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Cooking up venison

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Linda Stansberry

There will be blood. Don't think that just because you didn't shoot the beast yourself you don't have to deal with it. The blood will leak through the plastic wrap and butcher paper, making your kitchen look like a crime scene. It will puddle and congeal at the bottom of your refrigerator. The hunter in your life will delight in the carnage. He or she, often still flecked with gore, will present the trophy in the rawest state possible. This is venison. Better bring your game face.

Autumn is the season of raw meat curing on the middle shelf of our refrigerator. Usually it's a backstrap, the prize cut offered in appreciation from a hunter who visits our ranch to fill his or her tags. The meat is a deep, rich hue of red with a thin strip of snow-colored fat, like a Santa Claus suit as imagined by Lady Gaga. It will sit there for the requisite 10 days to two weeks, long enough for natural enzymes to break down the meat's collagen. There's a dilemma between sport and cuisine here: Younger animals have less collagen and thus more tender meat, while older, tougher animals have the trophy antlers prized by hunters. As usual, time and patience resolve a conflict that might seem insurmountable to the microwave-dependent.

After a fortnight of slamming the dog's nose in the refrigerator door, the meat is ready to prepare. Here, the uninitiated may have more questions. Do you braise? Boil? Do you stew, marinate, fillet or massage? How do you give Bambi a proper sendoff? Contemporary gourmands seem to approach venison as an exotic choice whose preparation merits a full quart of verbs and a garnish of unpronounceable flora, but we're of humbler stock. We saw the meat arrive through our own kitchen door, after all. Sometimes we were the ones to pull the trigger. Teriyaki marinades are for when we want to entertain. We feel closest to the animal and the process of the hunt when we prepare it the way we would over a campfire. Our method is monosyllabic: fry.

A word about gaminess. "Gamey" has become a catchall word for those with uneducated palates. It stands to reason that wild game will taste gamey. Just as it takes repeated exposures to appreciate the hoppiness of beer, venison may be an acquired taste. If you were raised on venison, it will taste like home. If you weren't, it might taste like offal. Even enthusiasts have their prejudices; many West Coast folks claim that the mule deer venison brought back from hunts in Wyoming tastes too much like sagebrush. Wyoming natives may scoff and say that it's "pre-seasoned." If you have a low tolerance for "gaminess," soaking the meat overnight in milk will subdue the taste of the wild.

Fried Venison

Ingredients and method:

Deer meat

Enough flour to dredge

Salt

Ground pepper

Butter-flavored Crisco (not butter, not olive oil, not canola oil or coconut oil)

2-3 whole cloves of garlic

1 chopped onion

Tenderize. Each piece should be about the size of a deck of cards. You can use a fancy meat tenderizer, but I prefer the blunt side of a heavy knife (opposite the blade end). Beat a plaid pattern into the meat until it's practically translucent.

Bread. Have a plate ready with a liberal amount of white flour mixed with salt and pepper. Dredge each piece of meat through the flour until it's completely coated.

Prepare. Put a heavy skillet over medium heat on the stove. Throw in a hefty dollop of butter-flavored Crisco and let it melt. Add the onion and garlic.

Fry. Throw Bambi piece by piece into the melted Crisco. When the blood seeps through the coating, it's time to flip it and do the other side. The piece will be ready when the edges curl up slightly (very slightly!).

Eat. Venison tastes best when it's accompanied by some other locally foraged ingredients, like blackberries, but it's also delicious on its own. Making dinosaur noises while eating it will enhance the taste.

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