I received a text from my sister-in-law, Kaila, that went something like this:
“I have local (holler!) deer meat. What are your thoughts? I’m intimidated by it because I see the cute doe and its family roaming around our back yard. Do you want some?”
“I’m game!” I replied (get it??). Seeing as my sister-in-law lives less than half a mile from me, I walked over to claim a portion.
After chatting with Kaila and trying not to squeeze my new niece’s adorably over-sized cheeks too hard, I headed home with a plastic container full of ground venison. The venison came from New Jersey, where Kaila’s uncle hunts and processes the meat every year. I’ve only eaten venison once before, so I was excited to try a truly local delicacy.
As I strolled home, I noticed the heavy tree line adjacent to the walking path had been thinned. With all the scrub and brush cleared, I could easily see into the woods even as night settled over the neighborhood. Being able to see all the shadows and tree shapes made my already dark walk home feel even more sinister, so I began to power walk. But the cracking sound of twigs and the soft rustling of dried leaves stopped me in my tracks. Squinting through the darkness, I was surprised by what I saw.
Six pairs of deer eyes. Looking at me, questioning me, accusing me.
So I took this picture.
After my photo op, I picked up the pace. I’m sure those deer tiptoed from tree to tree, cartoon style, as they eyed the contents of my plastic container–their fallen comrade. I imagined the deer plotting an all-out assault on my house, enlisting help from squirrels and birds, so I tried to lose them by crossing the street.
Safely at home, I placed my precious cargo in the fridge and immediately looked up recipes for something I’ve been dying to make – Shepherd’s Pie. Traditionally made with lamb, I thought venison would be a deliciously local and lean substitute.
I whipped this up quickly with carrots and potatoes from my CSA, frozen corn (blanched and frozen this summer), and one non-local cheat: frozen peas from the grocery store (but Shepherd’s Pie MUST have peas). The venison was perfect in this pie; its flavor earthy and rich, but not at all “gamey.”
I’d make it again if I could get my hands on more of Kaila’s ground venison, but next time I’ll be sure to take the car over.
Local Venison Shepherd’s Pie
(adapted from Alton Brown’s recipe)
For the potatoes:
4 large Yukon Gold potatoes (or other potatoes)
1/4 cup half and half
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the venison filling:
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, chopped
4 carrots, peeled and diced on the small side (I didn’t peel mine because they are delicious and farm fresh just as they are)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/4 pounds ground venison
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried rosemary leaves, crushed (or 2 teaspoons fresh if you have it)
2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme leaves
1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn
1/2 cup fresh or frozen sweet peas
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2 inch cube. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Set over high heat, cover, bring to a boil. Once boiling, uncover, decrease heat to a simmer and cook until tender, approximately 15 minutes (you can prepare the filling while the potatoes are cooking). Place the half and half and butter in the microwave until heated through, about 30 seconds. Drain the potatoes and return them to the saucepan. Mash them a bit and then add the half and half, butter, salt and pepper and continue to mash until smooth.
While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the filling. Place the oil into a large saute pan and set over medium high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and carrots. Saute just until they begin to take on color, approximately 4 minutes. Add the garlic and stir to combine. Add the venison, salt, pepper, and smoked paprika. Cook until the venison is browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle the meat with flour and toss to coat, continuing to cook for another minute. Add the chicken broth, Worcestershire, rosemary, thyme and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer slowly 10 to 12 minutes until sauce is thickened slightly.
Add the corn and peas to the venison mixture and spread evenly into a 11 by 7 inch glass baking dish.
Top with the mashed potatoes and spread evenly over the filling. Place on a half sheet pan on the middle rack of the oven (to catch any bubble over). Bake for 25 minutes or just until the potatoes begin to brown. Remove from oven and allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.