Beef or venison tartare is the “trust fall” of the culinary world: Raw meat and a raw egg yolk. If your ingredients are not impeccable, things can go very, very wrong. But done right, this is at once a primal and exciting little appetizer.
Tartare is all about texture. Raw meat has a savory slipperiness that causes many people to argue within themselves. It seems so wrong, almost dangerous, yet something deep within you urges you to take another bite. It’s our inner hominid talking.
Beyond the meat, the silky richness of the broken yolk acts as a sauce, flecks of herbs or other flavors sparkle here and there, and the decided crunch of raw shallot punctuates each bite.
I know what you’re thinking: No way I’d eat raw venison! It’s not a crazy concern. But here’s what you need to know to eat raw venison (deer, antelope, moose, elk, etc) as safely as possible:
- Shoot straight. Seriously. If’ you’ve gut-shot the animal, think twice about making it into tartare or carpaccio. E. coli, both the really nasty o157 variety as well as the nasty-but-non-lethal o103 strain exist in venison (and all other ruminants). It mostly lives in the digestive tract. So if you break that tract and get gut gunk all over the inside of your deer, you better cook it well.
- Cut cleanly. This is an extension of No. 1. If you break the guts while eviscerating the animal, it’s nearly as bad as gut-shooting it.
- Freeze your venison first. Should the venison have any larval parasites, and parasites such as tapeworm and toxoplasma gondii (which causes toxoplasmosis) are know to exist in deer. Freezing the meat below 0°F for at least two days will go a long way toward making any raw meat you eat safer.
- Avoid any possible cross-contamination. Your venison might be perfectly fine, but if you have a dirty cutting board or knife or even hands you can wreck the whole thing. Sanitation is very important when serving raw food.
- Keep cool. Just as sushi should be served cold, so should tartare. Work quickly and keep the venison in the fridge when you are not cutting or mixing it.
Even so, this is not a 100 percent risk-free recipe. But then again, neither is a trip to your neighborhood sushi bar. Or your breakfast — you are far more likely to get salmonella from eggs than you are from getting sick from raw venison, if you follow the steps above. Needless to say, your egg needs to be of the finest quality to use for tartare.
So if you’re still with me, let’s make tartare.
Some people, notably Wisconsinites, seem to like their tartare ground. I don’t. I prefer it minced, which I think has a better texture. Use a large, very sharp chef’s knife to mince the venison. Take your time and don’t chop it like you would herbs: It will get all stringy.
My advice if you are going to make this recipe for more than four people is to cut the venison into manageable pieces first, then keep them all in the fridge. Mince one piece at a time and then return it to the refrigerator: This keeps everything cold.
After that, it’s all just a question of seasonings. Mine are woodsy, with juniper and caraway. The garnish is wood sorrel, which tastes lemony; it’s a hat tip to Chef Rene Redzepi of NOMA, who uses wood sorrel in his tartare.
First off, be sure to read the top of this post for safety reasons. Second, know that any species of venison will work, as will any cut of meat that is free of fat and sinew. Backstrap is best, I find, but I also really like using the heart. Non-hunters, use lamb loin for the closest in flavor. I use some esoteric ingredients here, but there are easy substitutions for most of them... but not all. You really do need juniper berries, which you can find in many supermarkets or you can buy them online. The other key ingredient here is smoked salt. Any fine-ground smoked salt will work.
- 1 shallot, about 1 heaping tablespoon, minced
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 heaping teaspoon juniper berries, about 8
- 1 level teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1/2 to 3/4 pound venison
- Smoked salt to taste
- 4 egg yolks
- Wood sorrel or grated lemon zest, for garnish
- Soak the minced shallot in the vinegar in a small bowl. Toast the juniper berries, caraway seeds and peppercorns in a small pan over medium-high heat (shaking often to prevent them from burning) until they are fragrant, about 2 minutes. Move the spices to a grinder or mortar and pestle and grind to a coarse powder.
- Mince the venison with a sharp knife. I prefer to cut it into 1/8 inch dice; it helps if the meat is partially frozen first. Put the minced venison in a bowl and sprinkle over the ground spices. Drain the shallots and add them to the bowl. Add about 1/2 teaspoon of smoked salt and mix the tartare together. Add more salt to taste.
- To serve, give everyone some tartare and make a little depression in the center. Separate the egg yolks from the white and discard the whites (or use in another recipe). Put the yolks in the little depression. Garnish with the wood sorrel or lemon zest.
Serve this on crackers or in little bowls with crackers alongside. Remember, a little tartare goes a long way.