This recipe tastes as good as it looks.
I had a little bit of red deer backstrap a friend had given me this past January left in my freezer, so I decided to cook it before I got to the backstraps from the deer I shot this season. Red deer, as you can see, are basically elk. Beefier than American deer and much larger. What to serve it with?
Rather than riff off an existing recipe from a cookbook, I decided to do the ole’ refrigerator roulette. I found some caramelized onions I’d made a day or so before, and I had some fantastic hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. If you’ve never had hen-of-the-woods, they’re also known as maitake — or Grifola frondosa for the Latin-inclined. They are a brownish-gray tree mushroom that lives in many places, California not among them.
To my mind, they are the best-eating mushroom that doesn’t live in Cali: Firm, aromatic, they sear well and have a mild, mushroomy flavor that’s addicting. And like almost every shroom, they go great with caramelized onions.
Steak. Mushrooms. Caramelized onions. Classic and bangin’. But the dish needed a “green thing,” as my mum likes to call it. Parsley’s a given, and since we’ve finally had some rain here in NorCal, I decided to go outside and pick some dandelion greens to toss in there. Bitter greens really balance the richness of everything else on the plate. So damn good.
If you make this recipe verbatim you will love it. But the larger point is to play your own game of refrigerator roulette. Balance flavors: something sweet (caramelized onions), something savory (mushrooms and steak), something salty, bitter or sour, spicy — a good dish keeps all of these balls in the air at the same time.
You can leave out few, as this dish does, or try to get them all in there, which is a little harder but the result can be amazing. Color is important, as is temperature.
Add stuff all you want, but always remember that famous quote from legendary fashionista Coco Chanel: “Before you go out, always take something off.” That applies to food, too. Simple is good. Restraint is power.
I like to use larger pieces of venison for this recipe; pictured is some backstrap from a red deer. This is ideal for elk, caribou or moose, but it will of course work with regular venison backstrap as well. For non-hunters, use filet mignon or boneless lamb chops. Maitake mushrooms are available in bigger supermarkets; they're being farmed now. But no biggie if you can't get them, as regular button or cremini mushrooms work just fine. The porcini powder I roll the venison in adds a lot of flavor -- you make it by buying some dried porcini and blitzing them in a coffee grinder -- but if you want to skip that, I won't be mad at you. I will be mad at you if you don't caramelize your onions. It's what really makes this dish. Follow my instructions below and you'll be fine. Just take your time. Caramelizing onions takes a while, just go with it. And they keep for days in the fridge.
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, divided
- 3 onions, peeled and sliced from root to tip
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons honey (optional)
- 1 pound venison backstrap
- Porcini powder (optional)
- 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, ideally hen of the woods a/k/a maitake, sliced
- 3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
- Dandelion leaves (optional, for garnish)
- Start by caramelizing the onions. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When it's hot, add the onions and toss to coat. Cover the onions, turn the heat down and cook slowly, stirring once in a while. You are looking for them to slowly soften and brown, not scorch on the edges. After 10 minutes or so, they'll start to get soft. Sprinkle salt over them and let them cook some more. When they are just starting to brown, add the thyme and honey. Cook until they are a nice brown. Remove and set aside. The onions can be made in advance.
- While the onions are cooking, take the venison out of the fridge and salt it well. Let it come to room temperature the whole time you are cooking the onions; this is especially important if you are using elk or moose backstrap, which is thick.
- When the onions are done, wipe out the pan and add the remaining butter. Pat the venison dry with a paper towel and sear it over medium-high heat, turning it to make sure all sides are well browned. Use the finger test for doneness to determine when to take it out of the pan. Let the meat rest on a cutting board. If you have some, roll the venison in the porcini powder as it rests.
- While the venison is resting, put the mushrooms in the pan and turn the heat to high. Sear the mushrooms until they release their water; this might not happen with hen of the woods. When the water has almost boiled away or when the mushrooms begin to brown, add some more butter and saute hard until the mushrooms are nicely browned. Salt them as they cook.
- Once the mushrooms are ready, add back the caramelized onions and the parsley and toss to combine. Heat through and put some on everyone's plate. Add the dandelion leaves if you are using them. Slice the venison into medallions and serve.
I'd serve this with potatoes of some kind, good bread -- black pumpernickel is especially good -- or polenta. You'll want a nice red wine, too, or maybe a pale ale or Scottish ale.