Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Oh, deer, venison's going gourmet
With farm-raised venison prices skyrocketing, it might be time for a new twist on the wild game.
Food writer Lindsey Nair
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The first time I saw venison on a gourmet restaurant menu -- for $20 a plate -- I was utterly baffled.
I grew up in the country, where no freezer was ever really full without a few packages of paper-wrapped deer meat. And I feel certain that on a couple of occasions, we wouldn't have had any meat to eat if not for Dad's prowess with a hunting rifle.
These days, I know the difference between farm-raised venison (which they serve in restaurants) and the wild stuff in my freezer. The farm-raised deer are fed a mixture of grains and grass, while wild deer live off the land, foraging for whatever will keep them alive.
The result is a more tender, less gamey flavor in the farm-raised deer. And farm-raised venison is inspected for safety before it can be sold.
Still, I have to wonder if that warrants the price farmers are demanding for their venison. Within the past year, it has skyrocketed to the point where a $20 plate would be a bargain, chefs said.
"It went up about $7 a pound, probably in July or so," said chef Scott Lockhart of Horizon Bar & Grill in downtown Roanoke. "It was in the low 20s per pound for tenderloin and it is now in the upper 20s."
That motivated Lockhart to remove his spice-rubbed, grilled venison with wild mushroom ragout from the menu. Even at more than $30 for that entree, it wasn't a profitable option.
Metro!, another Roanoke restaurant that used to serve venison, hasn't bought any for more than a year, according to executive chef Scott Switzer.
"It's just really expensive," he said. "And it doesn't sell great."
When customers don't order venison, it is for two completely different reasons, chefs said: Either they think it's silly to pay that much for typical freezer fare or they are turned off by wild game.
"We do distribute venison to restaurants, but it is very expensive to the point where I would say it is cost-prohibitive for most restaurants to buy it," said Jeff Bland, a trained chef who now consults with customers for U.S. Foodservice. "They can't make any money off of it. I know it is really tempting for operators to put it on the menu, but you are really flirting with danger."
That's sad, because venison is an incredibly versatile and healthy meat. When I brown a pound of venison burger, I never have to drain off grease.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a three-ounce portion of venison tenderloin contains just 130 calories and two grams of fat -- about half the fat and calories in the same portion of beef tenderloin.
But let's say you are tired of preparing venison in any of the typical ways -- in chili, as pot roast or as chicken-fried steaks. You want to go gourmet with your venison, but what are you to do?
Well, you could call Underhill Farms in Kansas and pay $22 per pound for venison medallions or $31 per pound for a whole tenderloin -- not including shipping.
Or you could check out some fancy D'Artagnan venison from New Zealand -- a 16- to 19-pound saddle will set you back $406, or about eight times what it costs to have a wild deer processed by some butchers in Southwest Virginia.
It seems like the simplest solution would be to turn to wild venison -- just about everyone in these parts probably hunts or has a hunter friend who could hook them up with a little bounty. But it isn't that simple.
First, there's the very important issue of food safety. Wild venison isn't inspected for disease, so food safety experts often recommend that it be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees to kill all of the bacteria.
That's well done. And with venison, an incredibly lean meat to begin with, that translates into shoe leather.
Gaminess is another complication. Many people do not care for the wild flavor in meats such as venison and lamb. Even farm-raised venison, Switzer said, is not completely devoid of gaminess.
Another roadblock might be getting the right cut -- finding a deer processor isn't too hard, but finding one who knows how to extract specialty cuts such as rib roasts might be a bit more challenging.
The good news for venison lovers: There are solutions to these problems.
Bland recommends wrapping deer tenderloin or roasts in bacon, pancetta or caul fat, a thin, fatty membrane that lines the abdominal cavity of pigs and sheep. Pig caul fat is superior and can be found at some butcher shops.
This technique helps to keep the venison moist while you roast it. You can also roast it slow and low and braise often to prevent overdrying.
Bland also said he's been told that 145 degrees is a safe internal temperature for venison so long as it is not ground venison, which should be cooked to well done. And Laura Newell-Furniss, the director of Hunters for the Hungry, said she always advises that cooks keep their venison rare or medium-rare to prevent it from getting too tough.
"I have never had any problems" with rarer venison, she said.
To reduce gaminess, some hunters soak their meat in milk. Chefs recommend marinating venison in a strongly flavored blend.
A few ingredients that complement deer meat, Switzer said, are black currants, cassis, apricots, peppercorns and aromatic spices such as allspice and cloves. Because deer eat juniper berries in the wild, these toasted and crushed berries would also make a nice addition to a venison marinade, he said.
As for processing, it is all in the research. When you call a slaughterhouse or an individual processor, be sure to specify what you want. If they seem unsure about how to extract specialty cuts, keep looking.
Robert Peak, 72, opened Peak's Slaughter House in Campbell County, south of Lynchburg, 38 years ago. His son, Gary Peak, has run the place since his retirement.
The Peaks will slaughter goats, deer, hogs, beef, lamb and deer, and Robert Peak said if a hunter requests a rack, they'll get a rack.
"Normally we take the ribs off and then take the tenderloin off. But it could be done," he said.
Out of the 1,000 to 1,200 deer processed at Peak's Slaughter House every year, very few requests come in for specialty cuts. Most people want the standard tenderloin, ribs, steaks and roasts cut out before everything else is turned into burger or stew meat.
Bland said one of his co-workers this season said he would keep the legs and have the rest of the carcass turned into burger.
"What about the ribs? The loin?" Bland asked in astonishment.
"He just kind of shrugged and said, 'This is what I do.' But I love that venison rack or a roasted saddle," Bland said.
Do you have a favorite unusual venison recipe? I would love to hear about it on the blog.