Tacos! Everyone loves tacos, right? I do.
One of the reasons is because it’s one of the few things in the kitchen Holly still commands around here. Holly, being a native Californian, has a history with “taco night” that as a Jersey Boy I just don’t have. Taco Night is basically a smorgasbord of Mexican and Tex-Mex ingredients laid out on the table, with everyone making tacos as they see fit. It’s a fun dinner, especially if you have kids.
Various taco nights have various standards. Melted cheese, guacamole, sliced chiles or tomatoes, etc. Our standard is rajas, an awesome side dish of poblano chiles, onions and olive oil. It’s basically roasted poblanos, cut into slices and cooked with some onion in a bit of oil. Sometimes we toss in garlic, too.
Other than that, taco night changes depending on our whims and the season. It’s summertime now, so we grill a lot. It gets damn hot here in Sacramento — it’ll hit 107°F today. So outdoor cooking is the rule. Depending on my mood, I’ll grill over charcoal or over woodsmoke.
Whatever you use, grilled venison is a standard for our summer taco night. I like to keep things simple with the meat when I do tacos because there are so many other flavors going on in that tortilla. Here are a few tips when grilling venison for tacos:
- Use flank steak if you can. It’s a perfect cut for tacos, with a distinct grain that you can slice across. Flank has a lot of flavor and is thin enough to grill very quickly. If you do get venison flank, put it on the grill cold — don’t let the meat warm up first. The reason is because the meat is so thin it can overcook before you get that nice char on the outside. Hot grill, cool meat.
- If you use venison backstrap, follow these directions I wrote for Petersen’s Hunting magazine.
- If you use a leg steak, make sure you get rid of all connective tissue and sinew — it will get stuck in your teeth when you bite into the tortilla and pull the whole piece of meat out. No bueno.
- Chop or slice the venison very small or very thin. You want to be able to get a little bit of venison in every bite of your taco, and large pieces tend to fall out when you take a bite.
Tenderness is the key. If you have meat from an old deer, you might want to tenderize it with either a meat mallet or a jaccard to get there. That, plus removing all silverskin, sinew or connective tissue, will make a good venison taco a great one.
What are your favorite sides when you do tacos?
Everything here is variable. That's the nature of taco night. But the key here is the grilling of the venison, which makes this recipe different from, say, a venison taco done with ground meat. I also really like serving rajas, roasted poblanos and onions, with this -- they just seem to go well together. But if you don't like them, skip it. Hey, it's taco night. Do what makes you happy!
- 2 pounds venison flank, backstrap or leg steak, all sinew and silverskin removed
- Vegetable oil to coat
- Chipotle powder, ancho chile powder or taco seasoning
- 4 poblano, ancho or green bell peppers
- Vegetable oil to coat
- 1 white or yellow onion, sliced thin
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
- Corn or flour tortillas
- Dry cotija cheese or shredded jack cheese
- Diced tomato (plum tomatoes are best)
- Sliced serrano chiles
- Sliced avocado or guacamole
- I like to make the rajas first. Coat the poblano chiles with a little oil and hold them over a grill or your stovetop burner with tongs until the skin blackens. Put the charred chiles into a paper bag to steam for a half hour or so. Peel off the charred skin and slice the poblanos into strips. If you've never done this, my friend Elise has a great tutorial here.
- Heat the olive oil in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Cook the sliced onions until they char a little at the edges. Add the poblanos and garlic and cook another minute or two. Add salt to taste, turn off the heat and set aside.
- Get your grill ready. It should be very hot, and when it is you need to scrape down the grates with a wire brush. Coat the venison with some vegetable oil and salt it well. Set it on the grill and leave the grill cover open. Sear it hard without touching the venison for 2 to 4 minutes, depending on how hot your fire is and how thick your venison is. You want good grill marks. If your venison is thicker than an inch, you can get cross-hatched grill marks by picking up the meat with tongs after 2 to 4 minutes, then rotating it 45 degrees and searing it for another 2 minutes or so.
- Flip the venison and sear until it's medium-rare, or rare. How to tell? Use the finger test for doneness. When the meat's ready, move it to a plate or tray and sprinkle some chipotle powder on it. Let the meat rest for 5 minutes before slicing it very thinly against the grain.
- Heat the tortillas until they are flexible (read the package's instructions or make them by hand) and keep them warm by covering with a kitchen towel or putting them in a tortilla box. Serve the tortillas, venison, rajas, and everything else spread out on the table so everyone can mix and match while they build their own tortillas.
If you want to go all out, make two kinds of venison meat for tacos: This recipe and my recipe for Venison Yucatan.