You know when you go to a slightly cringey restaurant, and the pudding menu is offered? And a member of your party demurs on the basis that they’re full? ‘Oh but madame, we have an entirely separate stomach when it comes to puddings’ says the waiter. And you giggle and simper and order a molten chocolate pudding? I thought maybe I’d made this up, or it only happened to me, but then a brief google led me to a whole string of articles about how the ‘dessert stomach’ (ie. the ability to suddenly feel like you have room for a little something sweet after a twelve course belt-busting meal’) is not only a restaurant upsell-trick, but a bonafide peer-reviewed physiological phenomenon. Who knew?
But anyway the point is, if its possible to have pudding stomach, I think I have a pastry brain. I have absolutely no problem embarking on a four-hour–, three-day– , four-day–, even week long baking recipe, whether it’s lamination or sourdough or hundreds of different layers of flavour that need chilling and freezing, I am equal to the task: I crack my knuckles in anticipation, click my neck, put the kettle on, and feel a fizz of anticipation. It is a worthy project.
But suggest a savoury dish that takes more than a couple of hands-off hours, an ingredient list that extends beyond 5 or 6 items, or involves something that I already know the location of in my local supermarket, I’m deterred. That, of course, is part of the point of this endeavour, this year of ingredients, to take me outside my very cosy cooking comfort zone, and make me cook with things I haven’t in way that I usually wouldn’t.
That’s what this venison stew did. When I decided I wanted to cook with venison, I found a much simpler stew, with chunkier vegetables, no tiny onions, no chestnuts, no overnight marinade. This is the one for me, I thought. And then realised that there’s absolutely no point in this pursuit if I end up relying on old failsafes. So I embarked on this one: a two day extravaganza, with about a hundred different stages, and the need to dust off my juniper berries.
This is heavily based on Rowley Leigh’s venison stew from his excellent book No Place Like Home. And whilst I mostly managed to tamp down my instincts to simplify and shorten, there were a couple of amendments that I did make. Shallots in place of pearl onions, a lot more chestnuts than the original (40g, the correct ratio, seemed like such an insignificant amount), and not removing the marinading vegetables from the final dish (my Northern soul couldn’t bear the waste). I’ve also hugely reduced the quantities: the below made three extremely generous portions, and is a sixth of the original recipe. And if you fancy it, throw in some bone marrow just before it goes in the oven, and fish out the bone when it comes out, by which time all the marrow has melted and emulsified into the sauce.
It goes like this:
Venison, chestnut and chocolate stew
Makes: 2 generous portions plus 1 lucky person’s packed lunch
Takes: 2 days including marinade
Bakes: 2 hours
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 dessertspoon plain flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
5g dark chocolate
Squeeze of lemon
For the marinade
1/2 large carrot
1/2 stick celery
1 clove garlic
2 juniper berries
4 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 strip lemon zest
Sprig of thyme
Splash red wine vinegar
1/3 bottle red wine
Splash olive oil
- Peel and dice the carrots, onions and celery. Place in a bowl with the (unpeeled) garlic cloves, chilli and the rest of the marinade ingredients, and the venison. Cover the top of the marinade with a film of olive oil, clingfilm, and refrigerate overnight .
- Preheat the oven to 170°C. Drain the marinade and reserve. Fish out the chilli, juniper berries, peppercorns, garlic, clove, bay leaf, lemon zest and thyme. Pat the meat dry with kitchen roll, season and brown in batches in a hot pan, and, once cooked, pop in a casserole dish.
- Drain off any residual fat, and add the veg from the marinade and brown. Sprinkle the flour onto the veg and cook for a couple of minutes, until it sizzles. Deglaze with the marinade and tip it all into the casserole dish. Add water so that the meat is covered, and bring up to the boil.
- Pop a lid on the casserole dish and cook for 2 hours. Leave to cook for 20 minutes.
- Peel and half the shallots. Melt half the butter in a frying pan and add the shallots, moving them around until they’ve taken on colour. Throw in the sugar, and allow to caramelise a little. Cover with water, bung a lid on the pan and cook until the water had evaporated and the onions are tender – about fifteen minutes.
- Melt the other half of the butter, and add the chestnuts and enough water to cover, and stew for 30 minutes.
- Add the shallots and chestnuts to the stew, and bring back to a simmer. Grate in the chocolate, a little bit at a time, tasting with each addition. The chocolate should be a backgrounded flavour, enriching, and enlivening: if you can taste it, there’s too much, and you can correct it with a little splash of lemon juice – don’t allow the stew to boil.