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Malbec in Your Chili

Deep winter is a time for serious culinary work, and we have a freezer full of venison. In a previous essay I made the case for a new code of the sportsman suited to the prairies--a code that partakes both of the gentlemanly values of Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell and also the practical values of our homesteading forebears.

In this new code of the prairie sportsman we labor for conservation, but also prize our birds and beasts as table fare. Proper handling of venison and tasteful cooking with it embody respect for the animal and for the craft.

My first word on the subject: sauerbraten. Venison, you see, is an exceedingly lean meat, and although whitetail venison is relatively mild, it has some of the bitterness that people describe as “gamey.” So a marinade is in order for the sake of moisture, and a vinegar marinade cuts the bitterness, or rather complements it.

The marinade is vinegar, water, garlic salt, and pickling spices. Season and flour and brown the roast, then add back some of the marinade and braise in a dutch oven or a crockpot. You can add root vegetables, some onion at least, pot-roast style. Make a sour gravy and serve it over mash or spaetzle, or knoephle, as we like to call them in North Dakota.

Another great way to braise venison: Marvin’s cranberry venison roast, which I have named for the generous neighbor who hosted us for a doe hunt this winter. Season (and in this case, I like to use a little cardamon), flour, and brown the roast, throw in a handful of chopped onion, and dump in a bottle of ginger beer. Then, bury it all in fresh cranberries. Save a few cranberries for later, so when the meat is tender, you can toss them in briefly to restore color to the mess before you serve. Slice and serve on a bed of wild rice.

Most any cut of venison is good for either Swiss steak or stew. The secret to tender venison in your stew is to flour and brown the cubed meat, then cover it in the skillet with red wine and let it sit overnight, before adding veg and completing the stew the next day.

Now we move into Mexican-influenced branches of venison cookery, so appropriate to a prairie cuisine, beginning with venison Colorado, using a steak cut, cubed. I like making this because of the sheer indulgence of seasonings involved: chili powder, cumin, garlic, cayenne, oregano, thyme, allspice, beer, molasses, and the juice of an orange, plus cilantro for topping, maybe a little feta.

And now for those dishes that consume lots and lots of ground venison, because face it, you have a lot of trim. The common solution to the surplus is to mix it with pork for sausage, but I think that’s a waste. Venison chorizo, bulk sausage in Mexican style, not Spanish, is great for breakfast, tacos, quesadillas, you name it.

The thing to remember is, venison is a sink for seasonings; you have to double whatever you think is appropriate. So for venison chorizo, to a pound of venison I add not only lard, peanut butter, chile, smoky paprika, cumin, black pepper, coriander, allspice, and garlic, but also a whole cup of vinegar. It takes a whole cup to cut through the deep flavor of meat and seasonings.

Now, to clean out the freezer: venison chili, the best chili con carne of all. We’re talking onion, tomato, chile, garlic, cumin, thyme, marjoram, basil, oregano, mole, and molasses. Oh, and you need a high-tannin red wine--I recommend Argentinian Malbec.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem so cold outside anymore.

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