Venison: Roast and Sugo

A plateful of happiness.

One of our 2011 New Year’s resolutions was to go vegetarian for the first few months of the year. That ended on January 2, actually, really on January 1 when we took the deer roast out of the freezer to thaw. We do eat meat, and love it, but we also understand all the health and environmental issues associated with eating too much meat–extra weight, exposure to hormones and antibiotics, pollution and waste, the cruelty of CAFOS, etc. But in our defense, we received a cooler full of wild venison and pheasant meat compliments of Steve’s father and we found a great recipe from Cook’s Illustrated (CI) called “Really Good Pot Roast” that we wanted to try. Also, we’re foodies that like to eat, cook, and…well, there’s always next year.

Pot roast and polenta. A good, stick to your ribs, Sunday dinner.

The CI recipe we found comes from their November/December 2010 magazine for Classic Pot Roast. We followed the recipe almost exactly with three minor (or major) modifications: we used a deer roast instead of the traditional beef roast; cranberry juice instead of red wine (we’re on the wagon for a few months); and we added a little soy sauce at the end to give it a little extra umami. The results were a mixed bag. While we liked the roast, it was falling apart when we cut into it and presentation wasn’t what we expected. It probably would have been better had we left it overnight in the fridge and then served it the next day, but then the question arose, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” We decided on the roast. It was served with a nice portion of polenta and a sauté of mustard greens. The dinner was great in spite of the roast being a bit too crumbly. The sauce though had an intense sweetness to it that would not have been there if we had just used wine. It wasn’t a bad flavor, just sweet. The soy sauce really helped give the sauce what it was missing.

The next night, the roast really had its moment in the spotlight. We let the leftover roast sit in the sauce over night. The next day we shredded the roast and heated it with the sauce. Using our favorite Trader Joe’s Pappardelle pasta as the base, we dressed the pasta with the warmed sauce. Incredible! Not only did it stretched our meat consumption by four more meals, it also made for a great sugo. We’ll definitely be making this roast again but instead of a traditional Sunday roast we’ll just use the shredded meat sauce and pasta. This way we still get our meat but not so much all at once.

Classic Pot Roast a la Cook’s Illustrated

Cook’s Illustrated’s  recommended beef broth is Rachael Ray Stock-in-a-Box Beef Flavored Stock (a mouthful even before taking the first bite!) but we like using our own homemade broth. Chilling the whole cooked pot roast overnight improves its flavor and makes it moister and easier to slice or shred; for instructions, see “Make-Ahead Pot Roast.”

Pot roast: Before and after.

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) boneless beef chuck-eye roast , pulled into two pieces at natural seam and trimmed of large knobs of fat (or if you’re lucky, deer, elk, or other venison roast)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions , halved and sliced thin (about 2 cups)
1 large carrot , chopped medium (about 1 cup)
1 celery rib , chopped medium (about 3/4 cup)
2 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1 cup beef broth , plus 1 to 2 cups for sauce (see note)
1/2 cup dry red wine , plus 1/4 cup for sauce (for our version we used cranberry juice)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 sprig plus 1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce (our altered addition)

1. Sprinkle pieces of meat with 1 tablespoon salt (1½ teaspoons if using table salt), place on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet, and let stand at room temperature 1 hour.

2. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Heat butter in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat. When foaming subsides, add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add carrot and celery; continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes longer. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in 1 cup broth, ½ cup wine (or juice), tomato paste, bay leaf, and thyme sprig; bring to simmer.

3. Pat beef dry with paper towels and season generously with pepper. Using 3 pieces of kitchen twine, tie each piece of meat into loaf shape for even cooking.

4. Nestle meat on top of vegetables. Cover pot tightly with large piece of foil and cover with lid; transfer pot to oven. Cook beef for three hours flipping halfway through cooking. Continue cooking until beef is fully tender and sharp knife easily slips in and out of meat, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

5. Transfer roasts to cutting board and tent loosely with foil. Strain liquid through mesh strainer into 4-cup liquid measuring cup. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. Transfer vegetables to blender jar. Allow liquid to settle 5 minutes, then skim any fat off surface. Add beef broth as necessary to bring liquid amount to 3 cups. Place liquid in blender with vegetables and blend until smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer sauce to medium saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat.

6. While sauce heats, remove twine from roast and slice against grain into ½-inch-thick slices. Transfer meat to large serving platter. Stir chopped thyme, remaining ¼ cup wine, and vinegar into sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon half of sauce over meat; pass remaining sauce separately.

7. (For Sugo): Cool and refrigerate the roast and sauce together. The next day using either your hands or two forks, shred the roast in the sauce. Prepare your favorite pappardelle pasta according to the package directions, (or make your own pasta). While the pasta cooks, re-warm the sugo in a sauce pan. When the pasta is al dente, transfer it to the sauce. Finish the pasta in the sauce, tossing it so every noodle is coated. Off the heat, grate parmesan cheese and drizzle some good olive oil over the top.

Wild Pheasant

“But over all … [wild fowl], the pheasant takes precedence; yet few are the mortals who know how to extract perfection from the bird.” – Brillat-Savarin

We rarely think to buy “exotic” varieties of meat from the market. Our freezer is full of grass fed beef and a few odd packages of wild meat from Idaho – elk, deer, trout and pheasant. We even had a couple of packages of wild moose steaks at one point a number of years ago, compliments of Steve’s Uncle Tom. We shared them with friends while on a camping trip. But these are not things we would typically buy from the market. We live, like most people, on staples like beef, pork and chicken and think of wild meat as a rare treat.

Farm raised “wild” animals taste different because their feed is controlled and their flesh is nurtured to appeal to domesticated tastes. Truly wild animals taste of the things they forage on to survive and their free roaming nature means the muscle will be stronger, leaner and full of rich, complex flavor.

Cooking wild game requires much greater care than the average farm raised animal because its flesh is very lean and quick to toughen on heat. Elk and deer steaks, for example, must be cooked at very high heat for just a moment and then quickly taken off the heat to rest for a few minutes. It’s only edible in very rare form.

Pheasant 5

Wild Ringneck Pheasants

I suspect the Sara’s Ranch Baby Pheasant on offer at Big 4 is a might more tender than the wild roosters we shoot in southern Idaho. The gamey birds in our freezer were “harvested” the old fashioned way – with a shotgun and a bird dog – on the edge of Blackfoot, Idaho. We dressed them quickly and froze them for the trip to California where they went right into the freezer.

Tradition calls for leaving the birds to “age” until they begin to decompose, allegedly sweetening in the process. We’re not that adventurous and I wouldn’t recommend aging poultry at home. Few of us have enough experience with meat to know when to stop the aging process before the whole thing spoils. But given our experience with tough wild bird meat, I can see the wisdom in letting time break down muscle fiber to soften the meat for eating.

Alas, we’ve settled on long, slow cooking methods to get the most out of the wild pheasant we have on hand. The results don’t come close to the “perfection” Brillat-Savarin describes in his elaborate recitation of a complex roasted pheasant dish worthy of a king. But our take on slow cooked meat sauces here makes for a tasty pheasant ragù, perfect for dressing big pappardelle noodles and accompanied by a nice bottle of wine (Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc or a dry French rose).

Mighty Hunter 2

Steve and Jack w/ Pheasants

Not all of us are hunters. We’re lucky in San Francisco to have access to a bounty of exquisite and unusual meats. Our butcher shops sit in neighborhoods filled with thankful foodies who understand the differences between industrialized meat production practices and the thoughtful, ethical ranching practices of local farmers. The better specialty retailers will have plenty of unusual things to try and if they don’t have what you’re looking for, most have solid relationships with good suppliers who can get whatever you’re looking for quickly.

Of course, farm raised anything is going to cost you plenty (we aren’t going to talk about how much it cost for Steve to buy a non-resident hunting license in Idaho, ahem!). But since most folks no longer hunt game birds, farmed pheasant is worth tracking down. These San Francisco purveyors should be able to source farm raised pheasants for the curious home cook: Drewes Bros. in Noe Valley, Bryan’s Quality Meats in Laurel Heights, Avedano’s Holly Park Market in Bernal Heights, Golden Gate Meat Company and Prather Ranch in the Ferry Building and Guerra Quality Meats in the Sunset. Each offers terrific access to quality meat products at premium prices. You might check MacFarlane Pheasants out if you’re looking for a large, national supplier.

This is our take on a wild pheasant sugo. Making sauce from these birds seems the best way to cook the meat long enough to make it tender. We didn’t, but you might try sprinkling toasted walnuts over the plated dish. A little fresh lemon zest on top wouldn’t hurt either. We have another batch cooked and waiting in the freezer for our own future experimentation.

Wild Pheasant Sugo

2 pheasants, completely de-boned, cut into half-inch pieces*

4 slices thick bacon, diced

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

1 large stalk of celery, coarsely chopped

1 large carrot, coarsely chopped

Bouquet garni of fresh thyme, parsley and bay leaves

1/4 cup dry vermouth

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil


Salt and pepper to season

*Note: the “drumstick” of the pheasant is particularly sinewy. The older the bird, the harder the tendons. The hardest, sharpest pieces won’t soften no matter how long you cook the meat. The tendons are almost bone-like and should be trimmed or removed before cooking.

Start by heating a heavy 12″ skillet over medium high heat and add bacon. Cook bacon until crisp, 10 – 12 minutes, and remove from the pan to dry on paper towels. Pour off all but a couple of tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat and return the pan to the heat.

Add pheasant meat and brown on all sides, approximately 5 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan and set it aside. Return pan to the heat and add olive oil.

Add diced onion, celery and carrot and saute on medium low until they’ve soften and begun to caramelize, approximately 15 minutes. Return meat to the pan with the vegetables and deglaze the pan with the vermouth, scraping up any brown bits. Add enough water to cover the meat and add the bouquet garni. Finally, add salt and pepper to taste, but be careful you don’t over salt the braising liquid. It will grow saltier as it reduces. Cover and bring to a simmer.

The pan should stay on heat at a low simmer for at least an hour and a half. The pan will want to go dry from time to time so be sure to add water as necessary until the meat is falling apart and the sauce has become fairly thick. You can always thin it later with pasta water to suit your taste. Be sure to remove the bouquet garni before serving or storing the sauce.

Toss sauce with pappardelle and finish with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, fresh ground black pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil!

Cheers, Steve & Jason