Adding a Wild Zing to Venison with Flavors of the Forest

Venison grill fare: Wild dry-rubbed steaks and kabobs marinated in ginger rosehip vinaigrette.
Venison grill fare: Wild dry-rubbed steaks and kabobs marinated in ginger rosehip vinaigrette.

If wild is a flavor, then venison is it. I can remember days not too distant when the taste of deer was too much for me—too gamey, too foreign, too reminiscent of Bambi’s mother. Enter my brother-in-law, hunter extraordinaire, and suddenly before I know it a hunk of gifted venison is in my freezer, taunting me. How the heck am I supposed to eat that stuff again?

What worked for me back then in Los Angeles works for me still: Bathe the extra gaminess away with one or two days soaking in buttermilk in the refrigerator prior to rinsing, patting dry, and undertaking additional preparations.

Never mind how hypocritical this sounds as I write it, but this time, after painstakingly removing the “wild” from the venison, I then added it back in with the following preparations. Here are the wild things I did with our recently-thawed cache of venison steaks:

Venison Steak Rubs

After the buttermilk bath, I tried two different rubs, basting the steaks first with olive oil before pressing powdered seasonings onto both sides an hour before grilling.

Overwintered juniper berries still make for good spice.
Overwintered juniper berries still make for good spice.

Juniper: For the first one I used a rub of dried and ground juniper “berries” (Juniperus comunis) collected locally in the Colorado high country. This variety of juniper abounds here, so I had been looking for more uses aside from my homemade gin and juniper soda creations, and Dad suggested the rub. I ground the blue “berries” in a spice grinder (a coffee grinder works well) and patted it onto the meat, which Gregg then grilled medium rare. Although I refused to tell him what I’d used, he picked out the taste right away. The juniper is sweet, distinctive, and unmistakably wild, a more than fitting pairing with venison steak.

Sumac: The next night I rubbed two more steaks with dried sumac (Rhus glabra) foraged from parts lower by my friend Butter and played the guessing game once more. Gregg again proved his prowess for identifying wild spices, picking out the lemony sumac right away. He said he preferred the sumac to the juniper but enjoyed both.

Dried smooth sumac, whole and ground into spice.
Dried sumac, whole and ground into spice.

While juniper and sumac grow wild in many places, they can also be purchased from major spice vendors such as Penzey’s. Sumac is a common ingredient in Persian cuisine.

Venison Shish Kabobs in Ginger Rosehip Vinaigrette

The Ginger Rosehip Vinaigrette recipe I came up with last month has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving in our household. After polishing off several batches of rosehip (Rosa sp.) syrup in vinaigrette form, I decided to marinate the smaller chunks of venison in it with onions for a night and a half before skewering them alternately on damp wooden sticks and grilling.

Maybe it was how nicely the curved pieces of onion spooned the meat, or maybe it was the long marination, but the meat maintained its moisture marvelously, such that the marinated venison kabobs truly came out amazing—wild, tender, lightly caramelized, melt-in-your-mouth morsels of meaty goodness. Yum! I’m so glad we put away all that rosehip syrup in the fall, especially since at the time I had no idea what I’d use it for.

Venison Steak Sandwiches with Pennycress Honey Mustard

At the end of the multi-day venison binge, pieces of both the juniper and the sumac-spiced steak remained left over in the refrigerator, so I used them for a few days’ worth of sandwich sack lunches, slicing the meat thin on bread with mayo and …wait for it…wild pennycress honey mustard!

Pennycress mustard is made from the seeds. These dessicated, overwintered pods still contain seeds ripe for the gathering.
Pennycress mustard is made from the seeds. These dry, overwintered pods still contain seeds ripe for the gathering.

I expound on the topic of pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) mustard at length in the entry, Wild Mustard Potato Chips, but the addition of honey to that mustard is what made the sandwiches incredible. I’m not honestly sure whether I succeeded in creating honey mustard or mustard honey, but whatever it is, it’s fantastic on sandwiches! At risk of going too overboard in my enthusiasm, I will say that the honey was without a doubt the ingredient that mustard was missing. It could be, however, that I’m a bit of a fanatic for honey mustard.

The honey mustard is made with the ingredients outlined in Wild Mustard Potato Chips plus honey and additional thickener (like flour) to achieve the desired taste and consistency. It’s superb on venison sandwiches. Thinned a little, it would undoubtedly make a fantastic marinade as well.

Freezer Foraged Fare

Separated by years from my former self, immersed in an expansive Colorado forest with which I connect in a much different way than I once did, I now welcome a good venison steak when it presents itself. In fact, Bro, if you’re reading this, my apologies in advance if you find a certain sister-in-law digging in your deep freezer when she visits next week.


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