is over.

Cool the stock completely and allow the fat layer on top to harden and then remove it. You should have a relatively clear stock like pictured. This has all now been moved from the 16 L pot to an 8 L pot. It will be reduced to 2 L before the process is over.

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After 3 hours of simmering on low.

After the stock has reduced to about 1/4 its original volume (less than 2L in this case) pour it out into a rectangular pan and allow to cool in the fridge until it gels. Slice into approximately 1 inch squares and then turn out onto a sheet pan and freeze solid. Then bag the cubes and use as required.  Substitute 2 squares for any recipe that requires a bouillon cube.  3 cubes in a liter of water will substitute for store bought broth.
After the stock has reduced to about 1/4 its original volume (less than 2L in this case) pour it out into a rectangular pan and allow to cool in the fridge until it gels. Slice into approximately 1 inch squares and then turn out onto a sheet pan and freeze solid. Then bag the cubes and use as required. Substitute 2 squares for any recipe that requires a bouillon cube. 3 cubes in a liter of water will substitute for store bought broth.

There are many other methods of making a great stock including using a pressure cooker for small batches (another post).  Take the time. Make it from scratch. It is worth it.

 

 

 

Recipe: Grilled Pheasant and Brie Sandwiches

Pheasant grilled cheese

Sometimes the most satisfying meals are born out of chaos.  My friend Jim and his daughter were deer hunting with my son and I a couple of weekends ago.  The snow was deep and  by mid-morning both kids were dragging and, truth be told, so were the adults.  We had planned on hunting the entire day but decided to take a few hours off for lunch and pulled into the house for a bite.

The house was in a shambles as unknown to me (or more likely forgotten) my father in law and wife were installing a drop ceiling in the basement. So it was noisy and dusty with a decidedly frosty climate that was evident in the looks I received from my wife who for some strange reason felt that my priorities were a little askew.  Despite 15 years of marriage to a hunter, she still occasionally thinks that scheduling home reno projects during that precious three month window from September 1 to November 30 is a good idea.  Now she knew I wouldn’t be helping yet there were still palpable waves of disapproval emanating from the matron of the family.  Any man who has ever sat around watching the game while their wife has been doing laundry or washing floors will know what I’m talking about.

Due to the hostile environment and imminent marital storm clouds, lunch needed to be quick.  Since I had guests I also wanted it to be good.  I scanned the fridge and spied a bag of pheasant breasts that I had defrosted for another purpose.  There was a red onion on the counter, a small wheel of Brie cheese in the dairy bin and a day old loaf of French bread in the pantry.

The result was a pheasant grilled cheese that was surprisingly good served with a little Sriacha hot sauce for dipping.  The unique flavor of the pheasant is complemented by the bite of the onion and the funkiness of the Brie (or Camembert) while the buttery crunch of the bread brings back memories of childhood comfort food.  The Sriacha makes for a very grown-up ketchup for this grown-up grilled cheese. I see an ice cold lager or pilsner as the only acceptable beverages to accompany this sandwich.

Ruffed grouse would work very well in this too and (sigh) chicken is the obvious domestic substitute though spending more on a farm raised pheasant or guinea fowl would make for a much more interesting meal than would chicken – the tofu of the meat world.  If I had to use chicken I would probably use boneless and skinless thighs.

In the pensive atmosphere we ate quickly and made our escape for the deer fields.  Unfortunately,  the wifely wrath was only delayed and ultimately exacerbated by the fact that I hadn’t given her a taste of the sandwich.

Oh well.  I have all of December  to try and get off the couch and back into the bedroom.

Grilled Pheasant and Brie Sandwiches

Prep Time:  10 minutes

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 4 pheasant breast fillets (breasts of 2 pheasants)
  • 8 slices French bread
  • 1 small red onion thinly sliced
  • 10-12 ounces Brie cheese (or other soft cheese)
  • butter
  • salt and pepper
  • Sriacha (optional)

Directions:

  1. Take each pheasant breast and lay it between two sheets of plastic wrap.  Using the smooth end of a meat tenderizer (flat frying pan or even a bottle) pound the meat gently to flatten it out and make it roughly uniform in its thickness. You should be aiming to make each breast slightly larger in area than the bread it will be lying on.
  2. Season the pheasant breasts liberally with salt and pepper and let sit while you heat a large cast iron pan on med-high heat for a couple of minutes.  Add a table spoon of butter to the pan and once it has finished frothing add in the breasts, keeping them well separated from each other.  Saute on one side for 2-3 minutes until well browned and then flip them and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, slice your onion and the cheese.
  4. Once the pheasant breasts have cooked through, assemble the sandwich by putting a layer of cheese on the bread , topping that with a layer of sliced onion and topping that with the hot pheasant breast. Place the other bread slice on that and spread a layer of butter on the outside of the sandwiches and fry them in a dry non-stick pan over med heat until the bread is crisp and brown, gently flipping it as needed to get the other side done as well.
  5. Take off the heat and slide onto a plate with a small dollop of Sriacha on the side.

And so it began…

Sparrow
Right or wrong — where it all started.

 

It was about 35 years ago that I deliberately and consciously took a life for the first time.  One fine May afternoon, at the tender age of eight, while visiting my grandfather’s dairy farm, I lined up my Russian break barrel pellet rifle on a house sparrow sitting on a telephone wire many yards away.  I never expected to hit it and was firing at it more to watch it fly away than anything else — I’d fired at dozens since getting my new pellet gun that Christmas and I was initially quite good at scaring the birds. However, by this time the avian residents of Grampy’s farm were barely flinching as I had unleashed approximately five pounds of lead at them in 1/50 ounce doses – all to no avail.  I was so ineffective that I wasn’t even annoying them anymore.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  What kind of sick, twisted little bastard is allowed to run around shooting at tweety birds with no supervision.  The truth is my father was always in the background – supervising without being too obtrusive.  He knew it would do no good to try and stop me from shooting at the little birds since every little boy who ever owned a BB gun has either shot at little birds or been sorely tempted to.  He had a plan though so he let me court mayhem without interference.

The pellet rifle thumped with that springy note peculiar to air rifles and with a small puff of feathers the sparrow did a spectacular back-flip off the wire and lightly thumped down onto the paved drive below – wings quivering slightly as the nerves tried to cope with the reality of their severance from the brain’s command and control.  I was more stunned than anything.  I’d hit it!

My excitement disappeared immediately as I heard my father intone behind me “You killed it. Now you eat it.”

I looked down at the rumpled little bird, a crimson pebble of blood welling from under its chin and thought, “Gross!”  I was now also somewhat ashamed at what I had done and felt sorry for the little creature who had been placidly and inoffensively sunning itself on the wire.

My father had occasionally hunted and we had eaten game but it was always duck or grouse.  I didn’t even know if you could eat a little bird without getting sick.  Dad made me pick up the sparrow and we plucked it clean.  It looked even more pathetic denuded of its soft and fragile feathers — skinny drumsticks sticking up from a tiny half-ounce carcass.  In the kitchen of the old farmhouse Dad cleaned it, salt and peppered it and threw it in the frying pan with a bit of butter – cooking it until it was nearly black. This he then offered to me on a plate and bid me bon appetite.

To this day I don’t know what his intention was.  Did he expect me to be so revolted by the tiny meal that I’d never think of shooting another sparrow knowing I’d have to eat it as well?  Did he believe that my guilt would be increased by consuming the tiny morsel because I would realize how little there was to gain from killing the bird?  If his intention was to shock me into refraining from wanton bloodlust, he somewhat succeeded.  He didn’t do the local wildlife population any favours however.

The little bird tasted amazing. Salty-meaty with an undertone of flavour I couldn’t describe then but now realize is what many people refer to as “gaminess”.  The bones had been cooked through and crisped and crunched deliciously between my teeth.  I wanted more and to Dad’s surprise tore off out the front door, gun in hand, in an attempt to kill even more birds.  He never admonished me for my actions but the rule held – if you kill it, you eat it.  I adhered to the code all through my childhood and into my late teens but that didn’t mean that a lot of stuff didn’t die.  It just died and went into the frying pan afterwards.  I hunted and ate red squirrels, hares, black birds, crows and various other little birds and animals and was not afraid to try any of them on the dinner plate.  This necessarily meant that I had to learn to cook too since my mother refused to touch any of the critters I brought home.  My hunting passion kept me out of trouble and often on days off of school my parents would drop me and my gun off at the farm before they went to work and pick me up after.  The woods was my babysitter and while modern parents may cringe at the idea of a 12 year old running around by himself in the forest with a loaded rifle or shotgun, it wasn’t considered bad parenting to do so in the 80’s in rural Prince Edward Island – or if it was, I didn’t know any better and then must thank my parents for being rotten at the job.

As I got older I also became aware of things like game laws and protected species and altered my practices to reflect the legalities to which I had previously been ignorant (robins are quite tasty but decidedly protected by Canadian federal laws).

Fast forward to the present and I support a family of four almost exclusively on meat that I (and now my sons) have hunted, fished or raised.  I do not eat everything I kill now.  Living in rural Alberta makes killing certain animals a necessary chore – wolves, coyotes, skunks, gophers, ground squirrels, crows, magpies  and feral cats need to be kept in check  if one wishes to maintain livestock and a garden. It is a task.  I complete it as efficiently as possible.  I feel none of the pleasure that I feel when I harvest a nice fat mallard or a sleek young buck for the freezer.  In those latter instances I am already planning all the dishes I am going to make and nothing provides me more satisfaction than the knowledge that I have a freezer full of nutritious, hormone free, organic meat to take us through the winter.

A young cow moose for the freezer.

My intention with this blog is to write about what I do here on “the farm” and about the animals we harvest – both domestic and wild – and the meals we make from them.  It is a necessarily vain bit of writing but at the same time I hope that it gives some folks some insight into hunting your own food and cooking it in a manner that gives pleasure to both the cook and the eater.

Seared canvasback sashimi with soy braised canvasback legs and ponzu sauce.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up but even aborted journeys need to start somewhere.  Let’s see where it goes.