If the thought of venison doesn't whet your appetite, you've never heard Charlie Magee describe the way he cooks venison roasts at his cabin in West Virginia.
"First, we build a pit from rocks and get a good wood fire going," Magee says. "We let that burn for three, four hours . . . get a nice bed of hot coals.
"Then we put big, fresh chunks of venison on the grill. Man, you've never smelled anything so good as that deer meat cooking!
"Many people object to the taste of venison. They claim it has a wild flavor . . . that they can only tolerate it if the meat's been marinated for three or four days. But that's not the case at all if the meat is handled properly."
Magee, a Westminster resident, has been hunting for most of his 70 years. During that time, he has developed his own method for dressing out deer meat, one that differs in some respects from the way a commercial butcher would handle it.
The part of the process Magee considers most critical is removing the hide as soon as possible.
"Those people you see riding around town for a couple of days with a deer on their car aren't doing the meat a bit of good," he says. "You've got to get that hide off as soon as possible. That's what gives the meat a strong flavor. Check that deer in, get that hide off as soon as possible and cool out the carcass."
The next step is aging the meat. In cold weather, the entire skinned carcass may be hung to cure. Another method is to quarter the carcass or cut it into manageable chunks and place the meat in a refrigerator.
"My way of cutting up the deer meat is probably different from the way others do it," Magee says. "Some like chops, others like the loin separated. Some like ribs, some don't. Some like the haunches cut into roasts, others like them cut into steaks."
For Magee and his family, the loin is the choicest cut of the venison and is removed intact from the rib bones. The loin will be made into steaks that can be butterflyed (slit through the middle, leaving a small amount of connective tissue).
Magee feels the way commercial butchers cut the meat into sections on an electric saw has a harmful effect.
"When a butcher slices deer meat on a saw, a lot of the bone and connective tissue are dragged through the meat. Bone marrow, in particular, has a strong, unpleasant flavor," he says.
He cautions it also is important to remove as much of the fat, or tallow, as soon as possible or it will develop a rancid flavor. Deer fat is not suitable for greasing pans or for sauteeing or browning.
Magee's method is to separate the haunch meat from the bone with a sharp knife. He then separates these large chunks along the lines of the connective tissue. This results in roasts of various sizes that can be left whole for roasting or sliced into steaks.
Meat from the deer's front quarter is removed by the same method, but provides smaller chunks. This can be used in stews or ground for hamburger.
Since the fat has been removed, ground venison is too dry for hamburger; in order to have moist, juicy hamburgers, it is necessary to mix the ground venison with one-third beef or pork.
Deer sausage, popular with some users, also needs the addition of pork for moisture. By smoking the sausage and with the addition of spices and seasonings, some local butchers are able to produce deer bologna, a product very similar to the Lebanon bologna found in the delicatessen section of grocery stores.
"I really can't tell the difference between the two," Magee says.
When it comes time to cook the venison, Magee and his family have their own favorite methods.
"First, we take a heavy skillet with some grease in it and get it very hot," he says. "Then we dredge half-inch thick slices of venison in flour, salt and pepper and cook it very quickly. Favorite way!"
Asked if the age of the deer makes a difference in tenderness of its meat, Magee replies: "Like with any animal, the younger ones will be the most tender. Doe meat, in general, is probably more tender than that from the buck because the does don't run as much.
"During rutting season, meat from the buck tends to have a stronger flavor. Usually, however, by the time hunting season opens, the deer are no longer rutting."
Again, Magee emphasizes the most important factor in handling venison -- "Get that hide off quick."
*Sauteed venison steaks
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tbsp. brown sugar
tsp. powdered ginger
tsp. ground cloves
1 cups red wine
cup seedless raisins
2 tsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. cold water
cup red currant jelly
1 tbsp. grated lemon rind
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. Grand Marnier (optional)
6 venison loin steaks, -inch thick
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
To prepare sauce, combine mustard, brown sugar, ginger, salt, cloves and red wine in heavy saucepan. Simmer, covered, for four minutes. Add the raisins. Simmer four minutes more.
Dissolve cornstarch in cold water. Stir this into the sauce and let simmer for two minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in currant jelly, lemon rind and lemon juice. If desired, add Grant Marnier. Keep sauce hot over low heat.
In the meantime, prepare the steaks: rub steaks with garlic on all sides. Heat butter and vegetable oil in large skillet. Saute meat quickly on all sides. Serve with hot sauce.