Some winters ago, at a large house party in New Hampshire where the guests took turns cooking in teams, the hostess produced half of a deer. It had been shot by the farmer in self-defense, of course, skinned, split lengthwise and frozen solid. "We all adore roast venison," the hostess announced gaily. "Mary and Eddie will cook it for tomorrow's dinner!" I gasped, and my co-cook said feebly, "You'd better buy all the cheap gallon red wine in the village!"
After she had left on this errand, we looked at each other, transfixed with horror. "It's as stiff as a board," he said. "It won't unfreeze till Easter. Maybe the beast won't fit in the oven, anyway." It was a tight squeeze but, as the carcass had been cut at the shoulder and below the rump, it would, it just would fit. For the stove was an enormous cast-iron, wood-burning affair, with a cavern of an oven that could have roasted H√§nsel along with Gretel.
So there was nothing for it but to go at the job. We secretly consulted a cookbook, the only one in the house that included venison. "Greatly overrated as food," we read, "...is cooked in the same manner as sirloin steak." This information left us slightly shaken.
A little later, the other guests were greatly impressed as we poured wine over the half deer in the laundry tub, throwing in generous handfuls of every spice and herb we could find in the kitchen. Several people asked how long we were going to roast it, and one or two pointed out that they were glad somebody was doing this who knew something about it (Eddie being a member of a famous eating club).
The day of the feast, everyone else departed early for the ski slopes, leaving us cooks alone with our forebodings, with the soaking and still-frozen carcass, and the stove, in which my colleague had the wit to build up a huge fire. We tried, without success, to weigh our animal on some bathroom scales; the scales proved to be broken. After that, I think we flipped a coin. Somehow the figure of 3½ hours was arrived at as the correct roasting time—which, of course, was ridiculously little for so very large a hulk. We squeezed the thing into the oven, laying it on the bars with some shallow old-fashioned milk pans on the oven floor to catch the drip.
I can't remember what else we cooked for dinner. I can only remember the surprise of how wonderful that venison proved to be. As presented at the table on a massive wooden shutter, it was of baronial size and splendor, as black and as imposing as the Grand Abbot of the Benedictines in his bearskin cloak. When carved, the meat proved of a perfect medium-rareness and tenderness. Some miracle must have occurred in the old cast-iron stove when it was heated to red-hot. In fact, I think the old stove simply took over and, without regard to our hits, runs and errors, cooked our venison for us, just as the cookbook had advised, like sirloin steak.
Since then, like many other cooks, I have dealt with this form of game on an ordinary stove, using lesser cuts. But saddles and haunches of venison are often hard to buy in perfect condition to roast, are cumbersome and long to marinate, and depleting to the pocketbook. As I now think of it, possibly I married my husband because of his family's ancestral recipe for venison stew. This is quite grand enough for dinner parties, a quality rare in a stew. And yet, the shoulder of any member of the deer family—elk, antelope, etc.—is adequate for its preparation; even frozen reindeer will do. This stew is no quick-cooking trick to put on the table. Like marriage, it needs love, a little skill and a lot of patience.
Serves eight. Allow about 3½ hours cooking time plus time needed to marinate and cut up the meat.
First marinate or soak-to-tenderize about 5 pounds of boned venison overnight in red wine with a tiny handful of herbs and spices: peppercorns, bay leaves, 2 or 3 cloves, thyme, celery leaves, parsley—anything that gives a taste! Turn the meat once or twice.
Next day, preserving the marinade, cut venison into small cubes, using a very sharp knife, and discard all fat, connective tissue and inedible portions. Shake the meat cubes in a paper bag with a little flour to coat lightly, evenly. Melt some salt pork in a heavy pan and in this brown, but do not burn, the floured cubes, stirring constantly. Transfer browned pieces to iron or other heavy pot, pour over just enough liquid to cover—half broth (preferably chicken broth) and half strained marinade. Set on stove to simmer gently, adding a little salt and the following "bouquet" tied up tightly in a cheesecloth bag: several whole branches of parsley and 1 clove garlic, 1 leek, 7 shallots, 1 single stalk celery—all finely chopped. Cover pot.
Remove the bag of seasoning after 1 hour's simmering or the taste will be too pronounced. Continue simmering for 2 more hours, adding more broth if needed. All this can be done in advance and the stew reheated if desired.
To complete the dish, cut up a pound of unpeeled mushrooms in medium-sized pieces; sauté in butter. Add these, together with½ glass currant jelly, and more salt if needed, to the stew just before serving piping hot—accompanied by wild rice or by hominy grits and a dish of roasted, peeled, buttered chestnuts; also, of course, a full-bodied red wine, such as the fine Burgundy in the photograph at left.