Grilled Venison Salad

The dirt two track waDad Looking For Deers dusty and headed southeast toward a rock out-cropping known as the Rooster Comb. Under the shade of a few junipers and desert sage was the flicker of ears. Dad and I froze, we had been gabbing it up for most of the walk and now were busted. This was an unexpected place to find a group of four feeding does in the middle of the day, but hunting is all about broken expectations.

The does pulled the classic mule deer move – if I don’t move they won’t see me. Well, it wasn’t working out for them. We both nocked arrows and began to position ourselves for shots. Keeping one eye on the deer and the other on the dusty road, I placed each step carefully as to limit sound and to keep the deer as calm as possible. Dad found a shot before I did, I watched him pull back on a large doe. With a quick aim he let fly.

An audible crack came after the shot. I wasn’t sure if it was deer bone or stick. I was focused on my animals. A yearling and a doe had started to circle back on our position. I shadowed them through the head tall sage. The deer finally took note of me and stopped – they were at 12 yards.

I pulled up my longbow looking for a shot. But all they deer gave me were buts and heads. They were pulling the “looking over the back” move that so many archers hate. I momentarily considered a Texas Heart Shot on the big doe, wondering just how far my arrow would travel. Hunting ethics took over, a blessing from my father and other hunting role models in my life. I didn’t shoot, but my hands were shaking like a 13 year old boy at a Jr. High dance, just hoping and waiting for things to work out in my favor.

I let my bow down and watched as the deer wandered out to 35 yards before turning broadside. At that range, I just stood and admired the pair. My effective range is 25 yards. Then the deer simply vanished into the cover.

My dad had cleanly killed a small juniper with his arrow. I found him, Leatherman in hand, digging out his broad head from the tree, his wooden arrow shaft in several sections on the ground. The cracking noise was a broken arrow shaft, apparently. We laughed, sat down in the shade and began to glass the hill over for more deer.

A few draws over my older brother had arrowed a little forked horn buck and was making his way back to camp. His 6 year old daughter had spotted the deer off the trail and selected the one for my brother to shoot. “That one Daddy!” she whispered. We had the deer tracked, gutted and hung in an hour.

That archery season I never flung an arrow. But I still feel successful.

Archery hunting feeds the soul, not necessarily the stomach. Each year archery season tunes me back into the inner workings of terrestrial nature. I get the hunters eye that I lost, often because of a fishing line, in full force. While archery season is almost never successful (I can only count 3 wild pigs and a few rabbits over the course of 20 years) often my best campfire stories come from ones that got away while I had my bow in hand.

I have shot only three arrows at deer in my adult life. All have been clean misses, and in my world that is as good as a clean hit. My shots provided a little education for a small buck and a few does.

When riffle season finally arrives I feel like a superhero. I have an unfathomable amount of power and effective range at my control. Finally, deer are within my reach. Sure, my selections and opportunities are much more limited (bucks only, normally). But I can shoot! Out to several hundred yards! The feeling of supremacy is overwhelming. But the thrill of stalking game is lessend – the difference between getting within 20 yards and 200 yards is huge.

In some ways archery season more natural and spiritual hunting, while riffle season is more about meat collection.

Field Care for Archery Season

More important than shooting during archery season is what you do after the shot. September is still a warm month for the Northwest, averaging about 76 degrees for a daytime high. The low is an average of 49 degrees. Above about 55 degrees meat is no longer being aged, it is rotting. (I have hunted opening day for mule deer with a daytime high of 101 degrees)

Several precautions should be taken to help stop rot. The first one is ethics – don’t shoot unless you are certain of a clean kill. Now I know that shit happens and bad shots happen. Choose carefully and find the deer quickly after the shot, if possible. The longer an animal has its guts on the inside of it the more likely it is to turn bad. Remember that temperature is the issue – waiting the animal out is perfectly fine if it is cold out! But in the summer archery season it is just a bad idea to try and find the animal “in the morning”.

Even after a quick recovery getting the meat cool is vital. Skin and gut the animal immediately. Get the meat onto ice if possible. If not on ice then get it to the coldest place you can manage. Down by a creek, in the shade or even in a cave if possible. Don’t stay an extra day in camp and skip out on the ice, get the meat cold then kick back and drink a brew around the fire.

Citric acid, the stuff you use for canning tomatoes, will help prevent rot. Basically the citric acid is changing the pH of the outside of the meat, making it less hospitable for bacterial growth. I have only used this one time on a backcountry hunt, it seemed to help but I made sure to cut away all acid treated meat before butchering. I much prefer to get meat cold.

The Food –

Pan Roasted Venison Steak with Watermelon, Corn and Zucchini Salad and Brown Butter Sage Vinaigrette

So the crazy part about September archery season is that is it still summer! Hunting is done while the garden is still growing like crazy. Tomatoes, watermelon and corn are all in large supply. Like they say “if it grows together is goes together.” That same principle applies for hunting and harvesting of produce.

This recipe uses fall flavors on summer ingredients, to a surprising affect in my opinion. Butter and sage, staples for butternut squash and halibut are added to watermelon and zucchini. It is a combination of sweet and savory that works great. Feel free to kick it up a notch with a little red chili flake if desired. Then you have the trifecta of flavor – sweet, heat and savory.

Brown Butter and Sage Vinaigrettevenison salad

¼ Cup Unsalted Butter

20 sage leaves

1 ea Garlic Clove, crushed

¼ cup balsamic Vinegar

½ cup Canola Oil

¼ cup Parmesan Cheese, Shredded

Salt and Pepper

Add the cold butter to a medium sized saute pan. Heat pan on medium until all the butter is melted. Add the sage and turn heat to medium high, the pan will spit a little oil out on you. Be careful.

Wait and watch the butter, it should be turning brown in about a minute. Add the crushed garlic when the butter is brown in color and has a nutty smell. Next add the balsamic and the canola oil to the hot pan. This will cause some aggressive boiling, do NOT inhale the fumes. It will be a vinegar bomb like none other. Next add the parmesan cheese to the pan, then add all to a blender and puree until smooth. About 1 minute. Season and reserve but do not chill

The Meat and Veg

2 each large Venison Steaks, about 8oz each

Salt and Pepper

1 Tablespoon Butter

1 small zucchini, cut into large chunks

1.5 cups cubed watermelon

1 ear of corn, removed from cob

2 cups Lambs Quarter, or Spinach

Rinse and wipe out the same medium pan you made the brown butter dressing in. Season the venison steaks with salt and pepper. Add the butter to the pan and return to medium heat. When butter is melted but not yet brown add the steaks to the pan. Cook until dark brown on one side, then flip over and cook until blood begins to rise to the surface of the steak. This should be about medium rare.

Remove the meat from the pan and add the zucchini chunks. Cook until golden on one side, flip and add the watermelon and corn.

While those are cooking add the lambs quarter or spinach to a medium salad bowl. Add 3 tablespoons brown butter sage dressing. Cook the watermelon and corn for one more minute and then add to the mixing bowl. Toss all the vegetables.

Next slice the steak. Pile the salad and gently dump onto a plate. Place the sliced steak on the top. Eat and enjoy!

The Best Backstrap Ever…

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Much love and come back soon! 

My whole life one creature has reigned supreme in the diet of my family, the Mule Deer. I have consumed more mule deer meat than any other wild game animal, by a long shot. Taco meat, hamburgers, meat loaf, stuffed peppers – all using venison. Don’t forget the steaks, the roasts and stews. Mule deer is a very known quantity in my house.

As such I fantasize about other deer meat, mostly elk. But it has been told to me, over the years, that whitetail deer meat is the bee’s knees. Yet, I somehow have escaped eating whitetail for my whole life, not to my knowledge has whitetail meat ever passed over my lips. I have this belief that eating it will somehow make me a convert and I will never mule deer hunt again for meat. It scares me. I am not against sitting in tree stands looking down but I like spot and stalk hunting too much!

But in the fall of 2012 I was given, as Dr. James Swan puts it in his famous book In Defense of Hunting, the sacrament of wild game meat. My buddy, Leon Reams, handed me a back-strap from a button buck whitetail he had taken in northern Idaho. He exalted the qualities of the meat to me, the tenderness, the flavor, ect. I argued that a young mule deer would taste just as good. We did not see eye to eye on the topic.

I decided, then and there, that I needed to settle this whitetail vs mule deer edibility discussion. As a chef that does frequent product demonstrations I have developed the ability to blind “cut” products against each other with relative ease.

However, to properly compare the meats I needed a similar piece of mule deer back strap. Cutting a button buck whitetail against an old and sage brush fed mule deer was a not fair comparison. Conveniently, I tagged out on a spike mule deer that was living in my uncles corn field.

Full disclosure time, I was actually duck hunting when my buck jumped up at about 4 yards from me, my son and my dog. He did not make it past 5 yards. Size two steel at that range is lethal to just about anything. This buck is known around the house as “the duck buck.”

With my battling back straps in the freezer I needed to set up a panel of judges to compare the meat. I figured the panel should be a diverse group of individuals. Hunters, non-hunters, foodies ect.

First on my list is a friend and fellow writer Guy Hand. Guy is the former food critic for the Idaho Statesman, a radio show host for a program called “Edible Idaho” and is now the editor for Edible Idaho South Magazine. The second person on my panel was Ryan McDaniel; a fellow hunter and best man in my wedding. Third was Bowhunter Sean Cook, a backcountry bull buster. Fourth was Karin Raffo a wild game novice but huge foodie. Fifth was Kelly Grindstaff the Executive Chef of Red Fish Lake Lodge.

Each team member was given a sheet with a grading scale from 1-10 on the following areas – appearance, color, smell, texture, taste, “game” flavor and overall impression. A notes section was also provided.

The comparison was blind, none of the participants knew if the meat was whitetail or if it was mule deer until the tasting was finished (well, Sean knew the difference. A lifetime of eating both whitetail and mule deer gave it away. He kept quite about it, however.) The meat was pan roasted in canola oil and only seasoned with salt and pepper. Each loin was served at medium rare. The meat was served hot, side by side, allowing a direct comparison between the meats.

This all seamed quasi-scientific enough to settle the debate for me, for now.

The Results –

The long and short of it is the whitetail we ate was better tasting than the “Duck Buck” mule deer. My worst nightmare had come true. I could find a better meat but I would have to leave the high dessert that I often hunted. It is time to venture into the forest. Maybe even sit in a tree stand, but I am afraid of heights.

In almost every category the whitetail measured higher than the mule deer. The only time that the mule deer performed better than the whitetail was when overcooked. Below is a breakdown of the scoring for each animal.

Mule Deer Whitetail
Appearance 8.2 8.2
Color 7.8 8
Smell 6 7.4
Texture 6 9.2
Taste 6.2 9.4
“Game” 6 6.4
Overall 6.4 9
Overcooked 5.6 5
Average   Score 6.53 7.98

Most notably was the comparison of textures of the whitetail meat vs the mule deer. It was common consensus that the whitetail had a much finer grain to the meat and that finer grain meant a tenderer chew. The mule deer had longer and tougher strands that Ryan McDaniel noted “are ideal for longer cook times, like braising or stews.”

Chef Grindstaff thought that the whitetail was definitely a better “introductory” deer meat than mule deer. He noted that whitetail was more like a meat he would want to serve in his restaurant and is better suited for medium rare cooking than the mule deer.

Across the board whitetail was considered better meat for the table. It really was the Bee’s Knees of small deer meat. Next cutting – elk vs moose. (Anyone have any moose meat I could cook?)

The Perfect Backstrap (Whitetail or Mule Deer)

1ea 12oz section of back strap

Kosher Salt

Fresh Cracked Pepper

1 T canola oil

1ea Digital or Probe Meat Thermometer

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To get a tender and juicy backstrap I recommend that most home cooks stop cutting it into steaks. Cook it like a roast and then slice it into medallions. One whole chunk of meat will holds its moisture better even if it is slightly overcooked. A single steak that is over cooked basically becomes a hockey puck.

To increase the tenderness of a backstrap make sure to completely peel off any silver skin with a sharp tipped knife. Slid the knife directly under the silver skin and then turn the blade up at about a 20 degree angle, slide the knife under the sliver skin leaving meat behind. (See photo) Removing the silver will increase the tenderness and palatability.

After peeling a little salt and pepper might be all the meat will need before cooking. Rub salt liberally over the meat and then use fresh cracked pepper, not the fine ground stuff they sell in tins at the grocery store. Salt and pepper enhance flavor for most cuts of meat, use them liberally.

Heat a medium sized oven proof sauté pan on medium high for about 3 minutes. Add the canola oil, the oil should almost be smoking, and brown the backstrap on all sides. Place the pan and the backstrap into the oven.

Depending on the size of the deer killed the amount of cooking time will vary each time. That said the meat should be cooked to temperature and not time anyway. Heat the meat, via the oven, until it is 115 degrees F on the thickest part.

When it reaches that temperature remove the pan from the oven and transfer the meat to a plate. Let the meat “rest” for about 5 minutes before slicing. This will allow the juices to settle and gives much moister piece of meat. Resting the meat will also allow for what is called Carry Over Cooking. Meat does not stop cooking immediately when it comes out of the oven, on average it gains 17-22% more degrees. So a backstrap removed at a rare temperature, ie 115 F, will finish cooking itself after a few minutes out of the oven to about 125 F, a perfect medium rare.

Slice the backstrap into ½ inch medallions and serve with your favorite side dishes.

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