This is a television feature piece I did recently on venison. Click continue reading for the recipe.
I know a lot of people hunt for trophy deer, the bucks with the big racks. I don’t. I am always looking for a yearling. A small deer that is tender and mild in flavor. For me it is the difference between lamb and mutton. I have eaten mutton but would always choose lamb over mutton if given the choice.
When I do kill a deer the first part of the animal I eat is the liver. It is so, so good. Something about it does it for me, it feels nourishing to eat this part of the animal when it is at its freshest.
For the pickled onions:
1 bunch scallions, roots trimmed and whites cut into 2 1/2 inch lengths. You want twelve pieces.
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup rice vinegar, do not use the seasoned kind
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
For the liver:
4 pieces venison, or other, liver, cut 1/2 inch thick, the are small but very rich, you can up the amount if needed
4 pieces speck or good smoked bacon
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup flour, for dredging
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons pickled onion liquid
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup carrot, small dice
1/2 cup onion, small dice
1 1/2 cup fresh peas
1. Place the scallions, in a single layer, in a small heat proof container. In a saucepan bring the water, vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil. Pour over the scallions and set aside to cool. This can be done up to a day in advance.
2. Season the venison with salt and set on a rack over a sheet tray with sides. This will catch the juices.
3. Combine the mayonnaise, buttermilk, mustard and pickling juice in a mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Reserve 8 of the pickled scallion batons and chop, should have 4, the rest and combine with the dressing.
5. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Place a heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. As the fat starts to render turn up the heat. Cook until nicely crisp. Remove the bacon and the pan from the heat. Place the bacon on a paper towel lined oven proof plate or tray.
6. In another pot add the butter, onion and carrots. When the onions start to wilt add kosher salt and pepper. Then add 2 cups of water. Let the carrots cook until tender.
7. Place the plate with the bacon into the oven. Season the liver with pepper, remember you already salted them. Dredge the liver pieces through the flour and shake off any excess. Place the bacon pan back on the stove over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of safflower oil.
8. When the oil is hot, gently place the liver into the pan.
9. Place the peas into the carrot and onion pot and turn the heat to medium high.
10. Once the venison pieces are nicely browned turn them. Be careful not to over cook the liver. Cook medium rare to medium at most.
11. To plate. Place a smear of the sauce onto a plate. Using a slotted spoon place a nice helping of peas next to it. Place a piece of venison liver onto the sauce. Top with bacon and garnish with pickled spring onions.
My nephew and I amble slowly up to the creek bank. It’s early enough that the cold morning air causes a light fog to rise off the warm, black water, but does nothing to lift the low-lying cover fogging my brain. I yawn. I wish I’d had that second cup of coffee.
It’s hard to believe Teddy Roosevelt ever came here to fish, here at this nothing stream that runs along the backside of my property. As the story has it, an Indiana politician brought him here for no more than an hour or two. They got off the campaign train, took a break, and fished. But, of all places, why here?
Soon enough the morning sun awakens and colors the tips of the trees on the south bank a glowing yellow, as if someone turned on the kitchen lights. I sit down on a rock, one of those big ones, gray and smooth, jutting out from the edge of the bank. I look across a pool of still water, not studying or thinking, just staring, then I slip one leg into my waders, making sure to get my leg inside the suspenders. In goes the other leg and up and over my shoulders come the suspenders.
My nephew, bare-legged and anxious, has already broken the water and the ripples disrupt the deep blue reflection of the cloudless sky. He strips fly line off the reel and the sound of the drag gears zipping backwards hangs in the air like a fiddle solo in a gospel song on Sunday. A few small mayflies lift off the surface of the water, fluttering haphazardly to freedom.
I’ve long heard that Cicero Creek is a world-class smallmouth bass river, but it’s never been enough to motivate me. I’ve lived on the creek for eight years now and not once fished. I gave up my obsession with fly fishing when I left New York. I always fly fished for trout. Trout seem noble. I have two young daughters who take up my time now, and happily so. Besides, when you ask anyone if they eat the fish, they always say no, the river is polluted.
I watch my nephew back cast and hear the delayed whistle of the fly line as it whips forward. The tippet rolls out and drops the fly perfectly into the water on the upriver side of a sunken log with a forked branch sticking out.
It’s obvious by the force and violence with which the smallmouth bass breaks the surface that it is hungry. The sound grabs my attention, the fish grabs the fly, and Will’s rod doubles down.
It’s a beautiful smallmouth, a glistening seaweed-green on its back with a pearl-white belly. I feel a little of the old adrenaline coursing. It’s way more invigorating than that second cup of coffee would have been.
It suddenly dawns on me that something very similar probably happened, nearly a hundred years ago, maybe right in this spot, at this hole that’s holding some really big fish. I nod my head, understanding, and the vision is clear.
The train, an old wood-fired locomotive, leaving a campaign stop in Indianapolis and now headed to Chicago, stops in the small town nearby. Roosevelt and a few other men get off the train at the small station, and a young kid who knows the stream like the back of his hand, like my nephew does, is waiting to take them by carriage the short distance to this unremarkable little creek.
When they arrive creekside, the elder statesmen look at each other, shrug, and wonder what, if anything, they will catch. Maybe they even wonder why they got off the train, smiling at each other, knowing this kid has no idea of the amazing fishing they’ve done and the beautiful, rushing rivers they’ve seen.
The farmboy, kindly urged on by Roosevelt, goes first, casting under the branch line that hangs out over the water and up close to the embankment. The same thing that happened this morning happens then: BAM! A big smallmouth bass takes the hook and runs the line upstream. Now the two statesmen are really smiling, grateful for this moment of relief from their busy schedule, and they begin to fish.
It’s a banner day; they’re hooking them left and right, talking and fishing without a thought of politics or business. Their guide, the kid, can’t get the fish off the hooks quickly enough. He releases most of them, but some are the right size, perfect for eating, and he puts these on a stringer that is quickly getting full.
The flurry of activity only lasts an hour or two, the same length of time that all good fishing lasts. Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of these United States, and company pack up and head back to the Arcadia station.
My nephew and I are doing the same, heading to the car.
I ask, “You ever eat any of the fish you catch out of here?”
He replies, “No, the river’s polluted.”
Click here for the recipe: Pan Fried Red Snapper with Tarragon Tartar Sauce
The difference between Edna Lewis’ book The Taste of Country Cooking and countless other cookbooks is she truly celebrates food. Not only is it a celebration but it is the gospel of farm to table eating, a hymn of fresh, great tasting, whole food that should be sung loudly as the new testament of eating seasonally. In short, it just might save your soul and at the very least it is extremely soul satisfying.
What drew me in the first time I opened the book was a breakfast menu that simply read Fall Breakfast and the second item listed in the menu was smothered rabbit. As if this wasn’t enough the first time I made Miss Lewis’s pear preserves I became teary eyed because it reminded me of the taste of a long-forgotten-that-was-now-brought-to-mind memory of my grandmother and the pear preserves she made.
When you realize this was published in 1976 it becomes apparent this is a last bastion to how rural America once ate. It isn’t the French influenced food made in a California restaurant kitchen that now stands as the talisman of sustainable eating, but rather, it is 100% American food made with ingredients had on hand and in season. It was written at a time when women wanted out of the kitchen instead of in and the burger joint was still a treat but unfortunately fast becoming a standard.
The book is not a retrospective of days past and food that is dated by out of style trends but it is a classic that is as current and in touch today, maybe even more so, as it was when written.
Miss Lewis does nothing short of pen a rural American classic that treats food with respect and knowledge of how to use the ingredients at hand and get the most out of them. There is nothing fussy about her food and there needn’t be because its simplicity and freshness is what makes it delicious.
In short if you care about sustainable local food you should get yourself a copy. It will fast become your how to manual.
This recipe is based loosely on Miss Lewis’s fried chicken recipe.
Bacon Fried Rabbit
2 fryer rabbits, cut into 6 to 8 pieces
1 piece of slab bacon, cut about 1/4 inch thick
2 cups flour, seasoned with 2 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon each of thyme and paprika, and 1 teaspoon of salt
1. Season the rabbit with salt and set it aside to let the salt dissolve into the meat.
2. In a large cast iron Dutch oven add enough oil to come up the side by no more than a third. Add the bacon.
3. Turn the heat to medium high and place your fry thermometer into the oil. Place the seasoned flour into a plastic bag with the rabbit. Toss the rabbit around to give it a good coating. Remove the pieces from the flour and let them soak a in the buttermilk. Remove each piece and let the excess drip off. Put the pieces back into the flour for their final coat. Don’t do this to far in advance or the coating gets brittle when fried.
4. When the temperature gets to 350F˚ remove the bacon if it is crispy and start frying the rabbit until golden brown and delicious. If you need to do this in batches do. Don’t over crowd the pot or you will have a greasy mess. So to do this heat the oven to 250˚F. As the rabbit pieces come out of the grease place them on a sheet tray fitted with a wire rack and keep them in the oven till all are done.