Ian Welch is back in the Farlows kitchen taking a look at one of the finest of all game meats, venison.
I have yet to go stalking in the Scottish Highlands but am fortunate enough, thanks to a colleague, to spend an occasional day in a high seat with my sights on a pricket. Success brings fresh offal on the day, with a share of prime fallow cuts to follow. It is a joyous day in the British countryside with great company and, usually, the very best of game meat for the kitchen.
Why is venison so good?
Leaner than beef, with a richer, more distinctive flavour, venison has become the most mainstream of all game meats and is now championed by many supermarkets, as well as the farmers‘ markets and rural butcher‘s where it has always featured.
Venison has found favour with so many cooks precisely because it can be used in exactly the same way as beef, there is nothing too challenging about it yet it is different to the norm and a minimum of fuss can deliver lean and tasty dishes at a decent price.
A haunch or a saddle makes for a lovely roast; mince delivers cracking burgers; it can be used diced in pies; rolled in pastry for a super twist on a Wellington; it gives a different take on shepherd‘s – or should that be deerherd‘s – pie and a rare venison steak is a thing of beauty.
Venison takes robust flavours brilliantly and it features on the menu of many top–end Indian restaurants, it loves spices such as cumin, star anise, fennel, cloves and juniper; fruits including cherries, apples and quince; herbs including thyme, rosemary and bay and it can pair nicely with more surprising flavours too, including chocolate and coffee.
I find one of the simplest ways to impart and experiment with interesting venison flavour combinations, and yet still enjoy the unique flavour of the meat, is a carpaccio. This is an ideal seasonal starter for festive dining, being quick to prep and light enough to allow a little indulgence ahead of the main meal.
A venison loin is the cut to go for here, 400g is ample for four people, and it is a simple matter of seasoning it well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, coating it with a little olive or rapeseed oil, then rubbing it in your chosen combination of herbs and/or spices (it can be left to marinate overnight in the fridge to enhance the flavour).
Once prepped it is a simple matter of searing it all over in a ferociously hot griddle pan to give a caramalised outer with a totally rare centre. Then all you need to do is allow the loin to cool, wrap it tightly in cling film and pop it into the freezer for 30 minutes to firm up before you slice it thinly and dress it to serve.
As far as flavours and dressings are concerned it‘s fun to experiment, some of my favourites include:
- Crushed black peppercorn and English mustard powder rub with a low fat crème fraiche mixed with grated horseradish dressing. Serve with fresh, mixed leaves.
- Crushed fennel seed and pink peppercorn rub with a classic French dressing. Serve with a fresh celeriac remoulade.
- Crushed cumin seed and chilli flake rub with an extra virgin oil dressing. Serve with roasted baby beets.
- Crushed Szechuan pepper and Chinese five spice rub drizzled with a soy, toasted sesame oil, lime, honey and chilli dressing. Serve with shredded white cabbage and carrot.
- Thyme leaf and crushed clove and star anise rub with an extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. Serve with red cabbage for an ideal Christmas starter.
Slow cooked venison chilli
From an almost no cook carpaccio to a slow cook. One of my favourites for those long off days before home working when I commuted up to Pall Mall was venison chilli. It still has a place on the home menu but rather than putting it on a low setting in a slow cooker for several hours I now just pop it in a low oven or allow it to putter away on the hob for a couple of hours.
Again it‘s one to experiment with, but I just tend to sweat off some roughly chopped red onions in rapeseed oil, once they have started to colour I thrown in some diced venison and allow it to brown before adding some fresh bay leaves, cumin seeds, a chopped red chilli, a whole Scotch Bonnet, a bunch of fresh thyme and a teaspoon of hot, smoked paprika. Then it‘s in with a can of chopped tomatoes, a tablespoon of tomato purée, a handful of celeriac chunks, some carrots – cut on the diagonal – and (the real ‘secret‘) a tablespoon of cacao nibs (a tablespoon of cocoa or a good grating of quality dark chocolate would also suffice). Those Aztecs knew a thing or two about pairing chilli and cocoa!
Check the liquid level occasionally and top up with a little stock, or indeed red wine, if required. To finish off I stir in a can of black or red kidney beans and allow them to warm through before serving with some steaming Basmati.
I think most people are unaware of just how good venison charcuterie is, indeed I suspect there are more than a few who are unaware of its very existence! It is indeed a ‘thing‘ and it is a perfect choice to serve with your pre–dinner nibbles during the festive season.
I like to think Farlows has a small role to play in the production of the UK‘s finest venison charcuterie as it was former Farlows shooting, stalking and country clothing expert, James Smart, who left us back in 2014 to set up his own charcuterie company.
Based near Shaftesbury in North Dorset, The Real Cure uses traditional processes to create a multi-award winning range of British charcuterie, including wild venison salamis and chorizo.
The Real Cure also runs a series of charcuterie making workshops, so if you fancy learning how to create your own then check them out and give it a go. I‘ll certainly be down there catching up with James and doing just that sometime next year.
Venison Scotch Eggs
Scotch eggs have, perhaps surprisingly, found themselves in the headlines and trending on social media recently with ministers claiming, and then denying, and then claiming again, that these delectable comestibles constitute a ‘substantial‘ meal in a pub – allowing you to legally order a drink or two while you eat them, under England‘s current Covid tier restrictions
Some Scotch eggs, and here I am talking pre–packaged, mass–produced supermarket fare, are most certainly not ‘substantial‘ in any way, shape or form. Personally I would go so far as to say these flabby, insipid globes hardly come under the heading of ‘food‘, let alone substantial food.
A homemade Scotch egg, on the other hand, is not just substantial but a snack of exquisite taste and texture and, when prepared with locally–sourced venison instead of the usual sausagemeat, a wonderful gamey treat to enjoy at tea time or in picnic baskets. At this time of year, they make marvellous Christmas canapés too, especially if you substitute the traditional hens‘ eggs for quails‘ eggs.
I made a batch last weekend, before the current fuss kicked off, they were most definitely ‘substantial‘ and warranted an accompanying glass of red wine (Puglian Primitivo) as well as some fiery English mustard and a little homemade plum chutney.
Ian‘s Venison Scotch Eggs Recipe
Makes 4 large eggs
Eggs, 4 large, free–range
Venison, 200g minced (available from Waitrose, or most good butcher‘s)
Breadcrumbs, approximately 200g (I used homemade, but Panko work superbly)
Thyme, 2 tsp of fresh leaves
English mustard powder, 1 tsp
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Plain flour, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, for dusting
Eggs, 2 free–range, beaten
Vegetable oil, for frying
Place the 4 whole eggs in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 5 minutes, no longer.
After 5 minutes, drain the eggs then plunge them into a bowl of iced water to stop them cooking. Once cold, carefully peel and set aside.
While the eggs are cooling, thoroughly mix together the venison mince, mustard powder, thyme leaves and salt and freshly ground black pepper in a large bowl then divide the mixture into 4 separate balls, weighing approximately 50g each.
Place a square of cling film on a work surface, dust it with a little flour, then place a single ball of venison on it. Dust the top of the venison with a little more flour, flatten it slightly, then cover with another square of cling film. Using a rolling pin, gently roll the flattened ball between the sheets of cling film into a rough oval shape, large enough to encase your eggs, roughly 15cm x 10cm. Repeat for each of the balls of venison.
Dust each of the peeled eggs in the seasoned flour, then carefully wrap the venison around each one, moulding them into a smooth, uniform shape. Once all the eggs have been covered with the venison mixture place them in a fridge to chill for 20 minutes.
When the eggs have chilled, preheat a deep-fat fryer or deep pan of oil to 180°C. If you don‘t have a deep–fat fryer or kitchen thermometer, 180°C is when a breadcrumb dropped into the oil sizzles and browns immediately. (Always take care with hot oil, never leave it unattended).
Dip each venison-covered egg in the beaten egg, coating it completely, then roll in the breadcrumbs, ensuring it is completely covered. Repeat this process once more to ensure a thick covering of breadcrumbs, then repeat with the rest of the eggs.
Carefully lower each egg into the hot oil and deep-fry until golden brown and crisp, it should take approximately five minutes.
Lift each egg out with a slotted spoon, drain on kitchen paper and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving warm with your favourite mustards and pickles and, because they are very substantial, you might like to pour yourself a glass of something too…
NB: If you opt to make a quail version, boil the eggs for just two minutes and reduce the quantity of minced venison to suit.