As we’ve eaten our way through the deer I killed last fall, I’ve started cooking some of the backstraps, those beautiful 20+-inch-long pieces of loin. I’m thrilled to say that this is without a doubt the best venison steak I’ve ever eaten, and it has totally justified spending three days in a tree strand. The meat is both pleasantly gamy and butter-tender, thus surpassing beef filet mignon. And unlike restaurant servings that often consist of one tiny little medallion, for once quality comes with quantity!
Summer may just have started, but read this post again in a month when the temperature hits 100 F and your AC breaks down. Imagine yourself in your mythical Russian dacha in the fall. After a fructuous hunt some previous day, you decide to hit the woods again to look for mushrooms after last night’s storm, and fill a basket within a few hours. You happen to walk by a cranberry bush on your way home, and fill another basket, patting yourself on the back for never leaving the house without two empty baskets. Before going into the kitchen, you stop in your garden, where, of course, you always grow beautiful red beets. And you still have potatoes from the last harvest. Skipping the part where you milk the cow, you collect the cream and make butter, you contemplate nature’s bounty as you pause between two chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and you notice, almost in passing, that you now have all the ingredients for a dish that combines the five tastes: steak that will be properly seasoned with salt, a beet-cranberry purée that’s acidic, bitter, and sweet at the same time, and umami-packed mushrooms.
All right, back to practical concerns. I’m keeping the steak preparation super simple: salt (smoked), black pepper, butter. Or maybe I should say super plain, since it still takes a few steps and an hour or more (depending on the thickness of the loin) to get the meat perfectly browned outside and uniformly cooked to your preferred doneness inside.
I remember reading somewhere that red beets pair well with venison, probably because of their earthy and sweet flavor. So I combined them with cranberries for a bright red and unquestionably Russian purée, balanced with vinegar to add some acidity.
As a variation on the usual meat-and-potatoes, I turned to Russian country-style fried potatoes. My recipe is adapted from Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table, where she describes the fried potatoes as “the quintessential Russian dacha dish”. I chose trumpet royale mushrooms because I love their umami flavor and texture (sometimes compared to that of abalone). Somehow, my otherwise beloved porcini mushrooms didn’t work as nicely… which is just as well, as they’d have multiplied the cost of the dish by four.
28 oz cleaned venison backstrap
9.6 g smoked salt (or half sea salt and half smoked salt)
1 oz canola oil
black pepper, ground
2 oz butter, sliced
0.5 oz heavy cream (optional)
- Regarding the fabrication of the backstrap, make sure to remove all the silverskin. I recommend simply cutting the loin into long chunks instead of medallions. The thickness of the pieces will of course affect the cooking time, but I think that within reason, the thicker, the merrier, with the optimum somewhere around 3″.
- Cut the venison backstrap into four portions. Season with half of the salt on all sides.
- Heat half of the canola oil in a pan over very high heat. Add the steaks, and sear until brown on all sides.
- Transfer to an oven dish, season with the black pepper and the rest of the salt, and top with the sliced butter. Cook in a 200 F oven to the desired doneness minus 5 F — I take the dish out when the meat’s internal temperature reaches 120 F. Let rest for at least 15 minutes.
- Before serving, sauté the steaks with the rest of the canola oil in a very hot pan again, to brown all sides some more. Reheat the sauce from the oven dish, optionally mixing in heavy cream to get something more homogeneous. Slice the steaks, and toss the slices in the sauce.
Red beet-cranberry purée
Yields 4-6 servings
2 oz dried cranberries
6 oz cooked red beets
3 oz red wine
0.3 oz sugar
0.3 oz Banyuls vinegar
2 oz butter
1/4 tsp salt
black pepper, ground
- Place the dried cranberries, red beets, red wine, and sugar into a saucepan, then bring to a simmer, and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
- Transfer to a blender, add the vinegar, butter, salt, and black pepper, and process until smooth. If you want the purée to be even smoother, pass through a chinois. Transfer to a plastic container, and reserve.
- Reheat before serving.
16 oz peeled potatoes
2 oz canola oil
9.2 oz trumpet royale mushrooms
4.6 oz peeled onion, sliced
2 oz peeled ramps (bulbs only), sliced
1 oz sour cream
about 1 1/2 tbsp chopped parsley
- Cut the potatoes into 2″ x 0.5″ sticks. In a pan over medium heat, sauté the potatoes in about 2/3 of the oil. Cook until golden brown on all sides, stirring frequently. Reserve on paper towels.
- Chop the mushrooms into pieces roughly the same size as the potatoes. In the same pan still over medium heat, sauté until golden brown. Reserve with the potatoes.
- Add the remaining oil to the pan, and brown the onions and the ramps. Add back the mushrooms and potatoes, mix in the sour cream, and cook for another 2 minutes. Serve immediately.