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Four hour venison casserole, totally worth the wait. Red wine sauce sharpened with redcurrant jelly; onions, mushrooms and carrots in fragrant, rich gravy so all you need on the side is a chunk of bread – and the rest of that red wine.
Venison casserole: the very words feel warm. A mountain hut, snowy night outside, logs crackling in the fireplace and a chipped bowl full of fragrant, steaming stew on your lap; a spoon to eat it with and a chunk of bread nearby. You have been skiing all day in a whiteout, the boots getting warm for tomorrow near the fireplace and you wrapped in a blanket. A bottle of rich red Malbec is waiting to be finished – a generous glass of it went to the casserole – and a chunk of ripe Taleggio for dessert. Life doesn’t get much better.
Venison is a noble meat; I think it’s one of most ethical you can eat if meat you eat. The animals are free to roam and enjoy a happy life, ending in their prime, without fear of getting old and vulnerable to predators. Those who shed crocodile tears over ‘poor Bambis’ do not usually give another thought to pigs bred in cages; probably because pigs are not as cuddly as deer and their eyes aren’t framed with lashes.
But roaming free toughens the meat. Face it – exercise helps develop muscles, right? Same for you, same for Bambi. So apart from that small, painfully expensive centre of the haunch, it’s not exactly buttery tender. Hence its popularity in casseroles: letting it take its time in slow cookers, crock pots or instant pots – or simply in a very low oven.
Casseroles are sometimes made like a rubbish tip of offcuts with the hope that it will all melt and soften in the hours of cooking. Good meat will but not the gristly bits – I do think that casseroles deserve decent quality. If you got your venison read-diced and vacuum packed, and discover it’s not pretty at all, you can mince it and make burgers out of the meat. For a casserole get a decent chunk of a haunch and dice it yourself.
The meat needs to be browned, if only to release the Maillard reaction and make you (and the ones withing the smelling range) salivate thinking of dinner to come. When it goes to the oven it can be left alone, except for checking after the first half hour whether it is simmering gently and adjust the temperature accordingly. I know, I know, more ovens are not accurate so you might need to take another peak halfway through the cooking, plus perhaps top up the liquid.
And then all that’s left is to pray for snow.
venison casseroleServings: 4Time: 30 minutes plus 4 hours in the oven
- 1 kg (2 pounds) venison haunch, trimmed and chunkily diced
- 1 tbsp. plain flour plus 1 tsp more for thickening the sauce
- 1 tsp oil
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 100g (3 oz.) diced bacon or pancetta
- 3 large shallots, grated or finely chopped
- 1 carrot, thinly sliced
- 10-12 chestnut button mushrooms
- 1 small leek, white part only, sliced
- 1 tbsp. juniper, lightly crushed
- 1 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed in pestle and mortar
- 1 heaped tbsp. redcurrant jelly
- 150ml (2/3 cup) red wine
- a few thyme sprigs
- 2 bay leaves
1. If possible, season the venison with salt as early in advance as you can, up to 48 hours, and keep it in the fridge.
2. Sprinkle the meat with 1 tbsp. of flour, toss to coat and shake off excess. Heat up the oil and butter in a frying pan and prepare a large, ovenproof casserole dish with a lid. Preheat the oven to 130C/250F/gas ½.
3. Brown the venison all over, turning the chunks in the pan. Add the bacon or pancetta and cook together for another couple of minutes. Transfer all the meat to the casserole dish with a slotted spoon, leave the fat in.
4. Add the shallots, carrot, mushrooms and leek to the frying pan and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes until softened. Add the juniper, fennel, redcurrant jelly and pour in the wine. Bring to the boil and pour into the casserole dish over the meat. Tuck the thyme and bay in the middle, cover with the lid and transfer to the oven.
5. After the first 30 minutes check the casserole: it should be faintly simmering. Adjust the oven temperature if it’s too vicious or not doing anything at all. After that you can pretty much leave it there, bar maybe one peek halfway through to check if the liquid has not cooked off too much.
6. By the end of the cooking process check the gravy for thickness and add the 1 tsp flour stirred into 2 tbsp. water if it’s too thin. Return to the oven for another 15 minutes or so.
7. Serve with crusty bread to mop up the sauce or with mashed potatoes.