Before there were supermarkets with meat in the frozen section, there were Hudson Valley families — Native Americans and settlers, who lived off the land. With dignity and respect, they hunted the graceful white-tailed deer. Families lived through the rigors of winter because of the meat these animals provided, and tanned hides and fur were turned into warm coverings and light-yet-sturdy coats that kept these early descendants warm against the winter chill.
For many Hudson Valley residents, hunting remains a lifelong tradition. I grew up eating venison. Every year during deer season, I watched three generations of family hunters — grandfather, father, and son — suit up to head into the woods before dawn. In the frosty, early morning chill, they tried to quiet the crunch of the leaves under their boots, hoping to track deer and bring one home while the sun was still at their backs.
The hunt was often successful, but there were times, after a long day of trekking through the woods, when they returned home with no game. On those evenings, I remember the tall tales of the one that got away, of the buck they tracked up the mountain which somehow disappeared from sight, of the 12-pointer my brother saw through the trees but wisely never squeezed the trigger at because he couldn’t get a clear shot.
Woodstock resident George Leombruno, now in his 80s, acquired a lifetime license after age 75. “I started hunting in the Hudson Valley in my teens with my father. We lived in the Bronx and came up to hunt in Ulster County, Woodstock, Hunter and Germantown,” he recalls. Together with his son and son-in-law, he still takes to the woods each year and shares the bounty of the hunt with the extended family.
Venison has long been praised as a protein-packed, lean meat. A three-ounce venison steak has approximately 127 calories, 25 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat. Compare that to filet mignon, which has a similar calorie count, but only 17 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat in the same three-ounce serving.
In these uncertain times, wild venison can also be economical. Depending on your age, a New York State resident hunting license ranges from $5 to $22 for the season, and a box of ammunition costs about $25. “An average deer in the Hudson Valley weighs about 105 to 120 pounds. From that, you get about 40 pounds of meat,” says Leombruno, who field dresses and cuts his deer after the hunt. On average, one healthy deer yields him 25 to 30 small steaks, 10 pounds of chopped meat, and two roasts (1½ pounds each), which he wraps and labels for freezing.
If you don’t want to process, cut, and skin your deer, there are a number of businesses in the Hudson Valley that can do it for you. Red Hook-based Timber 2 Table will process your deer into loin roasts, medallions, cutlets, stew meat, and ground venison, while Malafy’s Meat Processing, also in Red Hook, or Deserto’s Custom Deer Cutting in Middletown can process that lean meat into fresh sausage, pepperoni, salami, or kielbasa.
In business for more than 40 years, Deserto’s also participates in the Venison Donation Coalition, which distributes venison through eight regional food banks in New York State, at no cost to the hunter.
Venison may be versatile, organic and lean, but how do you keep it from tasting gamey, tough and bland? “It’s a tricky protein to deal with,” says Executive Chef Jesse Frederick of Butterfield at Hasbrouck House in Stone Ridge. “It’s easily overcooked if not handled properly. It’s super lean; there’s not much marbling throughout the meat. Chefs try to cook [it to a lower temperature than what’s] normal for rare beef. Err on the side of not overcooking.”
While it’s “excellent” as a tartare, Frederick also recommends a slow, longer cook for cuts like shank, neck and chuck, so that it’s tender for inclusion in chili, Italian ragù, stroganoff or goulash. Popular among Frederick’s repertoire of venison entrées at Butterfield is “What a Deer Eats,” featuring venison from Highland Farm, spiced black trumpet crust, greens, parsnips, fruit and nuts. “The idea is: You-are-what-you-eat eats. What grows together, goes together,” says Frederick.
Game meat, like venison, is part of the cultural experience at Bia in Rhinebeck, too. “We’re an Irish-inspired restaurant, and game is a big part of the menu,” says Executive Chef Rich Reeve. “We want to incorporate game as often as possible. I think people think of game as high-scale, like venison medallions or venison sausage croquettes.” On the dinner menu Reeve gives venison a more casual interpretation as a schnitzel, accompanied by a creamy dill potato salad and house-made cranberry chutney.
Both Frederick and Reeve serve venison year-round from local, farm-raised deer. At Highland Farm in Germantown, Claire MacNamara and her husband are the on-site managers of the family-owned, 55-acre farm started by her parents, Mark and Martha MacNamara. The family has been supplying the Northeast with farm-raised venison for more than 30 years.
“We mostly started with venison,” says Claire. “It continues to be at the heart of what we do. We raise a couple different species of deer. We process right here on the farm. You want your farmer to care and love their animals.” In addition to supplying venison to local restaurants, Highland Farm offers their own fresh cuts, smoked products, and jerky for sale directly to consumers.
At Butterfield, Frederick expects to continue serving venison this winter. “I enjoy cooking with venison. It represents not only American cuisine, but regional also,” he says. “This has been a really tricky year for everyone. We’re going back to the old ways, things we did so we could sustain the winter.” ϖ