Great Hunt, Great Venison: Don’t let it go to waste

Grilled venison is a tasty way to handle backstrap. Photo: Holly Heyeser.

Grilled venison is a tasty way to handle backstrap. Photo: Holly Heyeser.

By Howard Meyerson

Hank Shaw may, or may not, age his venison after he shoots a deer. The California author, forager and food blogger hunts black-tails in an area where temperatures can reach 105 degrees. Properly aging venison requires having access to cold-storage, and aging results in a loss of meat volume.

“It isn’t worth it for other than the biggest buck,” explains Shaw, who’s “Hunter Angler Gardner Cook” blog Honest-Food.net won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Food Blog in 2013. Shaw has a developed a nation-wide following of wild-game enthusiasts and foodies.

He is unequivocal about other slices of venison cookery. Too many hunters waste good parts, he says, and far, far too many overcook the meat.

“It may or may not be the most popular game meat, but it (venison) is definitely the most abused,” Shaw writes on his blog. “…if you overcook it and handle the meat poorly when you kill the animal it will be poor fare at the table.”

Shaw, now 44, is an admitted late-comer to hunting. He shot his first deer in 2002, a mule

Hank Shaw scans for diving ducks while hunting. Photo: Holly Heyser.

Hank Shaw scans for diving ducks while hunting. Photo: Holly Heyser.

deer in Montana. He was 32-years old, but the idea of eating natural foods, those he hunted and butchered, fished or foraged, inspired him to make lifestyle changes. He hasn’t purchased fish or meat, other than a few times, since 2005.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Shaw about his growing success, during a phone interview from his Sacramento-area home. A former line cook and 15 year veteran political reporter, Shaw began foraging in an effort to find what he calls “honest foods,” those that grow naturally and don’t come pre-packaged in plastic.

Austrian braised venison shank. Photo: Holly Heyser.

Austrian braised venison shank. Photo: Holly Heyser.

His first book, “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast,” was published by Rodale Press in 2011. It is a primer about the wild world, he says, referring to it as “a window into what I do, and more importantly, how others can enter that world, even in a small way.”

His new book, “Duck, Duck, Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Ducks and Geese, both Wild and Domesticated,” is a waterfowl cookbook. It was published by Ten Speed Press this fall. Shaw is working now on a venison cookbook.

“I have hunted and cooked long enough now that I have a deep understanding of venison as a meat. That’s not something I could have said in 2007,” Shaw said. “And it (deer) is, by far, the single-most sought animal in North America.

To keep venison fresh, Shaw recommends hanging deer at camp only when outside temperatures are 40 degrees or lower. It will spoil otherwise and develop a foul taste. He also prefers non-rutting bucks, or does, for table fare. Meat flavor is crucial and bucks in rut, he says, are just not as tasty.

“Testosterone stinks,” Shaw declares. “That’s why I try to shoot bucks that are not in the rut if I am looking for meat for the table.”

Venison tenderloin with a blueberry or huckleberry sauce is one recipe hunters can find featured on Shaw’s blog. To create just the right sauce compliment, Shaw studied Icelandic recipes to find a berry sauce that wasn’t overly sweet, and then he incorporated morel mushrooms. The venison is shown served with Irish colcannon, a green-colored mashed potato dish typically made with kale or spinach. Shaw said he only had had nettles on hand. They worked just fine, instead.

Hunters all too often miss a good opportunity for a delicious meal, according to Shaw. They discard, or grind up, venison shank meat to make burger. He recommends slow roasting it like leg of lamb.

“The shank is my favorite part of the deer,” says Shaw. “It is just murder to grind the shanks up for burger. Braise them slowly. When the meat falls off the bone, it will melt in your mouth. Once you cook it this way you will never do anything else.”

Hunters often also discard venison fat, holding to a belief that it adds a gamey flavor to dishes, but Shaw says that’s where hunters often miss out. He recommends adding it to venison sausage and burgers. For every four pounds of meat, add a half pound of pork fat, or bacon ends, and a half pound of venison fat.

“I see a lot of processed deer burger with no fat on it,” Shaw said. “The only way you can use that is in taco meat, or pasta sauces, or for sloppy Joe. If you try to cook it like a burger without the fat it will taste like cardboard.”

That’s just a few of the creative cooking tips that deer hunter can find online at Shaw’s blog. If you’re thinking to prepare something different and special this season, be sure to check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

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This column appears on MLive Outdoors.

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