I first made this stew from a whitetail doe I shot in an alfalfa field in northern Wyoming. She was a magnificent animal — with a thick layer of sweet, grain-fed fat — and this is a magnificent stew. Everything falls into place together, and the flavors, seasoning and texture of this dish all come out perfectly.
I make so many stews from so many different animals I have developed a set of rules I rarely stray far from. One of these is a deep browning of the meat before the liquid enters the stage. Another trick I picked up from the Greeks is to grate my onions. Run a big onion through a coarse grater and deglaze the pot with it. Magic.
Tomato paste is an absolute. Most of my stews have at least a tablespoon. I make my own, too, which is worth the time. Cover it with oil and homemade tomato paste will last a year.
Add ingredients gradually. Learned this one from my mum. Put everything in the pot at once and you will have some things soft and lovely and other things soft and mushy. That’s why I add a second batch of onions and garlic an hour or so into this stew.
Use odd herbs; they add a certain intrigue to your cooking. In this case, I used lovage. Lovage is among my favorite stewing herbs because it is aggressive and very deeply flavored — like Neanderthal celery. Lovage needs to be tamed with other aggressive ingredients. This I learned from Apicius.
Don’t overcook pepper and potatoes. Both will dissolve if you let them stew too long. Think al dente pasta.
Game meats and tough domestic cuts suitable for stews require a long time before they will submit. You cannot stew game on a schedule. Sometimes it’s done in 90 minutes. Sometimes, like when you have an old boar or graybeard buck, it can take upwards of 4 hours. Slow and low are the keys. Don’t worry, just kick back and let the stock and herbs do their thing. That’s another reason why you add your veggies later — game meats can stew for several hours once they’ve become tender, giving you all the time you need to cook your veg.
Add another dose of herbage right at at the table, and if it is a stew that lacks bright flavor notes, you could do worse than hit it with a little squeeze of lemon right at the end. Your family will not really notice it, but they will notice a wider range of flavors than they would have otherwise.
A final suggestion: Big wines. This is not the place for Pinot Noir. Lusty reds are the ticket here, like a Portuguese Touriga Nacional, a Spanish Rioja or a California Cabernet Sauvignon.
North African Venison Stew
This stew is North African for two reasons: One, it is loosely based off a recipe I found from Tunisia in a great book called A Mediterranean Feast. Two, it has Harissa, which is a North African chile paste that is as flavorful as it is hot.
But there are some other keys here, too. A pinch of crushed juniper berries. Some lovage (you could use celery leaves). Lots of bay leaves. Real venison stock, although beef stock would be a pretty good substitute. Oh yeah, and the potatoes. Fingerlings if at all possible. You could use Yukon Gold, but the fingerlings just seem, well, right for this dish.
Serves 8 to 10.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 4 hours
- 2 pounds venison stew meat or beef or lamb
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 quart venison broth or beef stock
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 large onion, grated
- 1/2 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 10 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- 2 green peppers (poblanos would be perfect) coarsely chopped
- 2 pounds fingerling potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes
- 3 tablespoons chopped lovage or celery leaves
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons Harissa or ground chiles
- 1 teaspoon crushed juniper berries
- Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot with a lid. Brown the stew meat — I like 2-inch chunks — on all sides over medium-high heat. Do this in batches and take your time. Set aside the browned venison while you do the rest.
- Heat the oven to 325°F.
- When the meat is all browned, return it to the pot and add the grated onion — this will deglaze the pot. Stir it around until no browned bits are left in the pot. Add the tomato paste, venison stock, bay leaves and juniper berries, bring to a simmer, cover and put into the oven for an hour.
- After an hour, add the chopped onion, chopped garlic and the lovage. Return to the oven for another hour.
- At the two-hour mark, turn the heat down to 300 degrees and add the potatoes, green peppers and harissa. Check for salt and add some if needed.
- Cook for another 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from oven and let cool, while still covered, for 15 minutes.