Lean and full of flavour, deer is a great winter warmer.
Although the feathered game season and the controversial hare season are both over, there’s still plenty of wild rabbit, pigeon and, most enticingly, deer to get stuck into. In terms of antlered beasts, right now you should be eating wild roe and red deer, as sikas and fallow are out of season until later in the year. The thing to be wary of when buying deer is that lots of butchers get a bit lazy and joints like the haunch get diced up instead of being butchered by the various seam muscles (a process that helps sort the tender cuts from the tough). The key is to buy specific cuts for specific dishes and be firm with your butcher. Opt for tender cuts from the inner haunch muscle if you fancy steak and use neck fillet or shanks if slow cooking. And deer mince makes for a very good gamekeeper’s pie.
Fillet of Red Deer with Mashed Beetroot and Bitter Chocolate (above)
Using chocolate with game isn’t a new thing; it’s centuries old and a nugget or two of very bitter chocolate really does give a game sauce a piquant edge. Buy chocolate with a very high cocoa count, or even 100 per cent if you can find a bar of Venezuelan black.
4 cleaned red deer under-fillets weighing 120–150g each
Vegetable or corn oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the marinade
100ml red wine
10 black peppercorns, lightly crushed
5 juniper berries, lightly crushed
1tsp thyme leaves
500g beetroot, boiled in their skins for 1 hour and peeled
For the sauce
A good knob of butter
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1tsp tomato purée
The remainder of the marinade, strained
350ml beef stock
60g good dark chocolate, broken into pieces
1. The day before cooking, put the deer fillets in a non-reactive container with all the marinade ingredients. Cover with cling film and marinate in the fridge for around 12–14 hours. Do not leave for much longer as the fillets will become too winey and lose their distinctive taste. Drain and reserve the marinade, and pat the fillets dry with kitchen paper. Coarsely mash the beetroot and re-heat in a pan with half the butter. Season with salt and pepper and put a lid on to keep it hot.
2. Meanwhile, gently cook the shallots in the remaining butter for 2–3 minutes until soft. Add the flour and tomato purée and stir well. Gradually add the marinade, stirring well. Bring to the boil and reduce by two-thirds. Add the beef stock and simmer until the sauce has reduced by half and thickened, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pan.
3. Heat about a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan. Season the fillets and sauté them for 2–3 minutes on each side. They are best eaten medium rare as the meat is very delicate and tender.
4. Reheat the sauce and whisk in the chocolate bits until dissolved. Spoon the beetroot onto the centre of warmed plates, slice the deer into four or five pieces and arrange on the beetroot. Spoon the sauce around.
Pappardelle with Deer Ragout
Deer makes a fantastic game sauce, which will work brilliantly with pasta or gnocchi. You can also use the ragout in a pie topped with mashed potato or a pastry crust.
500g neck, shin or a braising cut of deer, diced into rough 1cm cubes
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
100g pancetta or smoked streaky bacon, cut into rough 1cm dice
A few tablespoons of vegetable oil for frying
1tbsp plain flour
1tbsp tomato purée
1tsp chopped thyme or oregano leaves
100ml red wine
750ml hot beef stock
230–250g can of chopped tomatoes
250–300g pappardelle pasta
70g freshly grated parmesan or pecorino
1. Heat a little vegetable oil in a large, heavy frying pan. Season the deer and fry in a couple of batches on a high heat for 3–4 minutes until nicely coloured, then transfer to a plate or dish. Meanwhile, gently cook the onion, garlic and pancetta in a tablespoon of the vegetable oil for 3–4 minutes without colouring, then stir in the flour and cook on a low heat for a minute. Stir in the tomato purée and thyme then gradually add the red wine, hot beef stock and chopped tomatoes, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming. Bring to the boil, add the deer meat, season, lower heat and simmer gently for about an hour or until the meat is tender.
2. Cook the pappardelle according to the manufacturer’s cooking instructions and drain. Serve in warmed pasta bowls or plates with the sauce spooned over or feel free to mix it all in together. Serve the grated parmesan or pecorino separately.
Photographs by Jason Lowe