Monday, October 4, 2010

Venison stew a.k.a. civet à l'Ardennaise

Well, it's Autumn. No doubt about it. Time to pull out the sweaters, switch to heavy beers, and make lots of hearty meals. I'm actually doing three separate blog posts at once today, so it's a little chaos in the kitchen. Especially since one of the recipes is wine-based, and the other is beer-based -- and of course you never use even numbered bottles of beer or wine, so there's always some left to sample at the end. :D

This recipe is from our old friend, Suzanne Vandyck (and if you're from Flanders, you can call it Wild ragout wit de Ardennen). It's a glorious stew. The recipe calls for venison, but I stumbled across some elk for sale at the Carp Farmer's market today, so I figured I'd go for that instead.

The first step in this recipe occurs a day or so before you want your stew. You make a marinade (this is the wine side of today's equation). The ingredients for this are 4 cups of red wine (thank heavens for those South Africans, who make wine cheap [and good!] enough so we can cook with it), a carrot (that skinny purple thing is a carrot -- truuuuuust me), an onion, three bay leaves (fresh from the garden, awesome!), a sprig of thyme (ditto), 4 cloves (as if), and 20 juniper berries. Juniper berries are the link to caveman times in this recipe. You can find them at health food stores. I wouldn't recommend going out to your local neglected farm field and picking your own, since the ones they sell look like a different variety from the ones that grow around here. Don't skip them though! They are too cool!

To make the marinade, take your four cups of wine (WOW! That looks like a lot of vino!),

coarsely chop your carrot and onion, and dump them in a pot with the juniper berries, the cloves, the bay, and the thyme.

Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Then let it cool.

Once the marinade has cooled, pour it over your venison (or elk!), pop it in the fridge, and let it sit for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours. (I had two containers on the go, since it wouldn't all fit in one.) we are, a couple of days later. Your venison (a.k.a. elk) has been soaking for a few days. Time to make the stew!

First, pour yourself an appropriate beer. Through sheer luck, I happened to have a couple of bottles of La Chouffe in the fridge, which if you happen to see the fine print, you'll see it comes from the Ardennes (this was total synchronicity -- honest!).  I bought a nice new glass at Oktoberfest this weekend, and the two just seemed to scream out for each other -- or maybe it was me, I dunno. ANYWAY! Once the beer is poured it is time to get serious. Seriously. Speaking of serious, every time I think of the Ardennes I think of that movie A Midnight Clear (which takes place in the Ardennes, which is probably why I think of it). I absolutely don't recommend the film by the way, because it is depressing city even though it had the potential to be really happy. Stick to this meal and you'll stick to the happy part. Honest.

The basic ingredients for this are: your meat (which has been in the marinade for a while), an onion (mine were too small, so I have two), brandy (I know someone named Brandy, but I'm referring to the booze here), oil, butter (so great when you need both), bacon (even better when you need all three), corn starch (I LOVE the Canadian box!), wildish mushrooms (I chose shiitake -- I like the ones that grow on trees like shiitake and oyster, since they don't grow in horse poo like most of the others -- that way I don't feel too weird if I don't clean them. Note that these are the megaest shiitakes I've ever seen. They were in this paper bag at the farmer's market and I bought them sight unseen. I'm happy anyway -- mushrooms make me smile almost no matter what -- horse poo or not) and a bouquet garni. How's that for a sentence? I stopped even though you need to know what's in the bouquet garni. It is supposed to have some parsely, thyme, and bay leaves. My garden never seems to have parsely in it (the others are there) so I used sweet cicely instead -- which you would have by now if you'd taken me up on my offer to send you some seeds!

Tie the bay, parsely (sweet cicely), and thyme into a tidy little package and you now have a bouquet garni. I think this must mean bouquet garnish like in The Muppet Show when those French actors showed up and started saying stuff like Sacre bleu (sacred blue) and Arc de Triomphe! (same thing) when they wanted to swear, but maybe I'm wrong.

Now, you need to brown your meat. This is a typical stew, which means you brown some meat, soften some vegetables, and put the whole lot together in a nice pot to blup away on low heat for an hour or two. So ... let's do all that!

In spite of what that annoying lady in Julie and Julia said, I'm not all that pedantic about drying meat before I brown it. BUT! This stuff has spent a couple of days in a marinade, so...

...take it out of your marinade (save the marinade, by the way) and drain the meat on a wire rack set over a baking sheet (to contain the mess), and pat it dry with paper towels before you start browning.

You could (if it wasn't Monday) brown it all in your stew pot, but this will take forever on a weekday, so you need to call in some reinforcements (like an extra skillet!). Put some olive oil and some butter in a skillet and start browining your venison. The guy at the farmer's market was quite concerned that I not overcook this meat -- since it's a stew, this is no biggie, but keep in mind that deer is not cow and it does not require as much cooking to hit the sweet spot. (By the way, if you happen to live with someone who doesn't respect the fundamental tennets of cast iron -- i.e. no soap EVER and no soaking EVER -- then hide your precious pans from the infidels.)

Now, where was I? Ah, yes ... browning. While your meat is sizzling away in your skillet, get some bacon on the go in your stew pot (if you do yourself one favour this year, make sure to buy yourself a nice le Creuset pot for exactly this kind of situation -- your grandkids will thank you since they'll get the pot long after you keel over). I think Francois is moderately appalled by this pot, but the patina in there took YEARS to develop, so dream on if you think I'll scrub that baby spotless!

After the bacon sweats out all it's fat and is nice and brown, get it out of there and then add a pat (hahaha, at Pat!) of butter -- adding butter to bacon fat is so wonderful. Slide your onions in there to soften up for a while.

Keep jockying between the meat and the onions and basically keep the chaos at bay until both are done.

Now (since it's Monday) you don't want to lose all the great gunk that has collected at the bottom of your skillet, so pour half of your marinde in there and deglaze the pan (i.e. scootch a spoon around there until all the crusty bits are mixed in with the liquid).

Save the last batch of meat for browning in the stew pot -- you need at least SOME base in there!
When all the meat is browned,

put it all in the stew pot and add two tablespoons of flour.

Stir that around for a minute or two and add some salt and pepper according to your taste.

Then add the liquid from the skillet and the other half from wherever you kept that. And! While you're at it get the bouquet garni, the onions, and the mushrooms in there too. (I put the mushroom stems in there also since they add extra flavour, just make sure they don't end up on anyone's plate!)

Stir it all around to settle it in, then...

...pop the lid on the pan and let it cook away on fairly low heat for about an hour and fifteen minutes. (Note that your stove and sink will be a sucky mess at this point, but such is the price of glory!)

When the time's up, get a little perk ready -- a dash of vinegar and some cornstarch will combine to thicken the sauce and give it a little zing. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of cornstarch in two tablespoons of wine vinegar and add it to the stew.

Let this blup away for 10 to 15 minutes (while this is happening you can steam some spuds or some other company for your stew). Like my spoon?

You made it! Dish up with some spuds (sprinkled with fresh tarragon -- if you don't have this in your garden, then shame on you! Get on it!!); a little salad made from fresh tomatoes, shallots, and a little salt; and if you happen to have some leftover poached pears and cranberry sauce, well ... you shouldn't have any left over after this.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll have to get to those dishes. But then I'm going to check-out my new cookbook! (This is one of those rare occasions when it pays to peek under the dust cover.)

And, lest you think I am totally one dimensional (I think this is an example of the subjunctive tense in Engish, just in case you happen to care) and I only read cookbooks, here is my latest literary acquistion -- the latest from the creator of Captain Underpants! I can't wait!! Funny I mentioned cavemen at the start, and here they are again. Hmm....

Peace-out, brothers and sisters! Bye for now....

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