Fun with Game: Venison Bolognese (with a Punch)

Venison? I know what you’re thinking: “But game is something you eat in Autumn, during hunting season!” Yes, this is true, if you’re a hunter. I am not. Neither is T. Lucky for us, both T’s parents hunt during all the different seasons in their area, and we count ourselves darn lucky they wanted to share some of their bounty with us!

In March, we had a very short visit from T’s parents, aka The Snowbirds, who were on their way down from Maine to Florida for boating, seashell collecting and other sun-filled activities that did not involve SNOW. They gifted us with venison tenderloin, roast, ground meat, and seasoned ground sausage. Mom Snowbird suggested we try the sausage meat in a spaghetti sauce, which we did. The first time I simply browned the sausage and added a commercial bottled sauce, but the seasonings in the sausage were still too mild for my taste — and the game flavor really dominated the sauce. It was good, but I wanted the game to blend in with the sauce, not sit on top of it. So the second time, I monkeyed around with the sausage and sauce — as I am wont to do — adding fresh garlic, red wine, and some decidedly non-traditional ingredients. Then it simmered for at least an hour. The deep rich flavors of the game paired perfectly with the earthy flavors of whole wheat pasta — this a combination that we will use again.

When they’re not sun-seeking in Florida or hunting in the Fall, the Snowbirds really enjoy the “Good Life in Maine”: boating, swimming, fishing, riding his and hers ATV’s (All-Terrain Vehicles), and generally just hanging out around gorgeous Lake Nicatous where they have a summer cabin. For a peek at what the “Good Life” really is, visit Mom’s website at Maine Musings.

Thanks, Mom & Dad, for choosing to stay with us despite the sparse accommodations. And thanks for bringing me such fun “toys” to play with, too! Next year, we hope you come when it’s warmer here — maybe for the Cherry Blossom Festival!

Serves 4 persons

2TBL + 3TBL olive oil
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb/ 455g fresh cremini mushrooms, aka baby bellas, sliced
1 lb/ 1/2kg ground venison
1 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
sea salt to taste
1 tsp. raw sugar
1 tsp. dried oregano (or 1 TBL minced fresh)
1/2 tsp. dried thyme (or 1 sprig fresh)
1 TBL soy sauce
(*optional: The Punch) 1 TBL kochu jang (Korean red pepper paste)
(in truth, the only reason I put this in was because I was taking a photo of it for Kochujang Chicken post and didn’t want to look for a container to put it away!! If you’d like to add some Punch or Pfiff to your sauce without kochu jang, substitute a scant TBL of crushed red pepper, or a dose of your favorite hot sauce)
1 bottle of your favorite commercial bottled sauce ( about 24-26 oz/ 680-730 ml)
1/2 - 1 cup dry red wine (used Barefoot Zinfandel)
1 lb. whole wheat spaghetti, cooked al dente
Parmesan cheese, fresh grated for serving

Heat 2 TBL olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add sliced mushrooms and gently press mushrooms against pan to sear them, then stir-fry mushrooms over high heat until browned and dry. (Note: If heat in pan is not high enough, mushrooms will start to lose water and become mushy — they will not brown.) Remove mushrooms to clean bowl and season with sea salt.

Return pan to medium high heat and add remaining 3 TBL olive oil, and garlic and cook until just fragrant, about 20 seconds. (I found the extra oil was necessary because venison is naturally very lean and tends to stick to the pan.) Add ground venison, and brown well, seasoning generously with sea salt and ground black pepper.

Once meat is thoroughly browned, sprinkle with sugar, oregano, thyme, and soy sauce. Cook together about 3-4 minutes, until the aroma of the herbs and spices fill the kitchen. Add kochu jang, if using, and bottled or homemade sauce, and stir well to combine. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add red wine, stir well, and reduce heat to medium low or low (just simmering) and cover again. Allow to simmer for 40 minutes.

Serve over whole wheat pasta, and grate fresh parmesan generously over the top. Finish off the Zinfandel.
Suggested vegetable pairing: JD’s Zucchini Saute (next recipe), mirrors some of the herb notes in this sauce, but adds a buttery counterpoint.


Table-top Cooking: BBQ pork with rice noodles

Tabletop cooking need no longer be relegated to special nights out at fancy teppanyaki restaurants, where smiling chefs send shrimp and vegetables flying through the air. If you can live without the theatrics, you can grill or have sukiyaki or shabu-shabu at home anytime. It's a great family experience, and a wonderful way to entertain at home, allowing each family member or guest to add the meats or vegetables they desire to the pot or grill. We've done everything from fajitas, pancakes, teppanyaki, sukiyaki, Korean bulgogi and fish juhn, Japanese nabes and okonomiyaki, and this grilled Vietnamese style pork with rice vermicelli noodles.

Rather than buying an electric appliance that leaves you with a trailing electrical cord and extension to deal with, we recommend this simple butane stove that sits compactly on the table and has an easy-to-control flame. This model comes in a plastic case for carrying and storage, and retails here in Hawaii for less than $20. I have also seen sleek stainless steel models selling for closer to $70. The non-refillable butane cartridges are less than $2 a piece. If you're having a hard time finding a butane stove, try a Korean or Japanese grocery. The added bonus, especially for we who live in hurricane-earthquake-tsunami prone areas, this doubles as a handy emergency stove. In fact, we bought this for that latter purpose and had it in the house for almost a year before the little light bulb went on over my head, and I remembered a dinner with friends who used a butane stove to grill bulgogi at the table. That was such a fun meal! Why not make everyday meals more fun, too?

The cookware you use for tabletop cooking should be pans that do NOT have a long handle. With one or more persons reaching toward the hot pans, a long handle is easy to tip over, catch in a sleeve, or bump. With hot liquids and oils, and an open flame, it is an invitation to disaster to use any pot, pan or wok with a long handle. Here are some safer options.

For grilling, this yakiniku grill is ideal. This model is non-stick and includes a drain hole for the excess grease (you need to put a small bowl at the drain point to catch the hot oil). We use this for fajitas, pancakes, yakiniku (literallly, "grilled meat" in Japanese), and okonomiyaki. It retails between $20-25 (in Hawaii, sometimes Long's has it on sale too — same with the stove and butane cartridges). In a pinch, you could also use a shallow pan like the paella-style one we use for sukiyaki, below.

For soups and nabes, we used to use this 3 quart pot from All-Clad just because it was already in the kitchen, any similar pot will work. Recently we've acquired this beautiful stoneware nabe pot too. We make kimchee soup, nabes, and other quick soupy stew-like meals in these.

For sukiyaki and other braised dishes, this shallower paella-style pan from Calphalon works well.
Photos of traditional cast-iron nabe and sukiyaki pans can be seen on this commercial site.

Here is a simple and tasty dish that's perfect for entertaining or to liven up a weekend meal at home. Thin slices of pork (you can certainly use beef or chicken, as well) are marinated in a sweet lemongrass marinade, grilled and served atop a bed of rice vermicelli noodles (called bun, "buhn") and fresh salad and herb base. Of course, you don't have to grill the meat at the table prepare it all in the kitchen and simply serve this delicious "Vietnamese noodle salad"!

Recipe for 4 persons

Marinade for 1 lb. (450g) pork, beef, or chicken
TBL. brown sugar
tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. cornstarch
3-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots or 1/2 small onion, minced (about 3 TBL.)

stalk lemongrass, peeled and tender parts minced
2 TBL. fish sauce
1 TBL. oil

Thinly slice (as for sukiyaki) pork or beef. (In these photos I used pork sliced for tonkatsu, but that's too thick. Next time I'll get a thinner slice, or pound this cut thinner.) Or slice and pound thin chicken breasts or thighs. Combine marinade ingredients and add meat. Let marinate at least 1 hour, and up to 3 hours.

To assemble:
10 oz. (280g) bean sprouts (moyashi)
1 large bunch Thai basil
1 large bunch mint
1 large bunch cilantro
4 stalks scallions, roots trimmed
1 Japanese cucumber
1 head Romaine or leaf lettuce
1 package of rice vermicelli, soaked in warm water 30 minutes or until pliable
1/2 cup peanuts, chopped (optional)
Carrot Pickle (recipe below)

Wash and pick leaves off basil, mint and cilantro. Rough chop herbs and scallions and set aside.

Peel cucumber. Cut off ends, then cut into quarters lengthwise. Cut off seeds, then julienne. Cut lengths into 2" (5 cm) pieces. Set aside.

Wash and remove thick ends, if necessary. Julienne.

Blanch the soaked rice noodles in boiling water until they turn bright white, about 30 seconds. Drain and set aside.

Combine 3/4 of the herbs, cucumber and lettuce together. Place 1/4 of the salad in the bottom of a deep bowl (like a saimin or ramen bowl).

Coil 1/4 of the rice noodles over the salad in a mound.

Garnish noodles with remaining herbs, cucumber and Carrot Pickle (and peanuts, if using). Place garnished bowl, chopsticks and a small bowl with dipping sauce (Nuoc Nam, recipe below) in front of each diner.

Remove meat from marinade and arrange on serving platter. Lightly dab with paper towel to make sure it is not too wet (it will splatter in the hot oil).

Assemble the grill and place it where the cook can reach it safely (this meal is best prepared where one cook handles the raw meat, placing it on the grill while other diners remove pieces to their bowls as the meat cooks). Set the grill pan securely on the stove notches to make certain it doesn't move around or slip. Put a catch bowl at the oil drip spout, if necessary. Turn on grill and allow pan to heat to cooking temperature. Lightly oil grill and carefully place slices on the pan (do not drop pieces onto oil, which will splatter). Have a clean plate on hand to remove meat as it cooks, if the diners don't keep pace with the cooking. Let folks remove cooked meat to their bowls and begin eating.

A final caveat: you have an open flame and hot liquids or oil on the table, so you do keep a close eye on the stove; and never allow young children to reach near the open flame. Also, since you're cooking meats with some fat on them, there will still be some splattering from the grill, so all diners should be warned of the possibility of splatters, no mater how careful you are. It should go without saying, too, that you probably want to try this out before inviting friends to participate so you have a better idea of how far the splattering oil can reach.

This photo is BBQ pork bun from our favorite restaurant. (See how thin the meat is?)

More tabletop cooking to come . . .

Combine together:
2 cloves garlic, minced
TBL. sugar (I still use brown sugar)
6 TBL. fish sauce
2 TBL. lime juice
1/2 cup water
1 sliced serrano or bird's eye chile (optional)

Stir well until sugar dissolves. Divide into 4 dipping bowls.

2 medium carrots, shredded or julienned
1 TBL. sugar
1/4 cup water
2 TBL. rice wine vinegar
tsp. sea salt

Sprinkle carrots with sugar. Leave for 15 minutes. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over carrots. Set aside until needed.

Table-top Cooking, Part 2: Sukiyaki