Get Your Deer Yet?
Maine hunters bring home thousands of pounds of deer meat each fall, but what’s the best way to cook it? We asked a few top chef
- By: michael sanders
- Photography by: Russell French
In 2009, Maine’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife issued approximately 155,000 deer hunting licenses. According to Lee Kantar, the state’s deer and moose biologist, those hunters, mostly Maine residents, brought down just over 18,000 deer with every killing device from high-powered rifle to bow and arrow, crossbow, and black powder muzzleloader. “Normally,” Kantar points out, “that number is up around 25,000, but the previous two winters have been long and snowy, with subsequent high mortality rates for fawns.” It is illegal to sell hunted meat of any kind in Maine, which means that the meat from those animals, about 810,000 pounds dressed out, ended up in hunters’ freezers, destined for the family dinner table in one form or another.
Though I am not a hunter, I am a committed omnivore and passionate cook. Having lived in Maine for years, I am still puzzled by the downright ambivalence that greets the triumphant hunter. Venison — or deer meat, as most Mainers call it — seems to be either loved or loathed with few opinions in between.
“Deer is a meat with a bad reputation,” says Scott Paquette, a former chef at Portland’s Cinque Terre before he moved to the Café Stroudwater. I caught up with him as he was putting in a few hours cutting up deer at Thibeault’s, a game butcher in Cundy’s Harbor, learning from the pros. “There’s not a lot of fat to it,” he says “and it’s easy to bind up.” Translation: overcook it, and you might as well be eating shoe leather.
This doesn’t seem to diminish the hunters’ enthusiasm for the actual hunt, however. A few days earlier, I’d risen before dawn and traveled up the pike to the West Gardiner Rod and Gun Club. At 5:30 a.m., the hunters’ breakfast was in full swing. It was October 31, the first day of deer season, and there was more blaze orange per square foot than I’d seen in one place in my lifetime. The long, low-ceilinged room, with its rough paneling and utilitarian metal tables and folding chairs, was warm from the bodies packed in at every spot, the air heavy with the smell of sausage and baked beans and pancakes being served through the kitchen pass-through in one corner. There were young kids, boys mostly, and teens, and then men of all ages with just a few women among them.
Ann Crocker, a lively woman who was taking money at the door, smiled at the hustle and bustle. “It’s a good crowd, all right,” she says. “They’ll all be gone in a half hour, gone to hunt as soon as it’s light.”
I was there with Frank Smith, who had grown up in West Gardiner and who couldn’t walk two feet without stopping to greet someone and exchange a few words. “This is the only time all year I may see some of these people,” Smith says. “We’re all more mobile now and everything’s changing.” The hunters’ breakfast is, like the 4 a.m. drive that starts this day each fall, part of a pilgrimage that would take Smith, rifle in hand, into the woods with a group of friends and relatives at first light. What would he do with the meat if he did bring down a deer? He shrugged, admitting that he usually lets somebody else do the cooking.
An hour later we gathered at the Smith-Greenleaf family farm ten miles down the road, a barn full of various Smith relatives, friends, and married relations. On one wall hung a hand-drawn and colored map of the farm and its surroundings, stands of trees picked out in green, water in blue, and little crosses and dates indicating where deer had been taken in previous seasons.
These are serious folks, and the only “energizer” was hot coffee sipped from chipped mugs as, in pairs, they identified which piece of ground they were going to cover and then headed out on foot and ATVs to take up their sunrise vigil. This wasn’t just some random ritual, but a safety measure. Everyone needed to know where the other teams were, and particularly which ones were mobile, in what direction they’d be heading.
There were young daughters with boyfriends, twenty-something sons, an older uncle paired with a novice nephew. Mike Wing, a retired English teacher who seemed to be the not-so-elderly spokesman, was among the last to go, talking all the way out the door. “Some of us will get lucky today,” he says, “and we’ll share out the meat with those who didn’t. Steaks and roasts, and stew meat. Funny how the backstrap,” the tenderest cut, “always disappears. . . . ”
And then they were gone into the half-light, the smell of ATV exhaust and burned coffee lingering behind them.
When the leaves drop,” state biologist Lee Kantar says with a rough poetry, “it’s a signal to people as well as to the deer. It’s instilled in our blood. Mainers have a strong hunting tradition, and they’ve been passing it down for generations. Going to a deer camp is a family tradition everyone looks forward to, something that people share. It transcends the individual and instead becomes something that everybody in the group can appreciate, going to a favorite hunting area, teaching kids how to identify deer sign and habitat, that kind of knowledge is passed on from family to family and to friends.”
And then most will mention, too, that a generation back, eating deer as opposed to a “beef critter” was not a choice but a necessity in an era of very large families living agrarian lives in out of the way places. Venison was just another part of the rural family larder.
“My brother and grandfather hunted deer every year, and usually got one,” recalls Ann Crocker of the West Gardiner Rod and Gun Club. “My husband came from a very poor family — he was one of seven kids — and they lived on venison over the winter. They’d hang it on a rafter in their old barn and cut off chunks as they needed it. They’d gather apples from their trees. They almost always had oatmeal for breakfast, deer meat, potatoes from the garden, milk from the grandparents’ cow. When you put it all together, they ate very well. And they would fish in the summertime for trout for a change in diet. That was not unusual, and they did just fine, he’d tell you.”
In deepest Bowdoin, I found Jim Small, owner of Butcher Boys Deer Cutting, waiting for customers in his converted garage, the back corner of which was one large walk-in refrigerator where carcasses hung. It was Sunday, when there is no hunting, and Small was waiting mostly for people to come to pick up their deer meat and antlered trophy capes, if they’d asked for them to be saved out. There was a faint smell of bleach, and he explained that if I’d come the day before the floor would have been slick with blood.
Small, who’s been “cutting” — butchering game — for more than a decade, knows an awful lot about venison. “We butcher it into chops, steaks, and stew meat, and we’ll grind hamburger and make sausage, too.” Venison is naturally lean, he tells me, because the meat has no marbling, and because they cut off what fat covers the meat, which can go rancid even if frozen. “With a beef critter, the fat marbles in between the meat, but not in a deer. The tenderest part, that’s the backstraps and the tenderloin.” The backstrap runs along the back horizontally along each side of the spine. “Tenderloins in deer are really small, even smaller than pork tenderloins, and people call them the sweet meat ’cause they’re the best part.”
This lack of intramuscular fat is also why the universal “secret ingredient” of ground venison and venison sausage is almost always a healthy measure of pork fat or fatty pork meat added to the mix.
I myself like to cook a thin steak on the woodstove,” Small says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at a yard-long range that must have weighed a thousand pounds. “Real butter in a big old cast iron frying pan, not that Smart Balance stuff, and Lawry’s seasoning, onions, and peppers, real quick each side so it’s still rosy in the middle. But I can’t cook out here,” he finishes with a laugh, “’cause everyone’s gonna think it’s their deer I’m eating!”
So, when you’re next faced with a slab of venison, the advice from the experts is pretty simple. “You do need to cook with a little more oil or fat or other liquid,” chef Scott Paquette says. “Deer meat is much leaner so you’re not going to get that fat coming out of the meat.” If it’s a thin steak or other tender cut, sear it fast to medium rare. If it’s any other whole cut, low and slow, in plenty of liquid, like wine or broth or plain water and vegetables. Think Crockpot. Think fall. Think delicious.
Slow-cooker Cranberry Venison Roast
From Karyn Small, Bowdoin, Maine. Serves 6 to 8.
2 to 3 pounds boneless deer roast
2 tablespoons Lawry’s seasoned salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup plus hot water
2 cups whole-berry cranberry sauce
1/2 cup cranberry juice
1/3 cup sugar
1 small lemon, thinly sliced
1/3 cup golden seedless raisins
1 rounded tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch
Roast: Rub the roast with the Lawry’s seasoning salt. Add the butter and oil to a heavy-bottomed pan and sear the roast on all sides over medium-high heat. Put the roast in the slow cooker. Add the hot water to the searing pan and scrape up the browned bits, pouring everything, including all the drippings, over the roast. In a medium bowl combine the cranberry sauce and juice, sugar, sliced lemon, raisins, garlic, ginger, mustard, and pepper. Pour the mixture over the roast, cover, and, for fastest cooking, cook for 1 hour on high then turn back to low for 3 to 4 hours. Or you can cook it all day on low.
Sauce: Strain and measure cooking juices, between 2 and 3 cups. Bring to a boil. Put 1 tablespoon of cornstarch per cup of cooking juice in a cup with 3 tablespoons of water and dissolve with a fork. Stir this into the sauce and cook until thickened over low heat. Serve roast with rice or potatoes.
Grilled Marinated Venison with Potato Hash
From Scott Paquette. Serves 6.
1 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, cleaned and sliced thin
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup packed basil leaves, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless venison backstraps*
*This should be 3 or more loin strips each
about 10 to 12” long.
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 medium onions
3 pounds Red Bliss potatoes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup Roland or Cento
roasted red peppers
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup flat leaf parsley
For the marinade: Combine wine, oil, garlic, parsley, and basil in a large nonreactive bowl or dish. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add backstraps, cover, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
For the potato hash: First caramelize the onions by removing the roots and skins from 2 medium onions and slice into one-quarter inch rings. Heat the 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan, add onions, stir, and let cook over lowest possible heat. After 20 to 30 minutes, when their water has been released and evaporated, onions will begin to soften and brown. Stir occasionally until dark brown, but not burnt, then remove from heat. Boil Red Bliss potatoes gently in plenty of water just until fork tender but not falling apart.
Run cold water on them until chilled. Cut into 1/2” dice. In a non-stick frying pan add butter and canola oil over medium heat, then add potatoes. After about 5 minutes, with occasional tossing, potatoes should be getting brown on the edges. Add the roasted red peppers and caramelized onions. Sauté another 1 to 2 minutes until potatoes are golden brown then season dish with salt and pepper and garnish with parsley just before serving.
For the venison: Preheat outdoor grill or set oven to broil. Use very high heat. Turn once after 3 to 4 minutes or when outside has nice crust. Check again after 2 to 3 minutes by cutting into one backstrap, which should be rosy. Do not overcook the venison or it will be like shoe leather.
- By: michael sanders
- Photography by: Russell French