Christmas venison

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One of the youngest Salatins on slaughtering day; his job, emptying the crates of live chickens, is done. Chalk one up for country living.

I feel as though I wrestled a beast and won, though this is not entirely true. In fact, for the man who actually did most of the wrestling it is laughable. But it is a first step. And I am celebrating it.

My honey and I were invited to a holiday party in Poolesville last week and while there was much to recommend it – fun, generous people, cozy home, great shepherd’s pie, delicious enchiladas and fine whisky – it was most remarkable for the level of country acumen collected in that kitchen where, just like the old adage, we all gathered. Many of these folks, our host included, know a whole lot about growing and pickling vegetables, raising farm animals – and slaughtering them. Many are also experienced hunters.

One guy told us his friends had bagged four deer earlier in the week – is that right? Can you “bag” a deer, the way you bag a duck? Anyway, Mike went on about the quality of the venison from upper Montgomery County, where Poolesville is located – the deer graze on farmland full of corn and soy so they get nice and fat and flavorful (unlike the scrawny specimens nibbling their way through “downcounty” Sligo Creek Park. Though it should be noted, one downcounty hunter felled a buck in his neighbor’s yard anyway, spurring the predictable outrage in Takoma Park).

Mike had dressed four deer that day, an enormous task when you think about it. Which I did, for about a minute, then stopped. Because that is where the real wrestling lies: killing, then “dressing” a living animal, dressing being an odd term because actually you are undressing it of its animal-ness, and making it into a naked piece meat. For these men, it is part of living in the country. I’m not quite there yet.

But I have taken baby steps to embracing the fact that the meat I eat was alive once. When I stumbled on slaughtering day during a visit to Polyface Farm outside Charlottesville, Va. (for a story about the local food scene there), I loved it. The family had gathered, from Grandma to 6-year-old brother, and the clueless white-feathered birds went so quickly from flapping around in the back of a truck to quietly and inanimately wrapped in cellophane, it felt like processing vegetables for canning. But it is true I did not order chicken at a nearby restaurant that night.

Back in Poolesville, I enthused about the venison, caught up in the spirit of the party. I said things like, “Wow!” and “Four deer in one day!” and “I love venison!” And this generous man offered to share.

What a treat!

But there were a few caveats. Mike, a tall guy with a kind face, a quick laugh and an appetite for beer, explained that this was a big hunk of meat. It was the loin – and he slapped his own hip, several times, to be sure the point was getting across. It might have some hair still stuck to it – not skin, of course, but hair, left from the messy process of butchering. He explained that I’d want to cut the bone away, and the silvery membrane that clings to the outside of the meat.

It’s going to get messy, he warned. I told him no problem. He said get a sharp knife. I said I have one. He said cut close to the bone. I said like filleting a fish? I can fillet a fish. And I felt for a quick second like a capable country man myself, like one of the gang, “Yes! I can dress a fish!”

We talked a bit longer about how to cook the roast, until Mike signaled the conversation was over by telling me there’s always YouTube. My visions of Little House on the Prairie disappeared. But I was still convinced my best source of info on all things venison was Mike, and the others in Poolesville who had cooked deer meat the way I’d cooked stir-fry veggies and rice and beans – about a million times. I vowed not to turn to YouTube, but also stopped asking questions and moved on to other topics, like the bowling game going on at the Wii in the next room.

Later, I looked up recipes in Joy of Cooking and, briefly, online, and then put together my own plan of action. But my best sources were real people: first Mike; then my neighbor who, as we chatted outside my house during his daily dog walk, advised that I be sure the venison didn’t dry out; and, finally, my sister, who has turned countless deer from her hunter husband and sons into family meals – she also stressed the importance of keeping the meat moist, and added that serving it hot is key. Unlike beef fat, venison fat congeals quickly and unappealingly. Ew.

I decided to prepare the venison for Christmas Eve family dinner – my kids, my honey’s kids, my honey and me, a special but low-key meal. The night before, I marinated the meat – a technique suggested by a couple of web sites, and one that sounded like a good idea for tenderizing and flavoring – but the tricky part was that I didn’t remember this step until 11:30 p.m., after another late-night holiday party. But this was part of the adventure! Wrestling the beast into submission!

So  after my honey had gone to bed and while the children were still out playing with friends (no nestled all snug in their beds for them), I took the beast out of the extra refrigerator I am so thankful to have in our basement (otherwise, where do you put a whole loin of deer – tap your own hip here?).

It wasn’t so messy, really. There were a few weird, coagulated-looking blobs tucked into the curvy bits, but for the most part it was a smooth, very big hunk of meat. I found the bone and cut it out, as instructed. I peeled back the silvery part. I cut it into two roasts, trying to visualize serving-sized slices to determine how much each person would eat, remembering it might shrink as it roasted (but shrink less than a beef roast, I’d been told). I froze one roast for later, then tucked the other into a Ziploc bag swimming in red wine and half as much olive oil, an entire bulb of crushed garlic, a big handful of dried sage from last year’s garden and a spoonful of dried thyme.  Then I put it in the frig and went to bed.

As it turns out, all that advice paid off. Before the roast went in the oven, I seared it to seal in moisture. I placed a loose tent of foil over it and put a little water in the pan, to keep it from drying out, and I added quartered onions for flavor. I started it at 400 and then immediately turned the temperature down to 325 to cook it slowly, for two hours. I based the time on my estimate of its weight, since I don’t have a kitchen scale – it weighed a little less than a five-pound bag of sugar.

I held my breath when I sliced it, and had my own private moment of “hooray!” when it looked exactly as I wanted it – pink, but not too pink; firm, but not tough. Then I tasted it: perfect.

I am grateful for all the advice. I am grateful this bit of country living made it into my suburban kitchen. And I am grateful to this upper Montgomery County deer for one of the most outstanding Christmas Eve meals ever.

Amen.

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