What is the perfect meal? Honestly, it’s an unanswerable question. One moment it might be a big slice of pepperoni pizza; another it’s a steaming bowl of grits, sweetened with butter and honey. Perfection is a matter of the moment and is very much in the eye of the eater. But no matter what your taste buds might be telling you at the moment, there are a few basic guidelines to follow when crafting the perfect meal.
First, you’ve got to pick a side. I like to choose sides that bounce flavors off each other, so if there is an element in the main dish you can carry over to the side dish, that’s always optimal. If you’re cooking pheasant with a side that utilizes barley, for instance, I’d use a barley flour to bread the pheasant. Even if it’s at an unconscious level, it connects the two components of the meal and will make more sense to your palate.
Another great example is using the same type of fat in the main dish as the side. If you cook with a sunflower oil, use the same oil as an ingredient in your salad dressing to provide continuity. With something like venison, it’s knowing wild rice and American wild game are a match made in heaven. The flavors marry well and you can’t go wrong; it’s always a go-to pairing.
Lastly, I would recommend using seasonal side dishes. If it’s August and you’re serving asparagus, I know something is wrong with the dish—it just doesn’t make as much sense. Serve asparagus in springtime when it’s fresh and local; the meal will make more sense that way.
Build the Right Salad
The salad is often a component of the meal that’s thrown together with little to no thought, but that’s a mistake. There really is a difference between a thoughtful salad and an afterthought. First, it needs to have balance. A hunk of iceberg lettuce with a mangled cucumber is not a salad—it’s a tragedy on a plate.
A great, simple way to achieve this balance is to start with the bagged salads at your grocery store, preferably a green salad with romaine. You can add as you like—I often use sorrel leaves—but this is a fantastic starting point. The secret is to add the stuff on top of your salad later, and don’t overdo it with dressing.
Follow this regimen: oil, toss, salt, toss, then acid (vinegar). With your dressing, the key is to add a little at a time until the leaves are just coated. Salads are mixed in a giant bowl, so if you get too much dressing it will collect in the bowl and not on your plate.
Pairing With Wine or Beer
This all depends on your mood and location. A general rule I always follow is not to pair a vinegar dish with wine because the acid in the vinegar will compete with the wine. So if I’m serving a salad with vinegar dressing, I’ll either not serve wine at that point in the meal or I’ll serve bread first and then wine.
As for the wine itself, you can’t go wrong with a French wine like a Cotes Du Rhone blend. There are quite a few to choose from and they’re generally money with wild game. Pinot Noir is another great choice, while a Cabernet Sauvignon goes well with something thick like venison or bear. If it’s a pheasant dish, I’d go with a white wine or even an oaky chardonnay. The oft maligned Merlot goes well with game, too. It’s like a blanket—a true comfort wine.
For me, the beer selection is also a seasonal choice. If it’s the dead heat of summer, I’ll stick with a Grain Belt or Miller High Life—something light like a pilsner. If it’s cold out, I’ll take a Guinness or another malty beer. Beers like that typically go well with game, too, so a porter, brown ale, scotch ale or red ale are all great choices.
If you’re going the spicy food route—like Thai Red Curry Duck or Pheasant Buffalo Wings—I’d stick with an India Pale Ale (IPA) or a Belgian beer. IPAs were developed as super hoppy beers that wouldn’t spoil on the journey from India to England, and because of that region they pair well with spicy food.
For the post meal or dessert drink, I almost always prefer a Cognac or an Armagnac brandy. Cognac is the pricier version, but Armagnac is a great option at a more reasonable price. Scotch is always an awesome choice, especially The Balvenie or Oban. As for Irish whiskeys, Redbreast is particularly awesome.
If I’ve absolutely eaten too much and feel like dying, there’s an Italian drink, grappa, that is essentially like human Drano. One shot is like jet fuel that cleans you out real well—and it does make you feel better.
Practice What You Preach
For most big game hunters, one of our most memorable meals begin with the backstrap. This dish is a great example of what happens when you apply these basic guidelines for the perfect meal. How it is cooked is up to you: You eat this most wonderful part of the deer as you would a steak, hopefully somewhere between rare and medium. For me, it’s medium rare. And while I’ll admit sometimes the perfect meal for me is a simple plate of wonderfully cooked backstrap—flavored only with salt, fire and a little freshly ground black pepper—other times I just gotta have a sauce to go with it.
And not just any sauce—Cumberland sauce. If there is a classic way to eat venison, this is it. With a pedigree at least 250 years old, Cumberland sauce is one of the most venerable wild game sauces still made today. You can even find an early reference to it in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Glasse’s version of Cumberland includes red currants, red wine, sugar and red wine vinegar—it’s basically a modern gastrique. The now-obligatory addition of Port wine and meat stock to the sauce arrived by 1817, and the sauce as we know it now—with the addition of mustard and citrus—was fully formed by 1846.
What’s so special about Cumberland? It is a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, savory and salty, which is not easily achieved. Think about it like a really good barbecue sauce that hits all the same notes, too. Good Vietnamese food does the same thing.
You should know there is no one true recipe for Cumberland, but there are a few constants. For starters: red currants, either in jelly or syrup or as whole fruits; red wine or Port; citrus, usually either lemon or orange zest plus some juice, too; meat stock, especially demi-glace; English dry mustard (Colman’s); and freshly ground black pepper. Freshly ground pepper makes a difference because black pepper is one of the primary flavors in this sauce. A lot of recipes also add a pinch of cayenne pepper, as mine does.
You can make Cumberland sauce by itself, or you can do like me and make it as a pan sauce when you are done cooking. I prefer this method because it takes advantage of the browned bits in the pan and uses fewer pots, which means less to clean up afterwards.
Serve your perfectly cooked venison with your Cumberland sauce, accompanied by the classic hunter’s side dish—wild rice pilaf, studded with walnuts (hopefully wild black walnuts) and dried cranberries.
Venison Backstrap with Cumberland Sauce and Wild Rice Pilaf
Red currant jelly is actually easy to find in supermarkets. Every decent-sized market will carry it, and I’ve even found currant jelly in towns as small as Fayette, Mo., and Ashley, N.D. If you really can’t find it, use lingonberry or cranberry jelly. Raspberry is not as good as a substitute. You can buy your own demi-glace in specialty markets or online, or just boil down some beef stock. If you do it this way, watch your salt levels in the rest of the sauce, as boiled down stock gets salty in a hurry.
The pilaf is pretty easy to make, although it is a lot better if you can get your hands on real wild rice—not the machine-harvested stuff grown in California.
- 1 to 1/2 pounds venison backstrap, in one piece
- 3 tablespoons high smoke point cooking oil (safflower, grapeseed, canola)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1/2 cup Port wine
- 1/4 cup demi-glace or 1 cup beef stock
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- Zest of a lemon and an orange
- 1/4 cup red currant jelly
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup minced onion
- 1 cup wild rice
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries
- ¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2-3 tablespoons malt vinegar
1) Take the venison out of the fridge and salt it well. Let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
2) Make the pilaf while the venison is resting, as it is just as good at room temperature as it is hot. Heat the butter in a medium pot set over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often for about 2 minutes. Add the wild rice and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the chicken stock and bring to simmer. Cover the pot and simmer gently over low heat until the rice is tender and starting to burst, anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes depending on how old your rice is. Drain and move to a large bowl.
3) Coarsely chop the walnuts and mix them into the rice with the remaining ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4) For the venison, heat the oil over high heat in a frying pan large enough to hold the whole backstrap. When it’s hot, turn the heat down to medium-high. Pat the venison dry with paper towels and brown it in on all sides in the pan. Brown it well for at least 2 minutes per side, depending on how thick the meat is and how well-done you like your venison. It will continue to cook while it rests, so remove it from the pan a little before it reaches your desired level of doneness. Let the venison rest on a cutting board, tented loosely with foil, while you make the sauce.
5) Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the pan. Cook the shallot over medium-high heat for 90 seconds, just until it softens. Add the Port and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits stuck on the pan. Boil until it is reduced by half. Stir in the demi-glace (or stock), salt, citrus zest, mustard and cayenne and let this boil for 2 minutes. Add the red currant jelly and boil until it is thick but still pourable. Add the ground black pepper. You can strain the sauce if you want it smoother.
6) Slice the venison into medallions. Pour any juices that have collected on the cutting board into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the meat. Splash a little malt vinegar over the rice pilaf and serve with the venison and sauce.