It is autumn.
I love cooking in the summer (although I must admit I love it a wee bit less now that I don’t have a grill or a garden) but I REALLY love autumn food. In London, meat purveyors start selling game at prices I can afford and the weather is cool enough so that braised meats are exactly what you want for dinner. Last weekend I took my dad to the Marylebone Farmer’s Market where, as usual, I indulged my addiction to Guernsey cream (more about how I used that in another post), bought some beautiful ripe damsons, and got a gorgeous venison shoulder. Venison in general is a very lean meat, and venison shoulder is a chunk of muscle that gets worked a lot. The best thing to do with a piece of meat like this is braise the hell out of it. I like to go long, slow, and low, so this piece of venison marinated for a day, then braised for six hours and sat in the braising liquid for another two before I reduced the liquid to make the sauce. I served it with goose fat roasted potatoes and buttered pointed cabbage. Delish.
For the marinade:
A shoulder of venison, about 1.5 – 2 kilos (if venison is hard to find you can substitute beef, but try to find venison)
1 bottle (750 ml) good red cooking wine (I used Bordeaux)
1 leek, well washed, white and pale green parts cut into small dice
1 carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 stalk of celery, cut into small dice
1 teaspoon juniper berries
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
For the braise:
Three thick rashers smoky bacon, cut into dice
Coarse salt and cracked pepper
One teaspoon salt
600 ml (about 2 and a half cups) beef stock (I actually made this one with the leftover bones from my brunch at Hawksmoor Spitalfields)
2 bay leaves
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
About 15 damsons (Americans can use small black Italian plums), pitted and sliced in half (you want approximately one and a half cups of fruit)
Additional salt and pepper
Combine the mirepoix (your diced leeks, carrots and celery) with the juniper berries and peppercorns in a casserole dish large enough to fit your venison shoulder snugly. Wash and dry the shoulder, place it over the vegetables, and add the wine. With luck, the wine will just cover the shoulder; if not, it’s okay to add a little water. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
The next day, preheat your oven to 140 degrees Celsius (about 285 degrees Fahrenheit). Remove your venison shoulder from the marinade, then strain out the vegetables, reserving both vegetables and liquid. In a pan large enough to hold the shoulder (or in your casserole dish, if it can stand high heat cooking on your stove), fry the diced bacon over medium-high heat. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving behind all the delicious bacon fat.
Rub the venison with coarse salt and pepper, sear it on all sides, and remove from pan. Sauté the mirepoix vegetables in the same pan until the leeks start to become translucent, about five minutes. Remove from pan and deglaze with about half a cup of beef stock.
Combine the venison, sautéed vegetables, bacon, delicious pan jus, reserved marinade liquid, and remaining stock in your casserole dish. Again, you want your liquid to barely cover the meat. Chuck in the bay leaves and thyme, cover, and put in the oven to braise. About halfway through the braising (three or so hours in), you can turn over your meat and start adding salt. Be cautious – the sauce is going to be reduced a lot and so what tastes like the right amount of salt now may become an intolerable amount later. (Also, there is already salt in the braising liquid from the seasonings on the venison and the bacon.) So start with about half a teaspoon to one teaspoon of salt.
After about six hours (it could be more, depending on how, um, mature your venison was before it was killed), the meat should be fork tender. Remove from heat. If you taste it and it seems dry, don’t worry! You are now going to let the venison sit in the braising liquid for another two hours. All the tough fibers and collagen that have broken down during the cooking process will now absorb the delicious fat and flavours from your braising liquid.
Now, you are going to make your sauce. Carefully remove your venison from the pan, picking off as much of the vegetables as you can. Put the braising liquid and vegetables through a wire mesh sieve or drum sieve, mashing it with a wooden spoon and scraping the back of your sieve to extract as much of the rich gooey goodness as you can. Allow the strained liquid to settle and then defat. Put the strained defatted liquid into a saucepan and reduce by 2/3. Your sauce should be thick, rich, and intense. At this point, you can adjust seasonings. Stir in plums, reduce heat to low and simmer for a further 25 minutes. Return venison to casserole dish and pour your lovely sauce over it. You can do this part up to a day in advance.
When you are ready to serve, heat the venison through in a low (150 degree Celsius, 300 degrees Fahrenheit) oven.