It’s taken me a long time to post a venison casserole recipe, and for good reason. I wanted to find a recipe I really, truly loved. This is it.
I thought about all the variations on venison casserole out there: ones with tater tots, scalloped potatoes, potato chips, macaroni. None really spoke to me. Then I realized that hey, the baked ziti I grew up with is really a casserole! Doneski.
Once I made the decision to recreate something like the baked ziti of my New Jersey youth, everything fell into place.
One of the truisms of Italian American food, or at least its most popular dishes, is that they share many of the same ingredients: tomatoes, cheese (usually a lot), pasta, meat (usually a lot), and a splash of wine. Oregano plays a role in many dishes, as does spinach.
All of those are in my venison casserole. If you’ve ever seen the movie Big Night, they make a dish called timpano, which is a kinda-sorta casserole. In it are, as Primo says, “all of the most important things in the world.” Those things are in this recipe, too.
Before I get too far into it, you should know that what follows is malleable. You can play with the pasta, alter it if you want, or use potatoes or root vegetables. You can use diced venison instead of ground venison, or use leftover shredded venison from, say, a pot roast.
Don’t love ricotta cheese? Skip it and use more mozzarella. Prefer parmigiano-reggiano to pecorino? Go for it. Hate green things? Skip them, too. Or use a leafy green that makes you happy.
I use rigatoni in my venison casserole because it’s sturdy and has ribs on it, which catch sauce. Ziti is traditional, but penne is a good option. Paccheri is a another nice choice. Sturdy, short pasta is what you want.
Yes, you will notice that the ingredients in this are similar to my venison lasagna, but this dish eats differently. It’s looser, and meatier.
Don’t want to use pasta? Use cooked potato, or uncooked potato cut to pieces about the size of last digit of your thumb and they’ll cook fine. Ditto for vegetables like parsnips, rutabagas or the like.
Meat for Venison Casserole
Obviously this is a venison recipe, but only because that’s what I use in my house. Beef is fine, as is pork. And when I say venison I mean any red meat, big game animal, from elk to moose, pronghorn to caribou to wild sheep or nilgai.
I use a combination of ground venison and venison sausage. I’m partial to my recipe for spicy Italian sausage, made with a mix of venison and pork. Cased or uncased is fine.
As I mentioned, leftover shredded venison, or diced venison would work equally well.
One of the beauties of a casserole as a type of dish is that you can, within reason, put whatever you want in it. I strayed from classic baked ziti by adding lambsquarters, a kind of wild spinach. Why? I like it, and it was growing in my garden at that moment. Any leafy green will work in its place.
Other fun options include:
- Fresh mushrooms, wild or store-bought, browned in butter beforehand.
- More meat! Can’t go wrong with adding chunks of ham (prosciutto would be awesome), shredded chicken, turkey or pheasant, maybe some duck confit.
- Zucchini, broccoli raab, roasted red peppers or some pickled things like pickled ramps.
Leftovers and Storage
Chances are you will have leftover venison casserole, which is a good thing. It’s great reheated at about 350°F for 30 minutes or so. Makes for super easy lunches and work night dinners.
The casserole will keep a week in the fridge once cooked, and you can freeze it either cooked or uncooked — although that would take up quite a lot of space in your freezer, which is likely stuffed with venison…
- 1 pound rigatoni, ziti, penne or paccheri pasta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound ground venison
- 1/2 pound sausage
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 cup red wine
- A 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
- 1/4 pound chopped leafy greens (spinach, lambsquarters, chard, etc.)
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 1/2 pound grated mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup grated pecorino cheese
- Boil the pasta in salty water until it just starts to soften. You want it tougher than you'd want to eat it, but soft enough to bite through. Drain, toss with a little olive oil, and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F and get a 9×13 casserole dish ready.
- Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the ground venison and brown it well, stirring often. Salt it as it cooks. If you are using uncased sausage, add it now and brown that, too. If you are using cased sausage, slice it into disks and wait to cook it for a moment.
- Stir in the chopped onion and cook until it softens, stirring often. Stir in the garlic and cook that for a minute or two, then mix in the tomato paste. Let this cook a few minutes.
- Add the oregano, red pepper flakes and wine and stir well. Everything will thicken as the wine and tomato paste mix. Let this cook for a minute or two, then add the crushed tomatoes. Stir this in with the cooked pasta and the the leafy greens and turn off the heat.
- Put about half of the mixture into the casserole dish. Dot with about half the ricotta, then sprinkle about half the mozzarella and pecorino over it. Add the rest of the meat mixture, then top with the rest of the cheese. Bake at 375°F for 35 minutes.
Made this tonight and it turned out great. Delicious. I adjusted amounts of most ingredients, including using about 1/2 the amount of pasta, equal parts ground whitetail venison and venison sweet Italian sausage, collard greens for the chopped greens, 1/2 the red pepper flakes, etc. The recipe is very resilient to adjustments, in other words, and still turns out a delicious and very hearty meal. Thanks, Hank, for sharing your creativity for the kitchen!
Jan Lee says
Delicious casserole! But my comment is the same as Mark’s. I looked back at step 5 and still didn’t see it.
My husband is a hunter and your recipes are the best. Your roasted wild duck is a classic.
Hank Shaw says
Jan: Thanks. Here is the instruction in Step 5: “…Stir this in with the cooked pasta and the the leafy greens and turn off the heat.”
William Reaves says
Substitute the spinach for green peas. About 12 oz. is good and use frozen as they stand up better. Sounds weird, but it’s fantastic. This recipe is dead on, Hank!
Jason stee says
Loved this one! We tried this tonight with ground moose and grizz Italian sausage. I may add in some mushrooms next time.
Hugh Thomas says
Hank, I’ve read this several times. As far as I can tell the pasta is cooked and then set aside.
At what point is it mixed in?
Hank Shaw says
Hugh: Read Step 5.
Mark Brenner says
This recipe looks great but I don’t see it say when to add the pasta to the rest of it.
Hank Shaw says
Mark: Step 5. It’s in there.