A Hunter's Bounty
For as long as I can remember hunting has been a part of my life. Even before I was old enough to go myself, I remember my dad, brother, uncle, and grandpa going out every deer season. I remember seeing the deer hanging as they skinned and quartered them, and the kitchen counter full of meat as the deer were broken down into individual cuts, and packaged for the freezer. We always had bird dogs as well, so it was a common occurrence to see my dad come home with either pheasants or grouse. All of this meat was treated with care, and served as meals for our family. Little did I know at the time how much hunting would effect my relationship with food and its source.
Eventually the time came for me to join the hunters, and there was never a question or second thought. The excitement to be a part of this adventure I had seen for so long was almost overwhelming. During these early years, I vividly recall spending weekends and afternoons hunting a variety of game including rabbits, pheasants, and deer. I always enjoyed the time spent outdoors with the other men in my family, but for many years patience was not my strong suit. No matter how much the importance of being patient was stressed to me as a young hunter, my interest would fade quickly if we weren’t finding game. Unfortunately, I often tied the success of a hunt to the killing of an animal. This mindset lead me to not fully appreciate or understand the activity in which I was participating. As I grew older, and headed off to college, I did not have as much time to hunt, and with this, lost some interest in it. Through these years I still made it home to hunt for a few days during deer season, but not much more than that. When my interest in hunting was waning, my interest in cooking began growing. I found myself wanting to learn about different styles of cooking and regional foods from around the world. I began cooking almost daily, and wanting to try recipes for meals I had never had before. This eventually led me to begin cooking without recipes. The freedom this provided was amazing. I was comfortable scouring the pantry and creating a meal, based on my knowledge and experience of how certain ingredients paired with one another.
Fast forward several years, and I started a family of my own. It was at this time that I found myself in an interesting situation. I had been fortunate enough to have a very “successful” hunting season, and had a freezer full of venison. It was then that I came to a realization that, while retrospectively obvious, had eluded me for many years. I could not only cook for my family, but I could do it using meat that I had personally provided. This concept really got me thinking about the source of our food, and how important it is to have a connection to the food we eat.
Over the years my mindset around hunting has changed. I now find myself appreciating the opportunity to be in the woods before sunrise. Sitting in the dark silence, waiting for the sun to peek out. Hearing the forest come alive with the sounds of birds and animals as the sun rises is something I think everyone should experience at some point in their life. I now understand that the opportunity to find an animal in the wild, and make a shot that quickly kills it is no small thing. Hunting is full of excitement, but it has nothing to do with the act of killing. Every time I kill an animal I find myself experiencing many different emotions that seem to oppose one another. At the forefront is the respect for the animal whose life was taken to feed me and my family. Because of this I make a conscious effort to use as much of the animal as I can.
This past hunting season I was out on a cold December afternoon, looking for a doe to add meat to our freezer at home. As I crept along a hillside in the snow, I caught a glimpse of several deer below me, making their way up the hill. I found a good location to sit, and I waited. After several minutes (that seemed like hours) three doe came into sight 30 yards from where I sat. The deer had no knowledge of my presence and were slowly making their way through the trees, stopping to browse on blades of grass peeking through the snow. When one of them stopped to graze in a small opening, it provided the opportunity to take a shot. I steadied my breath and squeezed the trigger. In that millisecond, I had accomplished what I set out to do. I was able to make a clean shot, and the deer had dropped where it was standing. The kill was quick, clean, and ethical.
As I walked up the the deer my mind was flooded with emotions and thoughts. I was happy to have the meat this deer would provide, but I also felt some level of sorrow for the life I had just taken. My mind was also wandering to thoughts of the many meals this meat would be used for. After a few moments of thought and reflection, I set to the real work, breaking down the animal in the field so I could transport it back to my truck.
On my way home I began thinking about the different cuts I would break the meat into, formulating potential dishes in my head as I drove. When I arrived home, I processed the meat with these thoughts in mind. Each stroke of the knife getting me one step closer to the meals I had been envisioning. On this particular day, I had one key meal in mind…Venison Chops. I had decided to remove the back strap with the rib bones attached. This provided me with a cut that would be as wonderful to look at as it would be to eat. I had not decided what exactly would accompany the venison, but I knew it would have to be something special.
It wasn’t until very recently that this meal truly solidified in my mind. The final piece of the puzzle was provided by a good friend and fellow hunter, Ryan Hale. Ryan spends much of his free time hunting for all types of wild game in Pennsylvania, in addition to harvesting maple syrup on his family’s property. This Spring he had spent much of his time in the woods looking for a turkey. During his time in the woods, Ryan was fortunate enough to get a bird, along with another prized item, morel mushrooms. He collected an abundance of the mushrooms, and was kind enough to share some of his bounty with my family. It was with that gift that I finally realized what dish I was going to create. The dish was going to be composed of double cut chops with a creamy morel orzo, topped with a fresh gremolata using parsley from our garden.
Being involved in every step of the process, from the hunt, to the kill, to the butchering, and eventually the cooking is a deep and enriching experience. Every time I go to the freezer to choose a cut of venison, I am reminded of the experiences that led to that meat being there. This connection is more than just to the food. It also becomes about the people with whom these experiences are shared…a community of others who know how important it is to stay in touch with where our food comes from. In a world where we are increasingly disconnected, I think it is essential that we find ways to stay connected. For me hunting is just one way to find this connection.
Preparing The Meal
Start by cutting the venison back strap into double chops (two rib bones per chop). Set aside on a plate and allow to come to room temperature. If using dried mushrooms, put them in a medium bowl and cover with warm water for 20 minutes to re hydrate. When the mushrooms are re hydrated, remove from the bowl, making sure to strain and reserve the liquid. If using fresh mushrooms you can skip this step.
Next preheat your grill on high. While the grill is heating, prepare the orzo according to package instructions. Make sure to slightly under cook the orzo at this stage. When the orzo is nearly finished cooking, reserve a cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the orzo.
While the orzo is cooking heat one tablespoon each of olive oil and butter in a large cast iron pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the mushrooms to the pan. Cook stirring occasionally. Cook until the mushrooms have given up all of their moisture. Then, add the garlic and cook for an additional two minutes, stirring often to prevent the garlic from burning. Add the drained orzo to the mushrooms, and return the pan to the stove over low heat. Stir in the heavy cream, 1 Tablespoon of butter, 1/4 cup reserved cooking liquid (or mushrooms liquid if you used dehydrated mushrooms) and Parmesan cheese. Continue to cook for several minutes until the sauce has thickened, and the orzo has finished cooking. Use the reserved cooking liquid if you need to thin the sauce to the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and cover until ready to serve.
When the grill is heated, rub 1 tablespoon of oil on the chops and season with salt, pepper, and rosemary on all sides. Place the chops on the grill over direct heat. Leave undisturbed for 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the chops and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Continue to flip and move the chops occasionally for another 4 to 6 minutes, making sure to prevent the chops from burning. You want the chops to be rare to medium rare. When the chops are cooked, remove from the grill and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
While the chops are resting, prepare the gremolata by combining the grated garlic, lemon zest, and parsley.
To serve scoop a serving of the morel orzo onto each plate. Place one or two chops on top of the orzo, and top with the gremolata. Grate some fresh Parmesan cheese over top and serve immediately.
1 Venison Back Strap, Whole Bone In
16 Ounces Dry Orzo Pasta
16 Ounces Fresh Morels Or Other Fresh Mushrooms (Or About 3 Ounces Of Dried Mushrooms)
1/4 Cup Heavy Cream
2 Tablespoons Butter, Divided
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
1/4 Cup Parmesan Cheese Grated
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Fresh Rosemary, Finely Chopped
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Grated
Zest of 2 Lemons
1 Small Bunch Fresh Parsley, Finely Chopped