I don’t think I’ve ever made the same recipe exactly the same way twice. Sometimes it’s the mood, sometimes the weather, but sometimes it’s just that my tastes have changed. One of the curious things about humans is that we lose a few taste buds every year. It’s a sneaky thing, one you almost can’t notice from year to year, but will notice if you pull out an old favorite recipe from the dust bin and cook it again. This venison chili recipe is an example. When I wrote it up for Art of Wild Game Cooking, it had half the chili powder and cumin and no fresh chili peppers. There was always lots of garlic, which I could enjoy, but John had to add canned jalapenos at the table.
These days I’ve lost enough taste buds that I’m just a bit higher on the ladder of the Scoville Scale—the somewhat technical method we use to rate peppers. Oddly John’s a bit lower, to the point we almost meet in the middle. (I think John’s change is because of the lining of his stomach, not that he’s growing new taste buds.)
While I still can’t eat raw jalapenos (2500-8000 Scoville Heat Units), I do enjoy them cooked, though if I’m adding a whole pepper to a pot of soup, it’s more likely to be an Anaheim (500-2500 SHU). And while John can’t eat as much garlic as I can, without Rolaids, I still remember him in New Orleans, gleefully tasting the array of hot pepper sauces. He got about halfway through the first row when, sweat streaming down his face, he admitted he couldn’t feel his tongue.
Now let’s not forget this chili’s other major ingredient: venison burger. The most frequently asked question I get is about grinders, and how picky we should be adding wild game meat to the grinding pile. Those two things are inseparable. You cannot talk about butchering big game at home, and grinding venison without talking about the stuff that slows you down: under-powered grinders and connective tissue.
First how powerful is your grinder? If you’re using something like John and I started out with, a $100 kitchen store job, it pays to trim ruthlessly to prevent all the down time and frustration connective tissue clogs cause. But if you have a ½-horse or better, it takes a bit more to clog the works.
As we’re butchering a big game animal, the grinding pile starts with cuts of meat too small for roasts, steaks or even what we call ‘tender chunks’ (bite-sized pieces perfect for kabobs and stir fries). If your family uses more burger than anything else, then tender chunks probably go into the grinding pile, too. But the big thing is what goes into the grinding pile needs to be most–if not all–meat. And when butchering mule deer, whitetail deer and antelope, no fat. (Phil and Rocky Shoemaker point out that moose can have delicious fat, but they live in Alaska where they garner lots of experience tasting moose. Between John and me we’ve drawn twice for Montana’s Shiras moose but John’s brought home three or four other bulls from Northern Canada and Alaska. Not enough to form a universal opinion.)
So let’s say no fat. Then you’re looking at the perils of silver skin vs. hard sinew. I’ve seen many hunters spend hours ridding their meat of silver skin–that transparent gossamer fiber that is absolutely no danger to grinders, teeth or taste buds in good tasting game animals. (And if 95% of your animals are gamy, you either need to quit trophy hunting so much or take better care of your meat in the field. If the latter, Slice of the Wild will help a lot. If it’s the trophy hunting, only you can decide if the eating is more important than the wall hanging.)
Trophy mule deer, elk and caribou can suffer from the over-exuberance of the rut. Lack of sleep and proper nutrition causes the males of those species to lose weight, and with weight loss, eatability suffers. For some reason, that is true more of the connective tissue than the actual muscle meat.
The really bad thing is that connective tissue seems to get worse the longer it sits in the freezer. One fall John and I both lucked into nice mule deer bucks but both turned out to be truly rut-gamy. Having both graduated from high school, we designated one of the bucks as sausage immediately. Then we took extra care butchering the second, trimming ruthlessly. Two to three months later, we realized that the little bit of connective tissue that survived our knives had not only grown a lot more gamy but had developed an unsavory slimy texture. By January we’d thawed him again, trimmed him again, and turned him into sausage, too.
But the females of those species, as well as those males taken before the rut starts (or 4 to 5 weeks after when they’ve had a chance to rest and recuperate from their amorous adventures), and all whitetails and antelope, don’t get rut-gamy. If they taste bad it’s either game care or bad luck. (There’s also good luck: I shot a 3×3 mule deer a few years ago, and he was tender and tasty, despite its being Saturday after Thanksgiving, the tail end of the rut in Montana, and that he was with a string of does and, when butchered, had not an ounce of fat left on him. We were happy and our friend and outfitter John Stuver was thrilled to have a 3×3 removed from the gene pool.)
So, barring a rutty, nasty, pee-stink buck, the sinew you can read a newspaper through is okay in any grinder; sinew you can’t see light through, and any meat that’s bloodshot or discolored won’t be in our grinding pile. You can tell how well you’re trimming by how often you have to take the grinder apart—or how much sinew you find wrapped around the grinder’s main shaft when you’re all done.
So what are you going to do with all that ground venison? If you’re like most hunters, a venison chili is on your horizon. This one makes the roof of my mouth burn a bit. John thought it was just right with a sprinkle of green pepper Tabasco Sauce. He thought the sweet, light flavor of the green pepper sauce complimented the somewhat smoky flavor of the chili. Feel free to also add sour cream, as I did, or Cheddar cheese a la John.
There’s a lot more on creating great ground venison burger in Slice of the Wild and Sausage Season. Slice has 100 venison recipes, Sausage Season? Over 70 different homemade sausage recipes.
North Country Venison Chili
Makes 7 cups (1 ¾ quarts)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- 14.5 ounce can chopped tomatoes
- 2 ½ cups water
- 2 tablespoons BTB low sodium roasted beef base
- ½ cup red wine
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground oregano
- ¾ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
- 3-4 tablespoons oil
- 1 pound ground venison
- 1 large yellow onion coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 Anaheim pepper, chopped*
- 1 cup frozen corn, thawed
- 15 ounce can black beans, rinsed
*We grew some pretty spicy Anaheims in our garden last year. That’s what I used in this last chili and it provided a good dose of heat. No fire.
Cooking The Venison Chili
- In a 3 ½ to 5 quart soup pot or Dutch oven (DO), combine the tomato paste, tomatoes, water. BTB low sodium beef base, red wine, vinegar, chili powder, cumin, oregano, and black pepper. Give it a good stir, then place on the stove over high heat until it comes to a low boil. Turn it down to a simmer while you brown the meat and veggies.
- In a large skillet, heat half the oil over medium-high heat and brown the ground venison in 2 to 3 batches. Add each batch to the DO as it’s done.
- Add the rest of the oil to the pan, and brown the onion until you can smell its aroma, then add the garlic to the pan. When the onions/garlic have softened and are lightly edged with brown, toss them into the DO. Now add the chopped Anaheim pepper. If the pan is dry, add a bit of oil, and sauté the Anaheim until the edges darken and you can smell the pepper. Add the pepper to the pot.
- Add the corn and black beans, give the pot a good stir, then bring to a gentle simmer and let it cook 20-30 minutes uncovered.