October brings a blending of colors throughout the entire repertory of nature, a dramatic coloration of trees, plants, bushes, birds and animals. This color arrangement, always beautiful and spectacular, is nature’s way of providing wild game; upland birds like pheasant and grouse, waterfowl, ducks and geese, and deer and moose, the ability to blend into their habitat environment, making them more difficult to discern.
My friend, the late Tom Hennessey, Bangor’s most-loved sporting artist and outdoor writers, penned, “For the avid member of the church of the great outdoors, this is an exciting time of year.” And when I start noticing folks dressed in bright orange knit caps, I get very excited, knowing that the deer-hunting season in Maine is fast approaching.
Maine’s great hunting tradition, revered around the world, began hundreds of years ago with the Wabanaki: the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes. These “People of the Dawnland”, and early settlers and homesteaders, hunted for food and sustenance. Many families, including mine, still continue to enjoy venison, or the meat of the deer.
My appreciation of venison over the years has developed with my success of preparing the meat. Venison is well known as a lean alternative to beef. Not only is it lower in fat, and more nutritionally dense, it’s a sustainable product and about as organic as you can get.
Handling venison in the kitchen requires a certain understanding of different cooking techniques, and for that I refer most often to Hank Shaw’s book, Buck, Buck, Moose. Take for example the recipe for Tunisian Braised Venison Shanks. Before Hank’s book, shanks or the legs of deer, would be either ground into burger, or fed to the dog.
As many excellent chefs and restaurants know, shanks, of any critter, are a delicacy. The meat is awesome, melting tender. Paired with bread to sop up the savory sauce, or rice, couscous and mashed potato smothered in gravy, shanks are the ultimate comfort food.
Plus shanks are fun to cook, particularly on a grey November day. Who does love the aromas of a spicy pot of meat simmering on the hearth? No venison shanks? For a cut similar in size, try lamb. Beef works too, although the cooking time will need to be adjusted.
This Saturday, October 28, is opening day of hunting season and I’m getting excited. My gastronomical juices quicken, as I anticipate not only the joys, but also the rewards of the hunt.
Tunisian Braised Venison Shanks
- 2 to 4 venison shanks *
- Maine sea salt
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 large onion chopped
- 4 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Pinch of saffron optional
- One 15- ounce can chickpeas drained
- ½ cup chopped dates or chopped dried apricots
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Fresh parsley or cilantro for garnish
- Assemble ingredients and tools. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Salt the shanks well and set aside.
- Add the oil to a heavy, ovenproof pot or Dutch oven. Set the pot over medium-low heat and add the chopped onion. Slowly soften the onion, covering the pot and stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another two minutes.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the spices.
- Add the spices to the pot, mix well, and cook until they start to release an aroma.
- Add three cups of water, mix well, and bring the mixture to a simmer.
- Add the venison shanks, cover the pot.
- Cook in the preheated 325-degree oven until the meat is tender and starting to fall off the bone, about 2 hours.
- Once the meat is tender, stir in the dried fruit and honey. Add the chickpeas. Return the pot to the oven and cook for another 15 minutes.