The Perfection of Venison

Nancy Zander

Nancy Zander › Nan Zander is a mother, cook, gardener, sustainability coach and the owner of All Cooped Up, ...


I am an omnivore and I have found my perfect food.

It is delicious, versatile, local, healthy and free. I know how it lives and I know how it dies. I enjoy preparing it in countless ways all year long, and eat it guilt-free. It costs nothing to procure, and dies exactly where it lives its life – in the woods. It is, of course, venison. I am an omnivore and I have no dilemma.

My husband has been a hunter ever since he was allowed. He went to college in a state where he could hunt and fish for much of his food. On top of that, he has always been a passionate animal lover, and has a knowledge of and respect for everything in the woods. We, in turn, raised our children to appreciate these same things . This eventually led to a family decision many years ago to eat only meat that we “knew”. We wanted to support small farmers who treated their animals well in both life and death, and to step out of the industrial food system as much as possible. This has become our way of life, and early on we found that venison was perfect for us.

We are lucky enough to own forty acres of prime Whitetail country in upstate New York. My husband hunts it successfully every year and brings home his allotted three deer. It then hangs in our garage for two weeks before he butchers it himself. Together, we spend hours packaging it, and then the freezer gets filled for the year. Butchering is of the utmost importance to the flavor of venison, and we have found over the years that for-hire butchers don’t usually have the time to be as careful as we are. Any trace of fat left on the meat will give it a gamier flavor that most people don’t enjoy. For better and worse, venison is not a marbled meat. There is a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, and in certain areas between muscles as well. With care, one can remove it and be left with a delicious piece of meat. This does mean that most cuts will be drier than the corresponding cut of marbled beef, so it needs to be cooked accordingly. Leaner is healthier meat, however, which is one more reason we eat it guilt-free.

We love to entertain at home, and many of our friends have had their first venison dinners with us. We have never found children to be at all squeamish about eating venison, and we have even converted vegetarians for the evening for much the same reason that we eat it all year long. They joke about Bambi, but with a small amount of heartfelt reasoning on our part and a taste or two on theirs, no more convincing is necessary. I cook my venison seasonally, choosing cuts and recipes as much as possible to go with whatever is growing locally. When the meat first comes in fresh, it is November and I have a repertoire of hearty stews and braises that I adore. Last fall for opening weekend of rifle season, we had celebratory dinner of venison ragu with wild mushrooms that I had simmered for days, served on home made pappardellla. I have been perfecting a stew made with Chinese five spice powder and sweet potatoes that is hearty, layered and mysterious. We have had large dinner parties with tenderloin, grilled rare and sauced with a vibrant, minty chimichurri sauce. In summer we grill this outside and serve it with salads and seasonal vegetables. Last Christmas vacation, we grilled tenderloins over wood coals on my fireplace grill and served it with rich scalloped potatoes. Venison makes a fantastic hamburger, as long as it is cooked very rare and some moisture is added in the form of onions or cheese or a condiment. It is very difficult to go wrong, and very easy to “shop” my own freezer any day of the year in any weather and find my perfect food.

We have two freezers in our garage which function as my meat department. In addition to stocking them with venison every year, we also buy sustainably raised local meat in bulk whenever we can. We buy a 1/4 or 1/2 of a grassfed cow from a farmer we love, as well as a lamb and as much pork as we can. This is much easier and cheaper than trying to source it each time you want it. Our grassfed beef farmer takes orders from customers every year for a 1/4 or 1/2 of a cow, and then the butcher asks me what cuts I like. When you share an animal this way you can opt out of certain cuts in favor of others, or order certain cuts ground, etc. Over the year I have learned which cuts my family prefers and it works out beautifully. We also raise our own chickens for slaughter, in late fall we have roughly 30 meat birds in the freezer as well. As the year progresses, we generally empty out one freezer and turn it off, and by the time the next hunting season rolls around we are ready for the big re-fill. It is possible to find someone to share a cow with you, but not necessary. If you don’t have a friend who wants the other half or quarter, the farmer always does.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to learn how to hunt, the Zanders offer a series of training, hunting and butchering workshops in October and November, as well as actual hunting weekends during the season in November and December. Visit their website and download their Front Yard Foods Hunting Brochure for all the details.

What’s your perfect food?

Photo Credit: Peter Zander