I’m violating my own idea of a gratin here. Mine is of a shallow vegetable dish with a light topping of breadcrumbs, fine breadcrumbs. Maybe cheese in the topping or sauce. Still, this venison gratin, as I’m calling it, is shallow, made in a cast iron skillet. The crumb topping, however, is rougher, more rustic, almost like those leftover stuffing toppings you make after the holidays. I think I could have kept the food processor going longer for a finer crumb, but I guess I was in a rustic mood. So, like I said in the title, do you have any leftover garlic bread? With the flavors of your garlic bread already in place—garlic, olive oil or butter, herbs, and maybe some Parmesan—you have the makings of a flavorful topping for a gratin.
Preheat oven to 350º; if using a separate casserole dish, butter the dish. A large (12″) cast iron skillet works great because you can cook the filling in it and then pop it in the oven with the crumb topping on.
1 lb venison cut in 1/2″ cubes
1 medium onion cut in small dice
1-2 cups mushrooms (I used cremini) cut in small dice (so your picky eaters won’t pick them out)
2 large carrots cut in 1/2″ dice
olive oil for browning meat and vegetables
2 cups broth (I used beef)
beurre manié of 4 tablespoons butter and 4 tablespoons flour
leftover garlic bread, pulsed in food processor
olive oil or melted butter to moisten crumbs
Basically, I prepared a little stew, then topped it with the crumbs and browned it in the oven.
Add 1-2 tablespoons oil to a hot skillet and brown the venison over medium-high heat. Remove to a platter.
Add onions and mushrooms to the hot skillet and continue to cook until lightly browned.
Return venison to the skillet with the carrots. Add the broth. Cover and simmer until the meat is tender, about 30 minutes.
Over medium heat, stir in the beurre manié until distributed. Continue to stir until the broth is thickened. Remove from the heat.
Moisten your garlic bread crumbs with olive oil or butter, just enough to lightly moisten without becoming oily.
Sprinkle the crumbs over the top all the way to the edge.
Bake in oven for about 15-20 minutes until lightly browned.
The first dish from the buck my husband harvested this fall.
This lasagna is a tale of two sauces—a bolognese ragù and béchamel. Neither sauce is difficult to make and the ragù in particular can be made the day or evening before to simplify the final dish preparation. This lasagna doesn’t require all the cheese (ricotta and mozzarella) of typical lasagna recipes, just finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano on each layer, so that the result is a lasagna that is not quite as filling—and by filling, I mean overfilling. You can certainly use the ragù in a typical cheesy lasagna, but I think the béchamel would be overpowered by all that cheese. Ordinarily, I would add cream and butter to a bolognese ragù after the long simmer, but felt that the layers of béchamel provided the necessary creaminess to the dish.
Two things I did differently:
In addition to using venison instead of lean beef or veal, I used ground, smoked, thick-sliced bacon instead of the traditional pancetta, which is not smoked. The smoky bacon adds another layer of flavor, and the venison can handle it. The bacon happens to be from a local company that provides the hot dogs and kielbasa to Heinz Field, Smith Provision, and it’s a really flavorful bacon.
I used some of my frozen tomato sauce made from our summer garden tomatoes. It’s a thick sauce made from roasting tomatoes, carrots, garlic, and onion, so it is already flavored with some of the final sauce ingredients, but since my sauce has been blended, you still need the chopped vegetables in this ragù.
I used fresh pasta sheets available at my grocery to construct the lasagna; you don’t need to boil them first as they cook in the casserole to just the right tenderness—just make sure you have plenty of sauce to cover.
Note about salt: There are lots of ways to get too much salt into this dish. There is salt in each sauce, your chicken stock may be salted, the bacon may be salty, and authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is salty. Personally, I would leave out any extra salt in the ragù. Taste as you go along.
Preheat oven to 375° when ready to construct the dish.
Bolognese Ragù Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil (or more)
3 cloves garlic, minced
about 1 cup celery heart, center ribs with leaves, finely chopped
about 1 cup finely chopped carrot
about 1 cup medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 pound smoked bacon, coarsely ground
1 pound ground venison
1 pound ground pork
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup red wine
2 cups thick tomato sauce (or crushed tomatoes or tomato paste with more chicken stock)
salt & pepper to taste (careful with the salt—see the note above)
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 cups milk (I used lactose-free whole milk)
fresh pasta sheets to make at least 5 layers in a 13″ x 9″ dish
about 2 cups finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Prepare the meat sauce, which needs to simmer for about two hours.
In a large straight-sided skillet (often called a chicken fryer) sauté the garlic, onion, carrot, and celery in olive oil until the vegetables are translucent. Remove vegetables to a dish while browning the meats, which you can’t do well in a pan of vegetables.
In the same pan, using more olive oil if needed, brown the ground bacon. Add the ground venison and ground pork, breaking it all up and cooking until browned and cooked through, about 15 minutes.
Return the sautéed vegetables to the pan. Stir in the parsley, chicken stock, red wine, and tomato sauce (or whatever tomato product you are using).
Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. I’m sure this is a sauce that could be made in a slow cooker, too.
When the meat sauce is about done, make the béchamel sauce.
In a large saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter.
Stir in the flour and seasoning, stirring until all the flour is combined with the butter and there are no lumps.
Slowly stir in the milk, stirring constantly with a large wooden spoon or whisk. Some people like to scald the milk first in the microwave, but I find that unnecessary—maybe it quickens the thickening. Continue stirring over medium heat until thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon. Remove from heat.
Construct the lasagna. Butter a 13″ x 9″ baking dish.
Using a large ladle, lightly cover the bottom of the dish with béchamel sauce.
Arrange your uncooked pasta sheets over the béchamel. You don’t need to cover every inch of the pan, as the pasta will swell a little on absorbing the sauces. I trimmed my sheets to fit in two large squares on each layer, but your sheets may be more narrow than mine.
Top each layer of pasta with enough meat sauce to cover all the edges. Then add a layer of béchamel. Finish with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Repeat until you reach the top of the dish, ending with the sauces and cheese. Mine came all the way to the top with 5 layers, and while a little bubbled over, most of it was absorbed by the pasta.
Bake at 375° for about 40 minutes. Place a sheet pan on a lower oven rack to catch any spills. The finished lasagna should be browned and bubbly.
Let rest a little before cutting into large squares.
A quick look through venison recipes on the web shows me that a lot of cooks don’t know the difference between the backstrap and the tenderloin, and they are quite different, even though both are prized tender cuts. Some people don’t know the difference, even if they hunt their own deer, because they send it off to a deer processor instead of butchering it themselves. Deer processor practices vary and you can’t always make specific suggestions to the butcher about the cuts you want. Sometimes they are so overwhelmed with deer in hunting season that you just take it in and get back what everyone gets back. Sometimes the cuts are mislabeled and the package might say backstrap but it is really the tenderloins, because the backstrap has been cut into chops with the bone attached. Maybe some processors just think you won’t know the difference (?).
The backstraps run down the back of the animal next to the spine and are quite a bit longer than the tenderloins that run next to the spine on the inside of the animal cavity. We always cut the backstrap into two pieces, just because it is so long and would be hard to cook in most kitchen pans. Cut in half, they are about the length of a tenderloin, depending on the size of the deer.
This is the last bit of venison from the white-tailed deer I took in this past fall’s muzzleloader season, and I saved it because I knew we were going to get a charcoal grill. This backstrap is fairly small, as the deer was young, a young button buck, but it will be enough for the two of us. All the meat from that young deer has been very good, so, again, I thank you, little deer for the meat.
I know there are all kinds of marinades and rubs that I could use, but I think I’m just going to go with olive oil and lots of kosher salt and cracked black pepper, because it doesn’t need to be gilded with other flavors to be good. The backstrap will cook very quickly over direct heat, because you really only need to char the outside and keep it rare-medium rare inside. Grilling the vegetables will take more work and time.
That was the last package of venison cubes from my fall muzzleloader deer. All the ground meat is gone, too. There is one package of backstrap left and maybe I will save it for the grill if this winter will ever end. Thank you little deer for feeding us this winter.
These skewers would be good for an appetizer or as the main meat dish. Serving size depends on the purpose as well as the size of each skewer. I think I put about 6-8 small cubes on each skewer. I don’t know if you can tell from the photos, but we cut our cubes on the small side, around an inch. I cooked them in the oven, but they would be great on the grill.
Servings: 1-3 skewers per person, depending on size and purpose
In mixing bowl, coat venison cubes with dry rub and set aside while soaking the skewers.
Soak wooden skewers in water for thirty minutes while venison is marinating in dry rub.
Skewer the venison according to your desired portion size and place on baking sheet.
My small cubes were done in about 10 minutes. Larger cubes will obviously take longer, but you need to gauge your desired doneness, as well. Venison is very lean and you don’t want it to dry out. If you are using beef cubes from a cut like chuck, you can cook them longer without that fear. I might add oil to the dry rub if cooking on a grill or at least oil the grill grate.