There is a primal satisfaction in lighting a fire and cooking outside once again in early spring after a long, cold winter. Winters here in the Great Lakes region can be bitter cold and heavily snow-covered. The days are short and the nights long. As the days start to lengthen, the snow recedes and we begin to walk our gardens to see shoots of chives beginning. We see our neighbors and make plans for the week-end. All feels new, re-born.
This last weekend featured a warm fire, warmer friendships and wonderful food. We had a full feast, but my favorite little tastes came from that hardwood fire. We sipped beer as we grilled, a slight chill lingering in the afternoon air, sweet smoke rising. Pheasant sausages and venison Italians slowly roasting.
Slices into bite-sized chunks, we ate them with our hands while still too hot right off the cutting board, dipped in yellow mustard. We also stuffed them into pieces of freshly baked white bread.
Some ice-cold beers, some house-made pickles, and good conversation. Spring brings the earth back to life and re-kindles friendships. Light the fire and enjoy.
With some free time in the Madison, WI area you can discover all sorts of lovely surprises, including two new additions to our Purveyors page. On a recent business trip to the area, a walk around Capitol Square brought me to Fromagination, a specialty cheese shop featuring Wisconsin cheeses and other artisan and local products. It is an absolute gem of a store, which my poor picture does not do justice.
The service was helpful, offering tastings of a number of different cheeses including a number of exclusive offerings. They clearly have an excellent relationship with their suppliers, as some the cheeses on offer here will not be found any where else (How about a curry-rubbed, Manchego-style cheese aged for 6 years?). A new offering from an old favorite eventually caught my eye, Golden from Holland’s Family Cheese. Their description: “This creamy, semi-soft, American Original boasts a flavor profile rich in nuttiness with hints of sweet fruit. Handcrafted by award-winning cheesemaker, Marieke Penterman and her team, this raw milk beauty is carefully aged on Dutch pine planks in our cellars.” The flavor profile is full and creamy, reminiscent of a young sheep cheese. We paired the Golden with the other end of the Holland Family Cheese spectrum, the “Super” aged Gouda, which has a Parmesan-like texture with a deep, caramel nuttiness.
A quick trip west of Madison will take you to the Fitchburg/Verona area, which is the edge of the Driftless Region, an area that has been left untouched by the glaciers which flowed over much of the Great Lakes region in the geologic past. Here is where Bavaria Sausage continues a 5o year tradition of making authentic German sausage. Smoked sausage, fresh sausage, frozen sausage, smoked meats, thick-sliced bacon, and nearly every German condiment you could ask for (How about seven varieties of curry ketchup?). Amongst the variety of summer sausages, we selected the venison, and then grabbed a small beef summer sausage for comparison. Check out the bundles of landjaeger (upper left).
The venison summer sausage is blended with beef which balances the flavor and adds moisture. Bavaria Sausage uses no fillers, no colorants, no artificial flavors. The flavors of the sausage are pure meat. In the picture below, the darker venison sausage is on the left, paired with the Super. The beef summer sausage on the right was paired with Golden. But playing with combinations made this a simple, tasty, quickly consumed treat, enjoyed with summer cocktails.
So as you drift through the area, explore the old traditions, and the new producers. Enjoy the experience of ethnic traditions honored, and made new again. This is the exploration of Great lakes Cuisine.
On a recent weekend, Venison Pastrami and Smoked Pork Belly became friends on the smoker together.
The Smoked Pork Belly has been detailed here. Now we share the Venison Pastrami (hint: it’s the one wrapped in bacon). The basics of preparing pastrami are fairly simple: brine a two to three inch thick slab of meat overnight, coat with pepper and coriander, then smoke at 250 degrees until desired internal temperature is reached. Typically, this is prepared with a cut of beef brisket with a thick fat layer to keep the meat moist during the process. Michael Ruhlman shares a nice, traditional preparation at his site.
In this preparation, we are using a venison tenderloin. Venison is naturally lean and the tenderloin is particularly so, which is why we wrapped the venison with Nueske’s bacon during the smoking process. But we’re two days ahead of ourselves. The process starts with the brine. Desiring to play up the earthy elements of the venison, rather than disguise them, we have used dark molasses as the sweet element. We have not used any curing salt in this preparation as our intention was to consume the entire amount upon completion.
Home-cured Venison Pastrami
3/4 cups Morton’s kosher salt
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup dark molasses
5 cloves garlic, smashed with the flat side of a knife
2 tablespoons pickling spice (Penzey’s)
1 venison tenderloin
3 strips bacon
1 tablespoon peppercorn, toasted and ground
1 tablespoon coriander seed, toasted and ground
In a large pot, combine 1/2 gallon of water with kosher salt, sugar, molasses, garlic and 2 tablespoons pickling spice. Bring to a simmer, stirring until salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat and add ½ gallon ice to chill mixture. Pour brine into non-reactive container, of sufficient size to hold the venison and then place venison in brine. It should remain submerged, weight if necessary.
After at least 12 hours, preferably 24 hours, remove brisket from brine and rinse thoroughly. Refrigerate it for another day uncovered. Prepare the smoker. Combine the pepper and coriander and coat the brisket. Add a small amount of olive oil to help the spices stick. Wrap with bacon. Smoke at 250 degrees for 2 hours.
Slice thinly to serve. We chilled the pastrami before slicing and served it on cabbage leaves dressed with black currants. Under the venison was a dollop of a mixture of brie whipped with a puree of onions and apple cooked in bacon fat, again adding fat back to the preparation. The smoke played with sweet, the cabbage adding a nice crunch.
A recent gift of spicy venison sausage came with a warning – don’t over cook or it will dry out. This is pretty standard fair for any cut of venison, but often the pork fat added to sausages provide all the moisture needed. But these were not natural casings, and the links were not sealed as tightly as we might have preferred. No problem – we baked them under a blanket of Nueske’s bacon to ensure moist, flavorful sausages.
We added these to a dish with quinoa, roasted sweet potato, kale, and candied pear, topped with Sartori’s Extra-aged Asiago cheese. In past versions of this dish, we’ve utilized dried cranberries, which are excellent. A suggestion of pairing venison with candied pears appeared in my paperback version of The Derrydale Game Cookbook by L.P. De Gouy, originally published in 1937, though curiously no candied pear recipe is listed. Here’s our version:
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Slice two pears vertically into 1/4 inch slices. Heat 1 cup water with 1 cup sugar to a low boil with 3 bay leaves, 5 cloves, and a cinnamon stick. Add pear to the pan and allow to boil until beginning to become translucent. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place in oven until just beginning to turn caramel brown, about 20 minutes depending on thickness of the slices. Allow to cool and then cut into 1/2 inch squares for this recipe. Also, these can be left whole as a snack. The poaching liquid cooled becomes a wonderful simple syrup for cocktails.
In this dish, the spicy venison sausage are baked then allowed to cool enough to slice. These are added to a skillet on medium-high heat with rendered bacon fat. The roasted sweet potatoes are added along with kale, which is allowed to wilt. Pre-cooked quinoa is added to the skillet along with the candied pear pieces. The dish is topped with large shavings of Asiago cheese.
The result is a very pleasant blend of spicy, sweet, and nutty flavors. The Asiago adds both nuttiness and creaminess as it melts into the hot dish. The candied pear is not individually discernible, but adds a lovely sweetness to the background and plays off the creaminess of the cheese. We’ve added an additional pear chip and a dried kale chip as garnish. Flavorful, complex, complete.
Hank Shaw is the creator of the Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook blog which won the James Beard Award for the best food blog in 2013. He recently spoke at the Pheasant Fest 2014 in Milwaukee, WI, and I had a chance to hear him talk. Down-to-earth, genuine, and funny, he shared a number of tips on preparing pheasants, quail, and a whole host of other birds. He rattled off types of ducks and their flavor profiles like he was listing off a McDonald’s menu. This guy knows his stuff. I got this, so I was pretty happy:
I enjoyed it over organic cabbage from JenEhr Farm, caramelized and dressed with Onion Fennel Jam and a bit of broth ala Thomas Keller from his Ad Hoc Cook Book. The kids enjoyed it over egg noodles. Unique ingredients and a bit of inspiration from Hank. Get his book and enjoy.