Sunday, October 17, 2010

Venison shank with barley & mushroom risotto

This sounds a bit restaurantish but is in fact very easy although it does take a long time. I went to the farmers' market and was actually planning to make myself some hare or rabbit or pigeon, but I'd forgotten that the game dealer is only there every second week and that the only game available would be venison. Because I was cooking for myself I was on a budget, so venison shank was the most economical option. I read a few recipes for venison and decided to wing it. I couldn't decide what to make with it but I gather that barley is now becoming a bit of a restaurant cliché as an accompaniment; I hardly ever eat in restaurants so had never had it before. For the barley, I adapted a recipe in Nick Nairn's book New Scottish Cookery. So this is a Scottish-Italian fusion which is all about autumn - Scottish ingredients, red wine, slow cooking, mushrooms, that kind of thing. Yes, it contains wine twice. No, I don't think that's a bad thing.

Ingredients for the venison:

1 venison shank per person

3 onions, roughly chopped

1 carrot, peeled, halved and sliced lengthwise

1 stick of celery, roughly chopped

a handful of diced pancetta

three garlic cloves, crushed

the leaves from 4-5 sprigs of thyme

1 bay leaf

1/3 bottle of red wine

olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

300ml dark meat stock

1 piece of very dark (75%) chocolate

enough watercress for as many people as are eating

Ingredients for the barley risotto (assuming 4 people):

175g pearl barley

250g chestnut or wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced into .5cm slices - it should be wild mushrooms but I couldn't afford them, so used chestnut with some soaked porcini thrown in

1 glass of red wine

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

300ml meat or vegetable stock

olive oil


chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 160C.

2. Heat a thick-based casserole pan and brown the venison shanks one by one until they're all nicely brown.

3. Remove the shanks to a plate and add the pancetta to the pan. Cook it until it's going golden, then throw in the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and cook it until softened.

4. Add the wine and chocolate and let it reduce, scraping up any brown residue. When the wine has reduced by half, add the meat and herbs and stock, season lightly with salt, cover and put the casserole in the oven for at least 2.5-3 hours, until the meat is tender.

5. Meanwhile, closer to the time of eating, heat a heavy sauté pan and add a glug of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the pearl barley and cook it for five minutes until it's starting to go golden brown - don't let it burn, though. After five minutes, add the onion and garlic and let it soften, stirring it in. If it looks like the barley is getting too brown, add the wine and let it reduce a bit.

6. If the onion has softened and the barley hasn't gone too brown, add the wine and stock and let it simmer.

7. Meanwhile, sauté the onion in butter in a separate frying pan, until it's nicely browned. If you were soaking porcini in hot water, add the water to the barley and the porcini to the mushrooms, being careful not to let the residue at the bottom of the water get out. (It's mostly dirt.)

8. Now, it's pretty much up to you. You need to keep simmering the barley until the stock/wine mixture has reduced and been absorbed, while the barley softens. This can take 30 minutes or more. When the mushrooms are done, remove them to a bowl.

9. When the barley is nearly done, check the venison - it should be falling off the bone by now and very tender. Remove it and the bone to a separate plate. The venison shank contains marrow, which you can eat if you want. Compared to beef or veal marrow it's relatively tasteless but it can add a richness to the final sauce, so by all means scrape it out and save it if you like that kind of thing.

10. Now, the liquid your venison cooked in should be purple in colour and full of bits of cooked bacon and onion and carrot and so on. You don't want to eat any of that. You could, but it'll be boring. Sieve it. Get a sieve, place it over a large bowl and pour the liquid into the sieve. Next, use a wooden spoon to squeeze all the remaining juice out of the sodden vegetable mush in the sieve. You'll be surprised how much flavour you can squeeze out.

11. Return the strained liquid to the venison pan and put it on the heat. If you are using the venison marrow, add it. You want to bring this liquid to the boil and simmer it until it's reduced and tastes more intense. This can take a while, so keep an eye on your risotto and make sure that the barley is becoming tender and the liquid is being absorbed. You can add the mushrooms to the barley at this stage and stir them well in.

12. When your venison liquid is reduced to being an intensely flavoured syrupy sauce, check it for seasoning and season if necessary - it'll probably need at least some black pepper - then return the meat to it to heat up.

13. When your barley risotto is tender and aromatic, take it off the heat and add a sprinkling of parsley, then toss the watercress into the venison pan and let it wilt before giving everyone a good ladle or two of barley, then a bed of wilted watercress followed by the meat from a shank and plenty of the jus to tie it all together.

Chocolate may seem weird, but venison and chocolate get on strangely well with each other and the final thing doesn't taste chocolatey, just slightly smokey and mysterious. Needless to say, if you don't have posh 75% dark chocolate, this isn't going to work; a Galaxy is not the right thing here.

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