We’re having an unusually cool spring and early summer — so cool it has not seemed out of place to eat beets and braise venison shanks, something normally unheard of in my part of California. But around Sacramento our elderflowers are already halfway through their bloom, so this dish may as well be called “Farewell to Spring.” If it looks familiar, you have probably read the cookbook Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine – this is a wild game adaptation of Chef Rene Redzepi’s original, which uses lamb shanks.
I love this dish. It is a joy to look at, and the flavors speak to each other in a way I had not expected. You would think that beets and braised venison shank would be a brooding plate of food, but change the color of the beets from red to golden, and add the delicate touches of elderflower syrup and the elderflowers themselves and everything becomes lighter. It feels like those spring days where the sun is warm but the breeze is cool, and you revel in these alternations as you go about your day.
A word of warning: While this dish looks reasonably simple, it is not the easiest recipe in the world to pull off — shocking, I know, given that it is an adaptation from the restaurant considered by many to be the best on the planet. Still, it is not that difficult, if you think ahead and make this in stages. Nevertheless, my advice would be to save this recipe for a special weekend, or a romantic evening.
braised venison shank, golden beets, elderflower
This recipe takes a while to get ready, but it comes together quickly. It can be made in stages, though, so you don’t have to freak out over it when you are ready to serve. This is especially true with the shanks, which can be braised up to 2 days ahead. Take your time, and you will be surprised at how easily you can make this dish.
There is really no substitute for the flavor of elderflower, but these bushes live all over the country and in Europe, so they should not be tough to find between late April and July. You can either make your own elderflower syrup, or you can buy elderflower syrup online. As for the flowers, fresh flowers are of course better. But you can buy dried elderflowers online, too.
If you don’t happen to have venison shanks lying around (can’t imagine why not… ) use lamb shanks. They are pretty close in flavor, and are what was used originally at NOMA.
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 24 hours
- 4 venison shanks or lamb shanks
- 1 cup ramp leaves or the green part of green onions
- Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup lard or butter
- 1 large golden beet
- 12-20 small golden beets, about the size of ping pong balls or smaller
- 1-3 tablespoons malt vinegar
- 1/2 cup elderflower syrup
- 1 large cluster of elderflowers, removed from stems, or 1/4 cup dried elderflowers
- Salt the venison or lamb shanks well.
- The best way to cook the shanks is sous vide. If you happen to have a sous vide machine, make 2 packages of: 2 venison shanks, half the ramp leaves and half the lard or butter. Seal them. Cook sous vide at 148 degrees for 22-26 hours, depending on how old the deer was. If you are using lamb shanks, go for closer to 18-22 hours. If you don’t have a sous vide machine, lay the shanks in one layer in a casserole just large enough to hold them. Smear the lard or butter on the shanks, then pour in enough stock or water to come halfway up the sides of the casserole. Arrange the ramp leaves on top. Seal the casserole tightly with foil and cook in an oven set on “warm” overnight. Check in the morning and keep cooking if need be — you want the meat to be practically falling off the bone.
- Once the venison has cooked, set the meat aside and save the juices. Discard the ramp leaves.
- On the day you are serving, cook the small beets. Boil them in salty water until tender, then peel while still warm. Cut into wedges and set aside.
- Peel the large beet and then slice it as thin as you can, preferably on a mandoline. If you don’t have a mandoline, use a sharp knife to get very, very thin rounds. Soak the sliced beets in ice water for 10 minutes, then lay them on a tea towel to dry.
- To make the venison-beet sauce, put 1 cup of the cooked small beets into a blender with some of the juices from braising the venison. Puree. Taste the sauce as you go, and add either more of the juices or water to get the consistency of a thick sauce without it getting too salty. The sauce will need acid, so add malt vinegar in small doses until it tastes to your liking.
- Warm the elderflower syrup in a small pot on low heat. Toss the quartered, small beets in the syrup and let them warm gently.
- To finish the venison, sear it on a grill or in a saute pan with a little oil. You want some crispy edges to the meat. Paint it with some of the beet sauce and let that caramelize. Remove the shanks from the heat, let cool a little, and pull it to pieces.
- Remove the small beets from the elderflower syrup and arrange on the plate with the venison pieces. Dredge the large beet slices in the remaining elderflower syrup and arrange on the plate. Dot some of the sauce here and there. Finish by sprinkling each plate with elderflowers. Serve with a light red wine (Beaujolais, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, etc.) or a strong white, such as a Roussane, Viognier, oaky Chardonnay or white Cotes du Rhone blend.