Aromatic port-soaked venison shanks wrapped in Swiss chard

This recipe uses one of the best cheap cuts from our stockpile of local venison – shanks, combining these with my favourite and infallible vegetable crop of this year, Swiss chard. The cooking marinade has a hefty glug of port and serves as a simple sauce, being further enriched with aromatic star anise, juniper berries and herbs. I say sauce. I’m not sure what it should technically be called – it is not a gravy (a thickened sauce), and probably not a jus (unthickened gravy type affair). Sauce. A thin one. That will suffice, for me at least.

As ever, posts and blogging interactions have been restricted by my commitments over the last few weeks.  Hopefully, with Christmas only a week away, I can start to think less about work and building and more about a bit of festive cheer – maybe even produce a festive post?  Well, that might be pushing it a bit. Bah humbug, we will see…

Swiss chard – a stoic vegetable

My Swiss chard crop has been the star of my veg bed greens this year.  Despite perpetual harvesting and hacking, gales and pelting horizontal rain, it persisted, unblackened and magnificently upright compared with my very ragged and battered leeks.

I say persisted. A raging storm last week meant I had to be pragmatic and accept the blackening blast would be the end of the chard crop for the year.  Now it can only be described as charred chard.

The storm was pretty fierce, there was a lot of flash, bang and wallop as the weather fronts rolled in from the Atlantic, gusts over 80 mph causing the occasional lurch and shudder of our old croft house.  This peaked with a magnificent thunderstorm, the crescendo as it approached accompanied by hail stones battering against the back of the house (and bedroom window),  the tumultuous auditory assault and accompanying spectacular lightning passing overhead about 0400 hrs, rattling the windows and leaving both of our telephone lines fried in its wake.

There was absolutely no chance of getting a wink of sleep, particularly with our baying hounds joining in with the racket to ‘enhance’ the cacophony. I couldn’t resist opening the curtains to stare at the spectacle as the storm approached.  I was rewarded by a gargantuan flash that left me blinded for a few seconds. Although overhead, the thunder could barely be heard for the roar of the wind, hail, dogs, rattling downpipes, etc. We rushed around the house, switching off all the appliances – we have had circuits fried in phones, printers and the cooker in the last few years. Incredibly, though the power supply wavered, it stayed on, as did our broadband.  Until later in the day when, just as I was approaching a critical work deadline, the broadband signal inexplicably disappeared, to be followed by the power an hour later.  Power was restored within an hour, broadband the next day.  It took a week to have one phone line fixed and we are still waiting on the fault on the other to be repaired – nearly 2 weeks later.

Ride the lightning

I have always been fascinated by storm watching, as a child I was transfixed by thunder and lightning, often only to be disappointed by the brevity and relative meekness of our UK storms (although we have discovered they are more frequent and sustained in the Hebrides). Not so when I moved to Portugal and I could enjoy the light show of autumn storms, fork lightning cracking the sky, illuminating the hills surrounding the village.  I delighted in Equatorial storms in Ecuador, predictable weather patterns accompanied by biblical cloudbursts. Most recently, on the Slovakian border with Ukraine, I became completely mesmerised, watching an eerily quiet 3 hour luminescent display of heat lightning while sipping beer on my hotel terrace on a still, balmy evening.  The frequent staccato lightning bolts branched and flickered, repeatedly incising the sky, like cracks running across a pane of glass.

Storms are, of course, to be respected and revered, and can only be enjoyed when you are not in danger. Sadly, the hurricane of 2005 that took 5 members of the same family on South Uist will remain a bleak reminder that one can never be complacent about forecasts. That night changed people’s perspective and sensitivity towards extreme weather across these exposed islands.

The wind speed during last week’s storm isn’t at all unusual for the Uists and such storms, indeed it is going to be the same again tonight. Occasionally some more ferocious storms occur, maybe only once each winter. Last week, the storm pulled tiles off 3 neighbouring properties and we were lucky not to sustain damage.  We are relatively protected from storms by low-lying hills around the house on the side of the prevailing south-west wind, but northerlies like the storm last week have the potential to do most damage to our house.

There have been one or two occasions when the wind has reached hurricane speed that I did become slightly alarmed.  One particular night comes to mind in winter 2009 when wind speeds exceeded 100 mph.  Inevitably, the power went off, then we heard the alarming sound of creaking and a slumping sound.  This was a down pipe shaking loose, pulling with it a clump of render 4 x 4 m off the back of our house.  This storm lifted the roof off a building on St Kilda where wind speeds reached in excess on 120 mph.

Hurricane Bawbag

While these storms can be alarming,  the now infamous ‘Hurricane Bawbag’ was particularly memorable. This name coined on Twitter and was adopted thereafter, notably on the cover of one Red Top next morning, complete with the image of a wind turbine ablaze in Ayrshire.

Burning: The flaming debris from the wind turbines flew off into nearby fields due to the wind

It was quite an appropriate moniker for this scunner of a storm in Scotland, we couldn’t possibly have just called it Bob, Fred or Frieda in a regular Hurricane-naming way.  I note the meaning of bawbag is not provided in reference to the event on Wikipedia but can be found here for the curious. During this hurricane on 8 December 2011, the rest of Scotland got the flavour of wind speeds we experience here during severe winter storms.  Although we did lose power at home, plus 4 gates and a chimney cowl that night, unfortunately, I was not home but ironically in the eye of the storm for a meeting in Edinburgh.

Enduring a storm in a landscape devoid of trees and a few low, dispersed buildings in a rural landscape is an entirely different prospect to experiencing a hurricane in our capital city.  Scaffolding poles, roof tiles, trees and even flying rubbish became a serious hazard while myself and my colleagues staggered through the city centre, trying to avoid getting hit by detritus and being blown into the path of traffic along the way. The proposed festive outing to drink gluhwein at the outdoor continental market in Princes Street was most definitely cancelled.

Here, in the grip of another, more moderate gale tonight, it is comforting to know it’s unlikely to be ‘Bawbag II’, although with gusts of 80 mph, power could again be disrupted. A good night then to remind myself of the chard and other veg growing in the garden in mid summer: It won’t be long before it comes around again…

swiss chard

Port-soaked venison shanks wrapped in Swiss chard 

The venison shanks had to be decanted from one of our freezers to accommodate the surprise early arrival of our Christmas turkey from my crofting neighbour. It was also surprisingly large. We were offered a smaller bird, but the caveat was I would have to go round and dispatch it myself.  I declined. Earlier in the year, I could see these free range birds wandering about casually on the croft from our house and hear their calls on still nights. Our bird is a completely different shape from commercially farmed birds, being naturally proportioned, without those implant-style breasts that farmed birds sport. I look forward to comparing it with last year’s bronze turkey.

The venison shanks were slow cooked in a stock-based marinade for about 5 hours by which time the meat is very tender and falls from the bone and can be flaked, removing the most gelatinous components of the tendons and ligaments in which these tough muscle fibres are enmeshed. It is then ready for rolling in chard leaves which are steamed. Lettuce leaves such as little gem can also be used as a substitute for chard, and lamb shanks for venison.

The venison-filled chard parcels were served simply, with a little of the rich and aromatic cooking sauce and some carrots and parsnips from the garden.

Pre-heat oven to 150C

Ingredients

2 venison shanks

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed.

1 onion, chopped

100 ml of port

1 star anise

8 juniper berries, crushed

bunch of thyme springs

1 bay leaf

1.5 litres of game or chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

shank 2

shank 3

Method

  • Brown the venison shanks in olive oil in a large casserole dish, then add the rest of the ingredients to cover the shanks, bring to a simmer.
  • Put the lid on and place the casserole in the oven for 4-5 hours, checking occasionally to ensure there is enough stock marinade to cover the shanks.  Top up with water/stock as necessary.
  • Remove the shanks and allow to cool slightly before pulling the tender muscle meat away from the now gelatinous tendons, ligaments and sinews.  The meat will have already fallen off the bone.
  • Mix a small amount of the cooking sauce with the meat and roll a generous large spoonful in each chard leaf, securing with a cocktail stick, if required.  Steam the parcels for 5 minutes and serve with some of the cooking sauce and vegetables of your choice. I suggest 2 parcels per person.

shank 4

venison shank

Venison liver pâté

This simple recipe is the first stepping stone on the road to gentle re-acquaintance with my blog after an absence of over a month.  This simple, rich and aromatic pâté recipe brought contrasting textures and flavours to a delightful spread of antipasti we enjoyed recently.

It is not every day that a friend turns up at my door with the gift of a venison liver, not even at the start of the stalking season, so the liver was gratefully received, albeit a slightly novel present.  Despite having masticated our way through several red deer hinds since my vegetarian self moved to Uist, this is the first I have managed to get a hold of a liver.

Who knows where they go.  I hold no secrets about the whereabouts of the North Uist deer liver mountain.  Perhaps because they are the deer’s best kept secret, they don’t get as far as the punter, and who could begrudge the hunter or stalker this most glorious component of The Fifth Quarter?  Not me. Well, most of the time…

November? Already?

Had it not been for my extensive travels over the last month, reminding me that it is indeed already November due to the potentially looming travel disruption of flights and ferries, I think I would still be under the misguided apprehension that summer had just ended.  Time has flown past these last two or three months and the winter is winging past at a frightening rate. Not a bad thing, most people would argue.

Work commitments have taken me away from the island for large chunks of the last month and I have been on one of my typical circumnavigations of Scotland.  Meetings in Perth, Oban, Aberdeen and Inverness, additional stopovers in Skye, Glasgow and a flying visit to my parents (literally).  I felt like a pinball ricocheting around Scotland in planes, trains and automobiles (and ferries).

In truth, most of the time I enjoy these excursions off the island – good chance to catch up with friends, family and colleagues along the way, visit cities, shops, see more people than sheep on a daily basis. However, I have clearly spent far too many nights staying at the hotel next to Glasgow Airport, pending flight next morning.

One night last week, between trips, I was home and woke up with a start when I heard a plane fly over.  Slightly baffled for a few minutes, I assumed I was in that hotel next to Glasgow Airport, only to find to my relief when I came to that I was in fact at home and that the air ambulance had just flown over! No doubt the sound of its arrival would be a relief to a patient in need too.

Despite a few tentative waits in departure lounges scanning the forecasts on my phone and hoping the flight would go, and occasional turbulent flights and tricky landings, pleased to say I mostly avoided the dreaded cancellations. All but once that is when a technical fault caused a ferry to break down, delaying my arrival home by 12 hours.

With a substantial workload and pre-Christmas deadlines looming, I am glad I can be back home to focus and get my teeth into meeting the deadlines before the festive break. That’s the plan, at least!

Sad Song

In the interim between my last post and this, one of the true originals of music, Lou Reed died.  Not such a Perfect Day.  Lou Reed was a true artist and a musical pioneer who has influenced and shaped rock music landscape for decades.  His often wonderfully idiosyncratic and deadpan, droll delivery of his unique and thought provoking lyrics had perfect musical accompaniment. His guitar style was special – distinctively assertive yet bare bones. His work has been and will always be part of the musical highlights of my life.

While it is totally understandable, it is also pity that most of the obituaries and tributes in the music (and popular) press focused on his early years with the Velvet Underground. No denying this brilliant and ground breaking work and the 1972 solo Transformer album that followed.  However, that was very knowingly hip and cool.

It was between 1989 and 2000 that his work really spoke to me.  I still regularly play his 1989 album New York with such gems as Dirty Blvd, Romeo Had Juliette and Strawman, which contain some of his best bile-laden lyrics.  The albums Songs for Drella, Magic and Loss, Set the Twilight Reeling and Ecstasy complete the album quintet that best summarises what I value about his work.

We saw him in Edinburgh when he toured for the Ecstasy album.  He was at his cantankerous artistic best: acerbic, contrary and expressive, everything one should expect from Lou Reed at a gig: an unmalleable, difficult and complex personality laid bare.

Planning ahead

Earlier, I was talking of plans and the ball is finally rolling with our plans to renovate and extend our crumbling croft house. In between trips away, we have been working with our architect to finalise the plans.  After numerous iterations, we are pleased to say these plans are complete at last, thanks to the help of our patient, can-do architect.

It would be much easier in many respects if it was a new build.  Working with old houses brings constraint, challenge and additional costs, not least because we must pay VAT at 20% on the renovation and extension, unlike a new build.  We had considered flattening the house and starting again, but only fleetingly.  We bought the house with our eyes open and in part because it would be a challenging, exciting and alarming project. We knew it would require total renovation and extension, and the time is nigh.

A few people have asked me if I intend to blog about the renovation and extension project of our old croft house. I would like to, if nothing else but to document the process for our own benefit and reflection later. Given I can barely maintain this blog at the moment, it doesn’t look that likely for now but I may change my mind. More on the build in future posts. For today I have had my fill.

Just before I tackled this post, I had spent a considerable amount of time researching bathroom extractor fans online. After 30 pages of looking at dull plastic objects that pretty much all look the same, fulfill more or less a similar purpose, some quieter or more powerfully than others, I lost the will to live.  So here I am.  Venison liver pâté.

Venison liver pâté

It does seems a pity to deconstruct this most perfect and healthy of red deer livers to pâté, but the result was well worth it.  The deconstruction was , however, less than pretty. Mincing deer liver is not for the faint-hearted and the resulting passage of the organ through our electric mincer was reminiscent of the remake of the Evil Dead, a splat and sprayfest that we recently enjoyed  This resulted in me shielding the kitchen from the ensuing bloodbath with a bin bag screen around the mincer. Photographs have been deliberately withheld, lest they be blocked by my server. Don’t be deterred!

liver 1

Before mincing, the liver must be prepped by removing all membranes and vessels before use.  This left about a kilo of liver to work with, enough for 2 terrines. The inclusion of minced pork belly to add texture meant the pâté was somewhat a hybrid between a terrine and a classic pâté, but I thought the addition of the pork was necessary to add fat for moisture and to balance the intensity of the rich and powerful gamey liver.

The pate was served with home made two seed crackers, my own rowan and apple jelly, various salamis, Sicilian Castelvetrano olives and Great Glen Game’s wonderful smoked venison (see Twitter @GreatGlenGame). This is one of the wonderful charcuterie products they sell.  I have been trying in vane to get a hold of some for a while.  Each time I pass Roy Bridge, unfortunately, it is after shop closing, otherwise I would stop by for some.  I managed to pick up some at a new deli that has sprung up in Portree, Skye.

The olives and salami come from our great new Island Deli on Benbecula.  How fantastic it is to at last have our own fresh cheese and charcuterie selection, as well as good coffee from this new island business.

antipasti

The ingredients below are for 1 terrine.

Ingredients

500g venison liver, minced

350g pork belly, minced

50 ml brandy

6 juniper berries, crushed

100 ml port

200 g pancetta or streaky bacon

1 egg, beaten

salt and pepper

Set the oven to 180C

Method

  • Mince the trimmed venison liver, then the pork belly.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients, except the egg and bacon, mix well, leave to stand for a couple of hours.
  • At this stage, check the seasoning by frying a piece of mixture in a frying pan, adjust if required, according to taste.
  • Line a terrine with overlapping slices of streaky bacon widthways. Combine the beaten egg into the meat mixture then fill the terrine with the mixture.
  • Finish by wrapping the bacon ends over the mixture in the terrine and cover with foil.
  • Place in the oven in a Bain Marie , the water coming 3/4 way up the sides of the terrine, for 1 1/2 hours.
  • Place a weight on top of the terrine, allow to cool then chill overnight before running a knife around the edge, turning out and slicing.

pate 2

pate 1

Venison Volume II: Skinning up – sausages and stock

This is a post part of which has been sitting in my drafts for some time and for some reason, I only now get round to publication.  This is not least with encouragement of Phil at Food, Frankly and my promise to do so last week. Being a person of my word (most of the time), here is the second volume of the rather graphic venison butchery episode.  Be assured that this is somewhat more gentle than Volume 1: In the Flesh and covers making the most of the animal and preparing fine game stock and venison sausages.

Part of the reason I have not posted this so far is that I am not really a very good step-by-step recipe blogger, especially with images as I lack patience and photographic skills for this, and the processes involved very much need this approach.  However, if going off on random digressions are your thing, especially musical ones, I am adept at that. I will curb my enthusiasm in this respect and restrict myself only to the briefest mention of a musical soundtrack.  Venison butchery, stock and sausage making are culinary marathons that demand a soundtrack to provide the stamina and to drive one to the end (she said in a thinly veiled justification).

Food provenance – there are no surprises

As outlined in Volume 1, knowing the provenance of the meat and fish I eat is the essence of why I decided to do so again after a decade of strict vegetarianism. This is especially pertinent given the unfolding ‘My Lidl Pony’ horse meat scandal. It is becoming increasingly clear that a long, convoluted and global supply chain makes it almost impossible to be reassured about the identity, provenance and possibly even the safety of processed meat products for sale in the UK.

In fact, this comes as no surprise to me as it should not be to most consumers.  Our insatiable demand and expectation for cheap meat, coupled with and exacerbated by the dominance of supermarkets reacting to the markets on a gargantuan global scale brings with it this vicious circle of inevitability.  Meat is a luxury and should not be cheap and we have all but lost sight of the global environmental and welfare implications of eating meat. It should be a component of our diet, not the central focus, which it so often is. The middle classes have the luxury to fret about the food miles associated with eating the likes of asparagus out of season flown in from Peru (mea culpa).  The issue for unfortunates who do eat processed ‘beef’ is one of food miles squared – with bells on.

While I am not ready to revert to vegetarianism, I do my utmost not to feel smug or sanctimonious about my eating habits or those choices of others. The options I have are fairly luxurious and there are many people who are not fortunate enough to be in a position to source quality local meat and, more fundamentally, that can afford the meat choices I can readily make.

While that is true, I also have a finite budget and would rather forego the luxury of a new pair of shoes, or even curb my CD buying urges to make sure I eat the best quality produce that I can.   In truth, I don’t have a problem with eating horse meat per se, I no doubt did when I lived in Portugal (maybe even donkey too). The real issue is that with processed meat you can have no confidence in what you are eating and must have your eyes wide open to that reality.

The making of venison sausages

Sausages are a case in point and I am guilty of contradictions in this respect.  I turn my nose up at processed meat of supermarket breakfast sausages, but happily eat artisan cured salamis.  Let’s face it, I don’t really know what’s in these salamis and donkey is likely in some traditional Spanish variants. Similarly, how much do I know about the provenance of the smoked pork belly I use in this recipe? So, going back to my ethos, I do what I can.

Out of respect for the deer, we use over 95% of the carcass we collected to produce prime cuts, stock and sausages. Sausage making is a great use for all the bits from the belly, ribs, parts of the shoulder and neck that ends up piled up at the end of butchery of the prime muscle cuts.  That said, we remove all sinews, tendons and viscera, keeping only the prime meat for the sausages. Equally, it could be simply minced and frozen to make a fine low fat venison based lasagne.  This year we had a whopping 5 kg of potential sausage meat from our deer.

To make sausages, it is best to be prepared in advance.  That means getting breadcrumbs or rusk, skin, pork fat and seasoning ready for construction. To do this, we call upon the services of the indispensable Weschenfelder, specialists in butchery and charcuterie equipment, all with the benefits of an online shop. Their website is mesmerising, offering a cornucopia of delights for the professional and home sausage-maker alike.

Sausage making soundtrack: Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide; Lamb of God – Sacrament; Kate Bush – Hounds of Love and The White Stripes – Elephant

Ingredients

5 kg venison

2 kg Pork fat or belly (smoked in this case)

1.5 kg Pinhead Rusk

1.5 litres cold water

227g seasoning mix – 1 pack of Weschenfelder Royal Venison Seasoning

venison 1

Over the past few years we have used many different sausage recipes, largely of our own creations.  Some have been very successful, others, in trying to cut down the fat content, have been altogether too meaty and a bit strangely flavourless.  This year we opted to play it safe and turned to a Weschenfelder seasoning recipe – Royal Venison Seasoning and incorporated their rusk into the recipe too.

Choice of casing

We always buy casings (skins) from the online shop too.  We favour natural casings: hog casings and sheep casings (more info courtesy of Weschenfelder) and have also used collagen. Each has a plus and minus.  Collagen is synthetic and is what most supermarket sausages are encased in. It is easy and forgiving to use but gives quite an unnatural shape and texture.

Hog are good, robust and offers quite big diameter sausages – good for Cumberland or similar.  Sheep casings are much narrower and more delicate to work but make a really fine, elegant (if you can call a sausage elegant) breakfast sausage.  We used sheep this year, choosing traditional hanks but the delicate nature of the casings meant they frequently broke/burst when shirring onto the nozzle of the mincer.  This made the process even more time-consuming. I suspect we would benefit from a smaller nozzle for sheep casings, shown below soaking in water.

venison 2

Method

  • First, the meat and fat is minced.  We have a dedicated mincer with a sausage-making nozzle attachment.  If you have a KitchenAid, a sausage-making attachment can be purchased for it, but it is expensive.

Mincing the pork Bosek

Mincing the pork belly

Venison is minced - note the vibrant colour

Venison is minced – note the vibrant colour

We used smoked pork belly, because we simply couldn’t get a hold of pork fat here.  This made the sausages a bit more meaty and ‘bacony’ than they would be if fat alone had been added, but they were not dry.

  • The minced venison and pork are then mixed with the seasoning mixture then briefly with half of the cold water.
  • The remaining cold water is added to form a sticky, moist mixture before adding the rusk and mixing well.

venison 9

  • The whole batch of mixture is then minced again in readiness for being fed into casings. Casings are rinsed and soaked in water beforehand.

venison

  • The mincer attachment was changed for the nozzle and the wet sheep casings were carefully threaded onto it.
  • The mixture was fed back through the mincer, slowly feeding the mix through so as to not burst the casings or have sausages being produced at a high rate of knots that can’t be managed.

venison 7The reward is a huge pile of delicious venison sausages.  This batch provided 200 sausages and 40 chipolatas.  Most of the chipolatas were served with Christmas dinner.  Some of the mixture was also kept back and used to stuff our free-range bronze turkey. Any left over casings can be stored in salt in the fridge and re-hydrated for use.

Having done a back-of-an envelope calculation, I estimated the average cost of each sausage to be 20p. Although there is a lot of work in the butchery preparations and making the sausages, this is still a bargain for a premium quality sausage of good provenance.  The benefit for us is also the skills in butchery and food preparation we have developed which will stand us in good stead when we move on to make salamis, something we certainly plan to do in the future.

Stock making – post butchery therapy

The other essential component of the day that maximizes the value for money of a whole red deer carcass is to make stock with the bones.  Freezing the bones to do this another time takes up a ridiculous amount of freezer space and so I make stock and store it in 500 ml containers in the freezer for use throughout the year.  I call it game stock as I use it interchangeably as a stock for wildfowl as well as venison recipes. I take great care over making this stock as this will be the foundation of many game dishes over the winter and I find stock making very satisfying, even therapeutic.

The recipe I use is the classic Michel Roux game stock recipe. The recipe calls for veal stock, which is a bit of an ask out here.  This can be replaced with chicken or beef stock. I used chicken, which does lighten the stock a bit. I bring more intensity of flavour by reducing the strained stock at the end of the process. I made 2 batches over 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 220C (fan)

Ingredients

3 tbsp. groundnut oil

2kg game trimmings: venison bones in our case

150g carrots, sliced into rounds

150g onions, coarsely chopped

1/2 a garlic bulb, unpeeled and cut in half widthways

500ml Cotes du Rhone (preferably, other red wine is fine)

500ml veal stock (or beef/chicken)

8 juniper berries, crushed

8 coriander seeds, crushed

1 bouquet garni, including 2 sage leaves and a celery stalk

venison 3

Method

  • Put the oil in a large roasting tray together with the bones and trimmings and brown in a hot oven for 30 minutes, turning occasionally.
  • Add the carrots, onions and garlic and return to the oven for another 5 minutes.

venison8

  • Transfer all the meat and veg to a large stock pan, pour off any fat from the roasting tray and deglaze with the red wine.
  • Reduce the wine by half then add to the stock pan.
  • Add 2 litres of water to the pan and bring to the boil on a high heat.  Just as it boils, turn down the heat until the liquid barely simmers.
  • Skim for 10 minutes then leave it barely simmering for 2 hours.
  • Strain through a chinois / sieve. At tis stage it can be reduced by a third to intensify the flavour.
  • Cool and pour into containers to freeze.  Done!

venison10

Stormy Venison and Black Turtle Bean Ancho-Chipotle Chilli

Heavy Weather

I tentatively started writing this post a couple of hours ago. The predicted low weather front started to take effect on the Outer Hebrides about lunchtime. As it was also very wet and windy yesterday, for the first time in about 18 months, I thought it was safer not to take the dogs out. It seemed a bit better today, but once I got out, it deteriorated again and with pins of horizontal precipitation jabbing me uncomfortably in the face, I struggled to stay upright, slipping and sliding on the very wet blanket bog, struggling into the headwind to get back to the car. The dogs coped a bit better being four-paw drive and a bit nearer to the ground. Being smart beasts, they have devised a cunning and stealthy plan for horizontal rain and hail. They lie down flat in the heather and wait until I get a bit ahead of them, then slink at speed past me and lie down again, as if they are covering each other in a military advance. The best part for them was getting home for a towel dry and a biscuit. Me to.

The weather has deteriorated considerably since the dog walk, as predicted. Since the low is coinciding with a high tide, police are taking no chances and causeways along the island chain have been closed. Although I work from home now (thankfully) when I commuted from work on South Uist in very poor weather the office would be closed. We all left early to ensure we got back home (especially those crossing several causeways to North Uist) before causeways were closed by police.

Traversing causeways is like driving along behind a very long sea wall in a storm, although worse because vehicles move from the relative shelter of the island onto the causeway, open to the full force of the elements. Immediately a gust can hit the side of the car as sea spray and the occasional wave also lands on it, making it impossible to see. Windscreen wipers are useless and there is also a risk of aqua-planing. Great as my little puddle-jumper was for commuting, it did not take kindly to these occasional conditions any more than I did!

Exposing oneself: Eriskay causeway in better weather – closed for business this evening.

Wind speeds have reached about 70 mph, with gusts of +90 mph and the gusts are rocking the house, much as they have done periodically for the last 80 or so years of its existence, with no particularly detrimental effects. The wind is fairly persistently strong and then, as the clouds roll in from the Atlantic, even in the dark you just know when it’s going to get that bit worse. The preceding loud roar as the wind speed picks up heralds the arrival of another front of torrential rain, although unlike last night, no lightning accompanies the squall.

Regular Facebook updates from across the islands tell the familiar tale: ferries and buses cancelled, local amenities such as the sports centre closed – and beware, power outputs reported across parts of North Uist and Benbecula. I have got more common sense than to start baking when the weather is like this. With overhead powerline transmission serving the whole electricity network, power cuts are common – even without the explanation of the wind (swans or geese hitting a line somewhere is one such reason). So, it was just as we started to cook dinner the power went off following many threatening flickers. One never can tell how long it will stay off, so we try and keep the stove stoked, a pan of hot water on top, if required and NEVER open the freezer door – in case the outage is protracted.

Twenty minutes later, power back on, we quickly served dinner. The lights have more or less stayed on since until I started to write this and frustratingly, as anticipated, the power went off again but just for long enough to knock the computer off and all the digital devices in the house. It may be that I will have to resume this post tomorrow, we will see what happens….

Venison and Black Turtle Bean Ancho-Chipotle Chilli

Dinner needs to homely, preferably slow cooked and comforting in this weather – not to mention hot – chilli hot, that is. Using some of our venison that was butchered in the autumn – a piece of shoulder diced into big chunks, slow cooked and rich in gamey flavour stands up well to the heat and smokiness of the chillis.  The chilli was served with Mexican green rice, a recipe I found in the Wahaca ‘Mexican food at home’ book, which I varied to accommodate the ingredients I had. This is basmati rice cooked in veg stock with a handful of coriander, parsley an onion and 2 garlic cloves whizzed in a food processor and mixed through the rice, finished in the oven for half an hour.

Chilli Ingredients

800g venison shoulder, diced into big chunks

150g dried black turtle beans

1 tblsp of flavourless oil e.g. groundnut

2 onions, chopped

1 green pepper, finely chopped

1 celery stick, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed

400ml tomato passata

500 ml game (or beef) stock

4 dried ancho chillies, re-hydrated

2 dried chipotle chillis, re-hydrated

1 tblsp chilli powder

2 tsp ground cumin

I tsp celery salt

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tblsp lime juice

Method

  • Soak the beans for a few hours then boil for about 45 minutes until just tender, set aside.
  • Re-hydrate the chillis in boiling water for about 20 minutes, then blend and strain through a sieve to remove skin and seeds, set aside to add later.
  • Brown the cubes of venison shoulder steak in the oil and remove with a slotted spoon.
  • Saute the onion, garlic and the rest of the veg gently for about 5 minutes.
  • Put the venison back in the pan with the veg together with the passata, stock, herbs, spices, celery salt and rehydrated chilli paste.
  • Allow to cook for an hour at a low heat, covered, on the stove top, then add the turtle beans and cook for about another 1 hour 15 minutes. Add the lime juice just before serving.
  • Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with Mexican green rice – and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon – or some milk to suppress the heat.

chilli

Venison steak and pomme fondant (revisited) with bramble and juniper sauce

After my meal at Howie’s in Edinburgh last week involving venison leg steak and very disappointing faux pomme fondant (conglomerate) and bramble and juniper sauce,  the general dissatisfaction made me obliged to cook my own version of the meal at home at the weekend. The hardship!

I was irrationally upset about the denial of the pomme fondant and all week there was a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ missing from my life.  Good to get these things out of your system, so a culinary cure was called for.

I was determined to make this a ‘Uist meal’ as much as I could and to use what I had by the way of stored veg, or growing veg in the raised beds. Over the last month, the raised beds have been left almost  to manage themselves (with the exception of garlic planting and associated rodent management).

Sprout success – exploding buds pending…

This was telling when I saw to my horror that one variety of sprouts (Darkmar 21 – organic seeds), in their apparently exceptional happiness with the growing conditions were at risk of buds exploding forth from their stems.  Dense packing of the buds had kept a lid on the situation, but intervention was urgently needed. It is the first time I’ve grown a mid-season variety so don’t usually check sprouts until at least December. At least I had found one veg for my meal.

So, for stored veg, I recovered some carrots that were layered in sand in the shipping container.  To leave them outside is to risk sustaining the rat population, as I found out to my chagrin last winter.  I pulled up carrot tops, the root removed by stealth using mole-like tunnelling action below ground.  I suppose it could have been a Were-Rabbit. To keep them safe in the ground I would need “Anti-Pesto”, for that coveted Golden Carrot award to be mine….

I grew a mixture of 3 varieties of carrots this year: a standard Nantes orange variety I plant each year (in case other varieties under test fail me), Yellowstone and Purple Dragon (heritage), for colour contrasts. The dry, cold spring meant I had to work very hard to get them to germinate, but I got there in the end with tenacity and successional sowing.

Carrots stored in a fish box found while beach combing, sand left over from a building project. Recycling is part of life in the Hebrides.

I turned to my stored potatoes to select the best variety for the pomme fondant.  I needed a waxy variety that would retain its shape during cooking, so chose Edgecote purple, a heritage variety first listed in 1916. It has  yellow flesh and purple skin.

This was all a great excuse to use my new wooden vegetable trug, a present from my parents, given to me partly in jest.
Comparisons had frequently been drawn between the beautiful portrayal of the whimsical TV world of English gardening and Uist growing.  In dreamland, baskets and trugs feature large on the arms of presentable maidens donning Laura Ashley and Hunter wellies in leafy cottage gardens, heady with mellifluous scents of deep herbaceous borders. My parents decided a trug was what I needed to enhance my Uist gardening experience.  The real image is one of sporting ‘Uist hair’ in a gale, wearing waterproofs and trying to stop the veg flying out of the trug as you shield it from the gusts and run for the house.

Trug – a gardening icon in Uist. Rachel De Thame would be proud.

 

Venison with pomme fondant, sprouts and bramble and juniper sauce
Most of the ingredients are from Uist – North Uist venison and game stock and all veg, and herbs from the garden, brambles foraged locally in September.  Still working on the chicken stock.  Hard to get birds locally. Best start with the potatoes as they take longest. I didn’t measure anything out for this recipe, so quantities are approximations.  Sorry!  All recipes serve 2, so scale up for more people.
Pomme fondant
Not a dish for the health conscious, but a luxurious occasional treat. This can be a wasteful dish as the pieces are cut from the centre of potatoes. The smallest potato will dictate the size of the pieces, if you want them to be of a uniform size. A 4cm cutter will make a portion of 3 fondants per person, for a 6cm, 2 fondants are enough.  I used the leftover potato pieces to add to chicken, potato and leek soup next day. This also stretched the chicken carcass that provided the stock to make another meal.

Pomme fondant with butter, thyme and garlic.

Set the oven to 190oC
Ingredients:
4-6 largish waxy potatoes
60g of butter
250 ml of chicken stock
salt and pepper
sprig of thyme
garlic clove cut in half
Scone cutter (4-6 cm depending on potato size)
Ovenproof frying pan
Method
  • Cut out a cylinder of potato about 2.5 cm thick using the scone cutter.  I used 4 cm cutter, as I wanted a uniform size and my potatoes were quite small. Trim the edges to prevent them sticking in the pan – and to make them look neat.
  • Put the butter in the ovenproof frying pan on a medium heat with the garlic and thyme, salt and pepper.
  • Once it is melted and starts to hiss and bubble gently, add the potatoes. Turn after 3-5 minutes.  They should be golden and the butter will be turning slightly nutty, but take care that it does not burn.
  • When both sides are coloured, add the chicken stock.  Add enough to come about 3/4 way up the sides of the potato.
  • Bring to a simmer and place in the oven for 15 -20 minutes.  Most of the stock should by then be absorbed into the delectably soft and flavoursome tattie.
  • This leaves time to deal with the venison and sprouts.  I start the sauce at the same time with the potatoes as it needs this amount of time to develop depth of flavour.
Venison topside steak
Thick steaks (at least 1.5 cm) are recommended  for this quick cook method to ensure it is rare and remains so while being rested.
Set the oven to 100oC
Ingredients:
venison steaks, 1 per person
knob of butter
salt and pepper
Method
  • Heat a griddle pan until almost smoking and add some groundnut or olive oil.
  • Season the venison steaks, place in the hot pan and add a dollop of butter.
  • Turn after 3 minutes and cook on the other side for the same time. They should be nicely caramelised with lines across each from the griddle pan.
  • Remove from the pan (if the hot griddle pan is placed in the oven, the steak will continue to cook and will be overcooked) and place in a warmed roasting tray and into the oven to rest for about 5 minutes.
Bramble and juniper sauce
It can tricky to get the balance right between fruit acidity and infusion of just enough juniper.  Taste the sauce frequently throughout and adjust seasoning accordingly.  The recipe is a variation of a Michel Roux recipe for juniper sauce.
Ingredients:
2 shallots, finely chopped
200 ml red wine
300 ml game stock
60 g brambles/blackberries
30g butter, cold, diced
4 juniper berries, crushed
1 tsp rowan and apple or redcurrant jelly
salt and pepper
Method:
  • Put the red wine and shallots in a pan, bring to the boil at a medium heat and simmer until the wine has reduced by 1/3.
  • Add the stock, crushed juniper berries and brambles and simmer for 15 minutes.  Add the rowan jelly and let it dissolve.
  • Strain the sauce through a chinois into a clean pan and whisk in the butter cubes a few at a time. Season and taste.  A bit more rowan jelly can be dissolved in at this stage, if required.
Brussel sprouts with bacon and juniper
This is a Nigel Slater recipe from Tender Volume 1. I use it a lot as it has converted me to the delights of sprout eating.  I have adjusted the volume by half and tweaked the sprout cooking from boiling to steaming and cut the number of berries. Serves 2.
Ingredients:
200g brussel sprouts
125g pancetta or smoked bacon
8 juniper berries, crushed
pepper
Method:
  • Remove outer leaves from sprouts and retain for garnish (see below).
  • Pierce the bottom of each sprout with a knife and place in a steamer.  This will speed up cooking of the harder base.  Steam for about 7 minutes, until just tender.
  • Fry the pancetta until crisp and golden and remove with a slotted spoon. Drain on kitchen paper.
  • Half the sprouts and add to the same pan, add the crushed juniper berries.
  • As the sprouts soften and colour after a few minutes,  add the bacon back into the pan and season.  They are ready to serve.
Carrots
Juliene then steam for 3-4 minutes and toss in butter and some orange juice, add salt and pepper.
Garnish
Deep fry shredded outer brussel sprout leaves in ground nut oil.  Minimise on waste and add a flavour and texture contrast.

Venison with pomme fondant, bramble and juniper sauce with sprouts. Sprouts married with bacon and juniper hit the spot.

Venison Volume I: In the Flesh, my deer

Warning:  This post contains content about the reality of eating animals (again) and describes butchery and contains images of same.

I am pleased to say that at last, the deer hind we took delivery of last week is finally completely prepped and in the freezers. I am even more delighted that we managed to use almost every piece of the animal, just as it should be, with only one small carrier bag of no more than a couple of kilos of waste.

We are no butchery experts, but are self-taught. We butchered our first whole deer carcass 3 years ago with the help of a couple of useful books, web searches and You Tube. It’s surprising how much we remember, given we only do this once a year and this year we were patting each other on the back for not reaching for any references. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but the animal is prepared with care and respect to provide the cuts that we want. I hope this post will help or encourage others to try the same.

For me, venison is the finest of all red meat, and red deer the finest of all Cervidae. Better still, it is wild meat hence has much fewer welfare issues that are associated with domesticated stock such as cattle and sheep. Although, it is true that good wild deer welfare is dependent on good deer management practices. Wild deer populations require careful management for the benefit of the landscape and importantly, the fitness of the animals themselves.

There are a lot of deer on North Uist and culls at an appropriate level can take the  pressure off a fragile landscape, not to mention crofters crops and gardens like mine (we have just this minute scared some red deer our of our garden). The deer population also benefits from this management.  Maintaining the population at the correct level i.e. below the carrying capacity for any given habitat improves fitness by reducing the risk of starvation in lean times and helps the animals maintain good condition over the winter, improving reproductive success.

Food provenance is also not particularly a consideration with our Uist deer. When you pick up your animal from the local abattoir on the island on which is was shot a few days before, there are no ambiguities about its provenance.  It is also a lean red meat, is relatively healthy and extremely versatile. It is also reasonably rich and dense, so a little goes a long way. So, I see benefits all round.  This is meat that is good for your conscience as much as your health and palate.

I am always rather disappointed by beef these days.  To my palate, even the leanest cuts taste fatty compared with venison (because they are).  Some would argue fat brings flavour but a well hung piece of venison cooked to perfection will beat beef hands down – provided you understand how to cook it. Less is more. If you cook it to the Jesus sandal stage of leathery cremation, it is truly abhorrent.

Did I mention that I like venison?

If you want to avoid or have no interest in the following butchery section please see the recipe for Blackened venison chops with pak choi

Managing your own deer

The hind weighed 86 lb when we took delivery of it.  This is the dressed weight meaning it is skinned and with the head, feet and internal organs removed, about 55% of the live weight.  It is ready to butcher.  It had been shot 2 days before.  Ideally, we like the venison to hang for about a week to age and enhance the depth of flavour. We hung it up in our shipping container for a few more days. You should only do this if the temperature is low enough and you can guarantee the environment is fly free, otherwise, get on with butchery.

Suggestion: Before you start select some appropriate music.  You are going to need motivation for the duration.  Since it was a team effort for us, we came to a consensus that perhaps Bach or Sibelius would not serve us with the motivation required.  We selected the Planet Rock radio station.  A plethora of rock classics got us through to the forequarter.  Memorable chestnuts we had not heard for a long time spurred us on: Speed King by Deep Purple (The Hairy Scream at his best), early ZZ Top – La Grange and some distinctively cheesy 90’s power rock – Thunder’s ‘Love Walked In’.

Hind halves hanging to age the venison and enhance the flavour

Playlist in place, first thing to do before you even start is make sure you are equipped with VERY sharp knives, appropriate for the job.  A boning and a paring knife are essential, as is a butchers saw (or hacksaw). Fortunately, The Man Named Sous is an expert at sharpening knives.  Just as well because our knives, Chroma 301, made of Japanese steel, require to be sharpened on a wet stone.  It is tricky to get the sharpening angle correct and depends whether you are right or left-handed.  Fortunately we are both right handed. The room should be cool as the meat is easier to work with in cool conditions.  Finally, make sure surfaces and clean, disinfected with something like dilute Milton fluid. Once you get your deer ready to butcher, have a look over it, remove any hairs sticking to the carcass.  Look and see where it has been shot and the implications for how you butcher it.  This hind had a body shot which damaged part of the loin on one side, so we needed to take that into account.  In the past, we have had deer shot through the shoulder.

This results in quite significant damage to the shoulder joint and a lot of meat can be lost as a result.

The Fillet

This is the first cut to be removed and it sits alongside the loin and continues back and into the pelvis.  This prime cut is very fragile, so you need to know where it is and what it looks like before you start, or you will invariably cut straight through the club-shaped end at the rear of the beast. Working from the anterior end, drop the fillet away from the body. It starts to taper thinly at the end just as you reach the clubbed end, which is embedded in another group of muscles associated with the pelvis.

Dropping the fillet, reaching the tricky point at the haunch.

 
  

Fillet removed, showing the double piece of muscle at the rump end.

Once you have worked out where the end sits, carefully remove it intact.  There is a thin muscle lying along the length of the fillet.  This can be trimmed off and I usually use it for stir fry.
The Loin
For this half, the loin was cut off using the saw just at the end of the ribs. The loin runs right along the top of the back from the shoulder to the rump.  We decided to cut here to remove the damaged section where the hind had been shot and also as we prep the loin in association with the ribs at the front.

Loin just before boning out showing the location of this prime cut

Boning out the loin is straightforward.  Care must be taken to remove all sinew and connective tissue around it to prevent distortion during cooking.  This applies to all cuts intended for quick cooking.  It can be time-consuming, but there is nothing worse than a nice medallion that is misshapen and chewy round the edge because sinew has been left on it.

Loin removed from the bone, still with fat and sinew attached

All fat and sinews removed, the loin can be sliced to form medallions (also called loin/sirloin steaks). In this case, we left it intact as we are planning to use it in a Venison Wellington.  Together with the fillet, loin is the best cut.

The loin fully prepared and ready to be used in a Venison Wellington.

To bring out the best in the loin, it should not be cooked more than medium rare. It contains very little fat and overcooking will dry it out. I prefer it either very rare (almost bleu) or rare. Undercooking, searing the outside to get a caramelised exterior and resting are the best treatment to guarantee succulence and a soft, almost melt-in-the-mouth texture. Resting is also very important to relax the meat and draws the juices back to the more cooked meat around the outside.   You know your medallion is well rested when all juices remain within the meat when it is served.

The Haunch

The back leg and rump. It is a big piece of meat.  In the past, we have kept the muscles together and boned out the joint but it weighed kilos and we simply didn’t want to hold a banquet to use it.  We now take the 4 muscle groups (rump, topside, silverside and thick flank) apart and cut them into sensible sized pieces.

The main haunch muscle groups minus the rump. Clockwise from the top: Hand is on the silverside, below is a small muscle, the salmon cut, topside at the bottom and the rounded thick flank on the left.

Silverside and salmon cut are good for steaks and roasts. Again, all sinew including the silver connective tissue that gives the cut its name should be removed.

Removing the silverside and salmon cut from the other muscles

Silverside and salmon cut. Silverside showing the silver tissue that identifies it. This was removed and it was cut into steaks. The salmon cut was left whole.

The thick flank is a rounded muscle group made up of 5 muscles.  It usually makes a good rolled roast, but if from an older animal, may be best as stew. The topside is great for steaks, the largest from the animal. It is also good for making bresaola, which I have done in the past. Although traditionally an Italian recipe for beef, it works well for venison. It is salt-cured with herbs and spices then air-dried for at least a month during which time it goes deep red, almost purple. Sliced thinly, it makes wonderfully distinctive antipasti.  I would recommend giving it a go.

Fully prepared thick flank (left) and topside (right).

Below these cuts is the shank, a piece of meat that requires very slow cooking, either on the bone, or sliced and including the marrowbone, called ossobuco, an ingredient  in many classic recipes.

Musical interlude

By this point, the process was getting pretty intense and we needed another musical boost.  Planet rock was wearing thin with an increasing amount of ‘Cradle Rock’ such as Foo Fighters (stick to Them Crooked Vultures,  Grohl) and the final nail in the coffin was Bon Jovi’s ‘Bad Medicine’ an appalling track.  Bad Medicine, no Jon, just bad songwriting. This is not rock! Hang the DJ, as the great Mozza said…

Time for our own musical back catalogue and a motivational smack between the eyes – Lamb of God’s Sacrament  followed by Machine Head’s The Blackening.  Whoaaah!! Having then had enough Mofos for one day, time for something epic and loud, that’s right, it’s Epicloud, Devin Townsend’s captivating new album. The only Canadian more prolific and consistently brilliant as Neil Young. However, typical of Hevy Devy, this album is so complex I was unable to concentrate on both the butchery and the music. Time to try Porcupine Tree’s The Incident…..

The Forequarter

The front end of the hind including the neck, shoulder, ribs/loin and flank. We prefer to bone out the shoulder and dice it to use as stew.  Parts of it are also used for mince and sausages, as is the flank.  Boning out the shoulder is time-consuming, but there is a lot of meat and it is worth removing as much sinew as possible, even if though it will be used in stew/sausages. The shoulder can also be rolled.

Removing the shoulder in preparation for boning out.

The bottom of the ribs were retained for stock. We kept the tops attached to the loin and sliced these into chops. Immense on the barbeque (on the few days a year we can have one here).

Venison chops

The neck contains good meat for stew and the bone is excellent for stock making.  All bones from this hind were retained to make stock (recipe to be featured in Venison Volume II).

So, give it a try!

Although, as will have been deduced from this butchery description, it is a protracted process but it is worth remembering how satisfying it is to butcher your own deer to produce the cuts you want.  Also worth giving it a go, even if you are a beginner.  We were too.  Mistakes will happen, but it’s not the end of the world. Stick to separating muscle groups and you can’t go far wrong.  Think about where the meat sits on the deer, how these muscles will have been used and how this affects how you will use them. It is a steep learning curve the first time but ultimately rewarding to know you have treated the deer with respect and you will be proud to honour it in your recipes over the months to follow.

After all that butchery, a simple dinner is required.  For the simplest possible dish, why not try venison chops?  I found this recipe in Nichola Fletcher’s book ‘Ultimate Venison Cookery’, a mandatory purchase and reference for the venison lover. It is derived from the recipe ‘Blackened rack of venison with a gratin of fennel’.  I just use the marinade and mix and match with whatever fresh veg I have to hand from the garden. In this case, it was my super-abundant and bolting pak choi crop at the end of August.

Blackened venison chops

Ingredients:

1 tblsp balsamic vinegar

2 tblsp soy sauce (I used dark)

2 tblsp clear honey (also have made with cloudy, doesn’t make much difference)

Method:

That’s it! Mix, rub into the chops  (or steaks, whatever quick cook cut you choose) with a bit of pepper. Marinade for a few hours, grill or stick on the barbie.

Stir fried pak choi with chilli and spring onions

Served with the chops last time I made them.  Very simple and tasty.

Ingredients:

A few handfuls of pak choi

sesame oil, a small glug

a handful of spring onions

1 fresh red or green chilli

sesame seeds

Method;

Heat a small amount of sesame oil in a wok, on a high heat.  Add the chilli and stir fry for a couple of minutes.  Fling in the sesame seeds and stir until golden and popping, about 1 minute.  Throw in the pak choi and stir fry until the leaves wilt down a little.  Add the spring onions, turn them through the pak choi and then serve.

Blackened venison chops with pak choi