Sometimes you can't beat a good piece of red meat, seared in a blisteringly hot pan on the outside until it scorches, left to rest for a few minutes and then sliced open to reveal a perfectly pink interior glistening with moisture. Even better when the red meat in question is one that is good for you, amidst all the headlines about red meat being linked to bowel cancer. Venison is I suppose what you would call red meat (though actually, it's almost more of a very dark purple), but it is low in saturated fat, high in iron and vitamins, and very low in cholesterol. What's more, it has the succulence of (beef) fillet steak but rather more flavour. There's also the notion of grandeur about it: 'venison' to me conjures up images of grand Tudor feasts, servants carrying home the spoils of one of Henry VIII's (pre-leg ulcer) hunting trips, huge deer carcasses draped over their shoulders.
I normally cook venison with some sort of red wine jus, with a little redcurrant jelly and something like whole redcurrants or blueberries added. I've also made it with a quince and rosemary compote, which was absolutely delicious. However, I'm always in search of new and exciting meat and fruit pairings, and I vaguely recalled a recipe I read somewhere that mentioned a kumquat compote. Off to the market I went, to procure some venison and kumquats.
They're a funny little fruit. A member of the citrus family, the skin and pith are sweet while the inside is quite sour - kind of the reverse of an orange. I nibbled a whole one, and it was pleasantly refreshing, but I'm not sure I could sit there and eat them raw from the bag. So I cooked them with fresh ginger, shallots, cinnamon, cumin, brown sugar and vinegar to form a beautiful orange compote, thick and jammy with whole pieces of kumquat that had a crunch rather like the peel you find in thick-cut marmalade. It's hard to describe the taste of the compote: it has a lot of sharpness from the vinegar, but that is matched by the sugar, and you end up with something very sweet and very moreish. It works perfectly with the iron-rich gameyness of the meat, though I'd actually eat it as it is on porridge, or with ice cream.
To accompany the venison, some of my favourite winter vegetables: mash, roasted beetroot, and savoy cabbage. I absolutely adore cabbage - braised red cabbage is probably my favourite, but I have a new love for savoy. When lightly steamed, its leaves have so much texture and a hint of bitterness that makes them a perfect match for rich-flavoured meat dishes. They also provide a nice colour contrast on a plate that is predominantly dark purple. The beetroots I just roasted in foil in the oven. I actually intended to mash them with the potato, but they don't mash particularly well, so I ended up serving them in chunks. They gave a new textural dimension to the dish, which is otherwise rather soft.
As for the venison, I left it to marinate in red wine, juniper, bay, thyme, rosemary and garlic for half a day before drying it and searing it in a hot pan for a couple of minutes on each side. I also left it to rest for about ten minutes under some foil while I made the mash - this does make a real difference. It means that the juices don't trickle out of the meat when you cut into it and make a mess of the plate, and it makes the meat a lot more succulent.
This is a dish I'm rather proud of; all the individual elements work very well together, and the kumquat compote is just wonderful. I'd make double and save some for dessert one day, if I were you - sadly I didn't have the foresight. But I think this is just what you need when those cravings for a good old-fashioned plate of meat and vegetables arises. If I owned a gastropub, it'd be there on my menu without a doubt (one can dream...).
Seared venison, kumquat compote, beetroot and savoy cabbage (serves 4):
4 venison steaks (or 2 large ones - you want a total weight of about 800-900g)
Large glass of red wine
6 juniper berries, crushed
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 sprigs thyme and rosemary (or 1tsp dried thyme and 1tsp dried rosemary)
2 bay leaves
200g kumquats, quartered lengthways
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
2 shallots, peeled and finely diced
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cumin
75ml white wine vinegar
40g light muscovado sugar
4 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into four
2 large beetroot, scrubbed but not peeled
1/2 savoy cabbage
A dash of milk
Salt and pepper
Marinate the venison steaks in the wine and aromatics for at least an hour before you plan to cook it. When you are ready to cook, remove from the marinade (reserve it) and dry the steaks thoroughly with kitchen paper before seasoning them.
Roast the beetroots at 200C, wrapped in foil, until tender. (If they take forever, cut them into smaller pieces - some of the colour will run out, but it doesn't really matter).
For the compote, fry the ginger and shallot in a little oil until softened. Add the spices and the kumquats, and cook until the fruit has softened slightly. Then pour in the sugar and vinegar, cover with a lid and leave to simmer until the fruit has softened even more. Remove the lid and reduce until you have a thick, jammy consistency. Taste - you might need to add a little more sugar.
For the mash, boil the potatoes until soft. Drain and leave to dry out for a few minutes before mashing or pushing through a potato ricer. Stir in seasoning to taste, along with butter and milk.
When the mash is done, keep it warm while you cook the venison. Heat some oil in a large saucepan until quite hot - you want the steaks to sizzle as soon as they hit the pan. Place the steaks in the pan and cook for a couple of minutes on each side (this is for rare meat - you can cook it more if you like, but venison should ideally be served rare as it toughens very quickly). Put on a plate and cover with foil while you cook the cabbage and make the jus.
For the jus, strain the venison marinade and pour into the hot pan you cooked the steaks in - it should bubble and reduce to about 6tbsp of liquid. Taste and check the seasoning.
For the cabbage, finely shred the leaves, heat a little oil in a large saucepan with a lid and stir fry for a few minutes. Add about a centimetre of water, put the lid on, and leave to steam until tender but still crunchy. Check the water level sporadically to make sure it doesn't boil dry. Season and stir through some butter before serving.
To serve, place the mash on the plate and surround with beetroot and cabbage. Slice the venison steaks into thin strips and place on top, drizzle over some jus, then top with the compote.