Venison: an easy stew for chilly days
Frosty mornings and woodsmoke on the darkening afternoon air make me long for hearty comfort food. If it is made with local, seasonal ingredients, it is all the more satisfying. Here is a very easy recipe for just such soul food: a venison stew where you more or less chuck everything in together and let the oven do the work.
Venison is increasingly available in British shops. It is a low-cholesterol red meat which is quite delicious and needs no special reverence in cooking. I think that some of us are put off cooking game from the old idea that you needed to treat it differently from farmed meat, and perhaps also the worry that it might taste terribly strong. But you really don’t need to follow the old traditions of hanging game until it turns green (!), then washing it in vinegar and marinading it for days before you even start on the cooking process. I am lucky enough to get cuts of wild roe deer venison fresh from our gamekeeper but, if you buy fresh cuts of venison from the butcher or supermarket, you too can get on with cooking without any arcane preliminaries.
I should warn you that I am an ‘ish’ sort of cook: that is, I cook in approximations of weight, time, temperature. ‘A good-ish slosh of wine’, ‘a hottish oven for about an hour’; that sort of thing. This is my working recipe, not a professional one!
You want to set the oven to a fairly low heat, say about 160 -170 degrees C. If you have an Aga, the low oven (top left in a four door) is perfect.
To serve four people, you need the following:
About 1lb/ 450g venison off the bone, cut into bite-sized strips or chunks
4 rashers of streaky bacon, diced. (Venison is usually pretty lean, and the bacon adds fat for cooking the meat)
I onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
6 to 8 good-sized field mushrooms (or a couple of handfuls of small ones), chopped
Liquid: about 2 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree; a small glass of red wine; about half a pint/ 300ml beef or vegetable stock. To give the sauce a certain depth and sweetness, I always add a good slosh of fruit vinegar or a couple of tablespoons of jelly. Blackberry or redcurrant seems to work especially well.
Seasoning: salt & ground pepper, half a teaspoon English mustard powder, a pinch each of dried thyme and rosemary, and a bay leaf. As a classic seasoning for venison I also like to add a few juniper berries, crushed in a pestle and mortar; although just to be on the safe side I leave out juniper when cooking for friends who are pregnant. (Did you know that juniper was used as an abortificent in the Middle Ages?)
1. Heat a little oil in a heavy saucepan or casserole dish. Brown the venison all over, and add the bacon. (I give this stage about 10 minutes.) You could add a tablespoon of plain flour to the meat to help thicken the sauce later: however, I made this dish without flour last week for a guest with a gluten allergy, and it was just as good. Long slow cooking thickens up the sauce anyway.
2. Add the crushed garlic and the mushrooms and fry gently.
3. Stir in the tomato puree and then add the rest of the liquids, stirring well. Don’t let it be too runny: you want the meat covered in sauce but not drowning.
4. Add the seasonings to your taste.
5. Now put the lid on the pan and stick it in the oven for, um, about two to four hours, depending on your oven. And that’s it!
When I made this dish for a lunch party of eight last week, I made it the day before and left it to simmer in the low oven of my Aga for four hours, while I got on with the rest of the chores. The following day I reheated the stew for about 20 minutes in a hot oven (about 200 degrees C) followed by 40 minutes in the low oven. It was, I think, very tasty, and the guests seemed to think so too. Perhaps you agree that stews, for some reason, usually taste better when made the day before and reheated.
I served this stew with home grown boiled potatoes with a bit of butter, and green peas. (A simple blackcurrant fool afterwards made for a delicious complementary taste.) This basic recipe is very adaptable, however: you could stir in creme fraiche at the end and turn it into a kind of stroganoff, to serve with rice; or you could add sliced carrots and parsnips to the stew and make it a really hearty meal to serve with mash or baked potatoes. The main thing is that it is very easy. And, at this dark and chilly time of year, it is a dish which warms both body and soul – with thanks to the beautiful deer from whom we source this food.
You might enjoy the easy recipes for salmon and for pear and elderberry crumble in Harvest Thanksgiving.