Venison with mushroom sauce.
When I was a teenager, longer ago than I care to remember, I hunted deer each fall with a group of 12 or so men who camped in the vast wooded river bottoms of eastern Arkansas. I have lots of good memories of those times, including many that revolve around camp traditions. A hunter who shot at and missed a deer, for example, could expect to have his shirt-tail cut off. A young nimrod who killed his first deer would be "blooded" by the other camp members.
Another tradition involved the first deer killed each season. That deer was proclaimed to be a "camp deer." The field-dressed animal was hung from a gambrel and skinned, then the hunters removed the choicest cuts of venison — first, the two slender, foot-long tenderloins lying along the backbone inside the body cavity, followed by the two, thick, boneless loins, or backstraps, on the back between the deer's hindquarters and the base of its neck. Tradition dictated that these choice pieces of meat be shared with everyone in camp.
The hunter who killed the deer was usually the one who cooked it as well because everyone else was still hunting. For this reason, the method of cookery varied considerably. At times, the cook used a very simple preparation technique — little medallions of loin battered and fried in a skillet, for example, or a whole loin cooked on a spit over the campfire with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt and pepper. At other times, the backwoods chef fawned over the meal like a caterer cooking for a soiree, whipping up special rubs or sauces to highlight the mild flavor of the venison or using savory cooking methods such as braising, grilling and flambeing.
Regardless of the cooking method, plain or fancy, you could always count on one thing: the venison loin was tender and delicious, and it was gone in the blink of eye. Leftovers were unheard of.
|The loin of a deer lies along the backbone between the hindquarters and shoulders.
The loins are considered the choicest cuts of venison by all wild-game chefs. The muscles from which they are formed lay on each side of the spine. They do little work, so they are the tenderest part of the deer.
When I cook venison loin for dinner guests, I never know who's happier with it -- me or the guests. I like this boneless cut because it is easy to portion, straightforward to prepare and a breeze to carve. My guests love it because it's never tough, always scrumptious and makes every meal seem like a special occasion.
Serving loin has health benefits as well. A 3-ounce serving of venison loin contains 139 calories, 62 grams of cholesterol and 5 grams of fat. A comparable cut of beef has 223 calories, 77 grams of cholesterol and 13 grams of fat.
It's not difficult to remove the loins when butchering a deer. I start with the tenderloins, which I usually remove immediately after field-dressing the animal. These lie adjacent the spine inside the body cavity and taper on both ends from the back of the ribs to the pelvis. They are easily removed with a sharp knife and placed in a plastic bag brought for that purpose. If you wait until the carcass cools, you actually can pull the tenderloins out carefully with your hands.
The loins, or backstraps, are two parallel cylinders of lean muscle lying tight against the backbone on the outside of the deer. To remove them, insert a very sharp knife (I prefer a flexible fillet knife) straight down beside the backbone where it meets the hindquarters, and, progressing toward the deer's head, cut tight along the vertebrae, following the contour of the bone all the way to the base of the neck.
|Pieces of bacon wrapped venison tenderloin slow cooked on a grill.
Next, make a perpendicular cut across the top of the rib cage that meets the initial cut. This should be about four to six inches from the first and as deep as the rib bones. The long strip of muscle between the cuts is the loin. Grasp the upper end (near the hindquarter) of the loin with one hand and carefully slice around it with the knife, separating the loin from the ribs and backbone as you pull downward. With practice, the loins will come out quickly and easily.
I generally leave the smaller tenderloins whole until I'm ready to cook them. If you choose to freeze them, it's best to use a vacuum packer or wrap both pieces in a thick layer of freezer paper and place in a zip-seal bag. Otherwise the cold of the freezer will lessen their quality. A better option is cooking them fresh, not frozen, to make the most of their tenderness and flavor.
While the tenderloins require little trimming, the loins have an outer layer of fat and silverskin (a thin, tough, silvery membrane) that should be removed completely with a sharp knife before the loin is cooked. The loin may be prepared whole, cut in half or thirds, or sliced crosswise into small steaks of a desired thickness. I like to cut mine into inch-thick disks and then butterfly each piece by cutting it about three-quarters of the way through to make it half as thick but wider. These thinner, wider cuts cook more quickly when sauteed in a pan. You also can make a cut halfway through along the length of a whole or half loin, open up the meat and stuff it with various ingredients to make a delicious roast.
About the only way you can ruin venison loin is overcooking it. It's best when cooked rare or medium rare, but if you have finicky guests who insist on having their meat well done, use smaller cuts so they can be cooked to varying degrees of doneness.
There are many recipes for deer meat one can use to bring out the very best in these tender cuts of delicious venison. Here are a few from my home recipe file that are sure to be hit with all who try them.
1. Grilled Rubbed Venison Loin
- 1 whole venison loin
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons dried parsley
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
- 1/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Rub the loin with Worcestershire sauce. Mix all the dry ingredients and rub evenly on the loin. Let stand 30 minutes to 1 hour. Grill over medium heat until done to taste.
2. Herb and Onion Venison Tenderloin
- One 2-1/2-pound venison loin
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 2 cups sliced onions
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
For this recipe, you should use a roasting pan that has a removable cooking rack. Spray the rack with cooking spray.
Cut the loin lengthwise, almost to, but not through, the opposite side. Open the loins so it lies flat and place on the prepared rack in the roasting pan.
Add the vegetable oil to a large, non-stick skillet and heat over medium-high heat.
Saute onions and garlic in the hot oil until tender. Stir in remaining ingredients. Spread onion mixture evenly over the loin, and bake at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes or until the meat is done to taste.
3. Sauteed Deer Medallion Recipe
- 1 pound venison loin or tenderloin, sliced 1-in. thick
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup whole mushrooms
- 1/2 cup Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Pound the loin slices to 3/4 inch thickness with a meat mallet or the flat side of a knife. Season with salt and pepper.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the medallions of meat and sear on each side until browned, about 1 minute on each side. Transfer to a plate.
Add the onion, garlic and mushrooms to the hot skillet and saute until the onions are translucent. Stir in the mustard and sour cream. Mix until smooth and hot. Add cornstarch mixed in enough water to make a thick sauce. Return the venison medallions and simmer until hot.
4. Broiled Venison Loin with Oysters & Bacon
- 2 pounds venison loin, sliced 1-in. thick
- Bacon slices
- 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup fresh oysters
- Chopped fresh parsley
Place the loin cuts in a lightly greased broiler pan, top each piece with a half slice of bacon, and cook 6 inches under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes.
While meat is broiling, melt butter in a small skillet and add garlic and oysters. Saute until the oysters plump, then ladle the oysters over the bacon-covered loin and sprinkle with parsley.
Continue broiling until the edges of the oysters curl, or until done to taste.