I’ve always had mixed feelings about St. Patrick’s Day. I mean, my family is indeed part Irish, but we’re mostly Scots, and have historically been Protestant, to boot, meaning we were more orange than green. So while I enjoy a Gaelic celebration more than most (I even have my name on a brass plaque in a Long Island Irish bar for drinking 18 pints of Guinness at one sitting), I tend to gravitate towards my Scottish roots around this time, whether it’s herring fried in oats, or this venison soup.
I’ve based this recipe off the tradtional Scotch broth, which is a simple lamb and barley soup with carrots, turnips and other wintry things. Only I am using venison here instead of lamb. Venison is still widely eaten in the United Kingdom, and Scotland is home to one of the largest remaining herds of red deer (they’re like our elk) left in Europe. So it seemed appropriate.
And my special ingredient? Nettles. Blanched and chopped, nettles — a wild vegetable adored by both Irish and Scots cooks — add a vivid spring green to the soup. If you can’t get nettles, use spinach.
There is one vital key to my version of this soup: Never, ever let this soup boil. If you do, the soup will still be edible, but you will wonder what all the fuss is about. Keeping the venison cooking at below a simmer — about 170 degrees — breaks down the connective tissue of the meat but keeps the venison tender and pink. If the soup boils, the meat will tighten up and turn gray.
The recipe keeps well in the fridge for up to a week, although the barley will swell over time. It is best eaten the day after it is made.
SCOTTISH VENISON SOUP
If you cannot find venison, lamb is traditional. Beef, or any other red meat, will work just as well.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours, 35 minutes
- 2 pounds venison or lamb stew meat
- 1 quart venison broth or beef broth
- 2 quarts water
- 1 medium yellow onion, sliced
- 2-3 turnips, peeled and cut into chunks
- 5-6 small carrots, peeled and trimmed
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 cup barley
- 1 cup blanched and chopped nettles or spinach
- Black pepper to taste
Pour the water and broth into a large pot and add the venison chunks. Bring this to a bare simmer, just to bubbling. You will notice lots of scum collecting on the surface of the soup. Skim it as best you can. I let the venison gently simmer for 20 minutes, then fish out the venison pieces and put them in a bowl. I then pour the broth through a paper towel set in a sieve over another pot or large bowl. This strains out all the scum. If you skip this step your soup will be cloudy, but still perfectly edible. I just like clear soup.
Add salt to the broth, and return it and the venison to the heat — only this time do not let it even simmer. Cover the pot and set it on low heat. You are shooting for about 160-175 degrees. Cook the meat this way until tender, which will take 2-3 hours for an old deer, or 90 minutes for lamb.
Add all the vegetables and the barley, cover and cook for another hour or so, or until the barley is tender.
Stir in the chopped nettles and add some black pepper, and just heat this through, about 5 minutes. Serve at once with a dark ale or red wine.