Some people look at a plate of venison and see Bambi. This article probably isn't for them.
But with deer-hunting season here, the rest of you may be interested to learn that venison is flavorful, versatile and healthy. It is a red meat with less fat than chicken and nearly as much protein as beef.
Ground venison can be substituted for beef in spaghetti sauces, chilies, tacos and meatloaf. Cuts can be grilled, pan-seared and even stir-fried.
The meat's strong flavor marries well with traditional autumn ingredients like pears, cranberries, pumpkins and squash, making it a perfect choice for the season's holiday dinners.
But many people avoid venison, not only because of childhood memories of a beloved Disney character, but also out of concern for taste and safety.
"I think a lot of people feel that game tastes gamy and it really doesn't," said Teresa Marrone, editor of many game books, including "Preparing Fish and Wild Game" and "Dressing and Cooking Wild Game" (both by Creative Publishing International). "Big-game meat, if cooked properly, is even tastier than choice beef. And because it's leaner than beef, it also has fewer calories. But the lean meat can become tough and dry if cooked incorrectly."
The taste of the meat depends on the animal's diet, its sex, age, the time of year it was killed and the way it was treated after the kill, she says.
A farm-raised, corn-fed deer, for example, will be milder than one that lived in the wild. An older animal is generally tougher and stronger-tasting than a younger one. Because venison is lean, it's important to use moist heat and avoid overcooking, chefs say.
Venison is considered safer than chicken; as long as the meat is heated to about 140 degrees, or medium-rare, there's little danger of disease, experts agree.
In Maryland, hunters are required to immediately remove the animal from the field and take it to an approved check station within 24 hours. After that, hunters can butcher the meat themselves or take it to a meat processor.
"If a piece of venison is bad, it's usually caught before it's wrapped," said Paul Peditto, deer project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "In my tenure, I've never heard of anyone suffering from improperly handled venison. I guess it goes to the issue that it is hard to get it any fresher."
In Maryland, a record 77,660 deer were bagged during last year's hunting season, said Peditto.
Bambi fans can consider that deer hunting curbs a serious overpopulation problem and - at least in Maryland - provides food for the hungry.
A program called Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry collects donated venison and raises money to process the meat for charitable organizations, Peditto said.
Hunters aren't allowed to sell their catches to restaurants or individuals, Peditto said. Of course, though, there are no laws against sharing the meat with friends and family.
"We use a lot of it at home, for everything from meatloaf to holiday tenderloin," he said. DNR officials often get new tips and recipes from hunters and processors.
Venison lovers who don't hunt or know hunters can purchase farm-raised meat at local gourmet markets. Eddie's supermarket in Roland Park sells venison tenderloin for $35 a pound and Eddie's on Charles Street can order it.
Farm-raised meat can also be purchased through vendors such as Highbourne Deer Farms in Pennsylvania. Prices there range from $3.58 per pound for ground meat to $19.20 a pound for tenderloin, said Joyce Reynolds, venison sales manager at Highbourne (call 717-428- 2774 or visit the Web site at Highbournedeerfarms.com).
Reynolds believes interest in venison is growing. "People are really very health-conscious and venison is a very healthy meat because there's little or no fat."
A 3.5-ounce serving of venison contains 139 calories, 5 grams of fat and 22 grams of protein compared with the same size serving of beef tenderloin that has 174 calories, 8 grams of fat and 24 grams of protein.
Another way to enjoy venison is by visiting local restaurants. Hunter's Lodge and Ellicott Mills Brewing Company, both in Ellicott City, are known for their venison dishes.
Rick Winter, a chef and partner at Ellicott Mills, serves a pan-seared venison steak with scallion and beer sauce.
The venison he uses is imported from New Zealand and tastes less gamy than American venison, he said.
At Hunter's Lodge, the venison comes from Highbourne Deer Farms. Because the animals are farm-raised, the meat has a milder flavor than hunted venison.
Jeffrey Crise, executive chef at Hunter's Lodge, likes to marinate and grill venison, then serve it with sweet ingredients like fruit. One of his favorite venison dishes is a coffee-barbecued T-bone served over chestnuts, apples and cabbage.
At home, Crise, an avid hunter, uses a different approach. He has been known to cook a whole venison in his Sparks back yard by cutting a 300-gallon drum in half and using it as a grill.