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When it comes to your feel-good foods, it doesn’t get any more organic or free range than wild venison, or deer meat. If you hunt, or you're at least lucky enough to have a generous hunter in your life, you already know that this red meat can be tasty as a roast, a steak, stir-fry, meatballs, burgers, sausages and more — just as long as you cook it properly.

“Deer meat is a delicacy that people will talk up a storm about but not eat much of,” wrote Walter Jetton in his 1965 book, Walter Jetton’s LBJ Barbecue Cookbook. “The reason for this is that they don’t know how to cook it.” Jetton was a frequent caterer at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch in Stonewall, TX, which is now a national historical park. And, while beef was his literal stock-in-trade, he’d occasionally serve venison, always properly tenderized. Or, in his slightly antiquated parlance, nursed: “Like all wild game, venison is going to be tough and stringy, and if you start cooking it over the fire without nursing it quite a bit first, it will be about as tender and appetizing as a dry board, which few people have any natural taste for.”

Jetton recommended a long, slow brisket-like braise for a venison roast, followed by a quick visit to the grill. Roast cuts, from the animal’s front shoulder area, tend to be among the toughest, but break down nicely under Jetton’s method. Or, when cut into chunks, they make a fine venison bourguignon. Shoulder meat can be sliced thin for venison jerky, or ground to make burgers, sausages and the like. Many cooks choose to add some fat to improve the texture and flavor.

“It's important to remember that wild animals are very, very lean; they don't stand around accumulating intra-muscular fat,” says Andria Bilich, who hunts and field-dresses deer near Boulder, CO. “We add pork fat while grinding venison. Without it, the ground meat tends to cook up too lean.” Deborah Hammons, who hunts deer and elk with her husband in Wyoming’s Shirley Mountains, makes venison bratwurst using pork fat, and adds beef suet to her venison sausage and jerky recipes. If you’re starting with ground venison to which no fat has been added, a few strips of bacon, cut into small pieces, or a few tablespoons of rendered lard, will contribute substantially to the flavor and browning of your cooked meat.

Of course, there’s more to a deer than the front shoulder. And, among the hunters I polled, there was clear consensus about the best bits.

“As my grandfather would say, the back straps are considered ‘cherse’,” says Bert Bonassin, who hunts deer in central Texas. As the name suggests, the coveted back straps run along the top of the animal’s spine.

“We worship the almighty backstrap, and the tenderloin,” says Hank Shaw, a chef and cookbook author whose award-winning blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, details his quest to hunt, fish and/or raise nearly all the food his Sacramento, CA, household consumes. “Those are the most tender sections, the ribeye of the deer,” says Shaw. And, as such, they can be quickly grilled or pan-seared to medium-rare. Shaw also makes osso buco from venison shanks, cooks the ribs like beef short ribs and makes haggis with the liver, heart and lungs. Moreover, he uses the caul fat for crepinettes and refers to the tongue sandwich recipe in April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig as a jumping-off point for his corned venison tongue recipe. Kyle Upton, who hunts deer outside of Richmond, VA, to fill his freezer, says he’s squeamish about the offal. But, if he’s successful in bagging an animal this fall, he'll cook the liver and heart for his Labrador retriever, who assists during the duck hunting season.

I grew up eating venison, wild ducks and geese, turkey and lake fish, thanks to my father, who hunts and fishes in Central New York State and continues to pass along packets of his kills and catches. In developing the recipe below, I pulled a package of reasonably tender boneless top sirloin steaks from the freezer. But, because of the long marinating time, you could also use a roast cut. And, if you don’t have a generous hunter in your life, there are a growing number of deer farms in the United States, along with Broken Arrow Ranch, purveyors of free range venison, and high-end retailers like D’Artagnan and Citarella, whose venison is inevitably shipped from New Zealand.

Spicy Venison And Cabbage Tacos

Ingredients:
1 1/2 pounds venison top sirloin steak, cut into ¼-inch thick strips
¾ cup whole milk yogurt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sriracha or other hot sauce (optional)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2/3 cup peanut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ large onion, peeled and finely chopped
¼ cup sherry vinegar
4 cups shredded cabbage
Coarsely chopped dill fronds
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Corn tortillas
Sour cream to taste

Directions:

  1. In a non-reactive bowl, combine the meat with the yogurt, olive oil, sriracha and garlic. Mix well to combine, transfer to a ziplock bag and refrigerate 12 hours or overnight.
  2. Let the meat come to nearly room temperature. In a wok or tall-sided, heavy bottomed frying pan, heat the peanut oil until it is nearly smoking. Shake the excess marinade from the meat and carefully add it to the hot oil, working in batches if necessary. Cook quickly on all sides, about 45 seconds to 1 minute maximum. Remove meat with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. When all the meat has been cooked, pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of the oil and return the pan to the heat. Add the onions and cook over medium heat while scraping the bottom of the pan to dislodge the browned bits. Deglaze with the vinegar, then add the cabbage and dill. Stir well to evenly coat the cabbage with oil, season with salt and cook until the cabbage is tender, about 7 minutes.
  4. Return the meat to the pan to warm through. Toast tortillas on an open flame, and serve the tacos immediately, with extra red pepper flakes and sour cream to taste. Serves 4 to 6.

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