Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who Gave Us Venison

I grew up eating game meat. My dad Frank Addison Albini was a terrific shot with a rifle and had generally excellent hunting skills. While my dad loved hunting and fishing, he didn't romanticize them. He was filling the freezer, not intellectualizing some caveman impulse or proving his worth as a real man. He spent considerable time working on the accuracy of his weapons and hand-loaded rounds for specific game and conditions, because he considered taking an animal with more than one shot needlessly cruel. Everyone he hunted with aspired to his ability.

In large part I owe my adventurous palate to my dad shooting so many different things. We regularly ate elk and venison, but we also had seasons where pop filled all the tags he could get, and he occasionally made excursions to Alaska, so in addition to all manner of fowl, I've eaten bear, antelope, wild boar, caribou and probably other big mammals I've forgotten. My mother handled this Noah's Ark larder with aplomb, happily using game in place of beef or pork in lasagna, ravioli, sausage and wherever else required.

I was reminded of this all when I discovered a parcel of Venison backstrap (loin) in our freezer. Somebody had obviously given it to us as a gift, probably from some fancy food place that sends things in dry ice and styrofoam, and I had put it in the freezer for later use. Sadly, I do not remember the giver, which implies that I failed to thank whoever it was, but perhaps this public humiliation will succeed in sharpening my social graces where everything else has failed. I defrosted a tidy little loin, which is called the backstrap when it's from a deer. I suppose if squirrel meat ever becomes commercial they'll come up with a name for it on a squirrel.

I love the rub Tim Midyette has developed for red meats, and lately I use it whenever I cook anything that walked on four legs. It's a simple dry mix of espresso, sumac, salt and pepper, and it works magic. I hadn't tried it on game meat, but the discovered venison gave me a perfect excuse. I rubbed it into the loin and let it rest while I prepared to sear it.

I only have one skillet, a simple steel line cook's item I bought at a restaurant supply shop 20 years ago. I also have an iron skillet, but it takes so long to heat up that I only use it when I have time to kill or need to make cornbread. Since I needed to make both the venison loin and a sauce for pasta to serve as a side dish, I had to stage the cooking and manage the skillet resource to serve everything at an appropriate temperature. The venison would need to rest after searing, so first I needed to put water on to boil, then sear the venison and let it rest, which would give me enough time to make a sauce for pasta. So I did that.

Venison like most game meats is exceptionally lean, and has to be served rare or it's tough and nasty. With a bigger cut, this can be difficult to judge, but with a little strip of loin like this, you basically just sear the margins and let it rest to come up to temperature. Takes a couple minutes.

The pasta sauce was pretty simple. I blanched white asparagus in the pasta water, then cut some of the asparagus and sauteed it with some leeks and red pepper in olive oil. When the sauce was almost ready, I dropped the capellini in the water. Capellini is a great pasta to serve with something like this because it's delicate enough not to compete with the vegetables and it cooks in a couple of minutes.

I tossed the pasta with the vegetables and plated it with a couple of the spears of asparagus, then sliced the loin and set it on top. I garnished it with some chopped scallions and mint, drizzled it with olive oil and shaved some asiago over everything. I thought it looked pretty good, but when I brought it to Heather her first words were "Why is there penises in my food?"*

She was referring to the asparagus. Because of the shape.**

*That's what she said no kidding.
**They look like penises.