Venison Spaghetti and Meatballs

Venison Spaghetti and Meatballs

Classic Ground Venison Comfort Food: Venison Spaghetti and Meatballs

Have lots of ground venison meat in the freezer? This is a perfect venison burger recipe, with a pretty simple tomato sauce, made even better by adding a 3” strip of Parmesan cheese rind.  (The part we don’t usually eat.)  Once the sauce is ready to serve, remove the rind.  You could add the softer part of the Parmesan to the sauce, but the rind is more concentrated, and doesn’t melt and disappear into the sauce.  It also adds more flavor, deeper flavor, such good flavor in fact, it’s worth grating your own Parmesan rather than buying the ready-grated just to have rind in the fridge.

While we’re on the subject of improving one of our favorite comfort foods, let’s talk about these venison burger meatballs. I don’t usually add fat—or Italian sausage—to my venison burger meatballs when I’m cooking for just John and me.   But I’ve gotten enough questions about how to keep ground venison from falling apart during cooking, that I added it to this recipe. And it became a fan favorite in Slice of the Wild. (Bullet to Fork, 100 venison recipes:

Thing is, it really isn’t about the fat. It’s about the brain behind the spatula. FYI, that’s one really good reason—if you simply cannot put the spatula down– to follow the lower fat method of cooking, found at the end of the recipe.  There, you cook the meatballs by gently dropping them into the sauce pot and leaving them alone. (More on that later, and much more in Slice of the Wild.)

Most of us have a tendency—including my now-retired dentist–to play with our food. Specifically to start checking the burgers, meatballs, whatever, before the underside has a chance to cook enough not to fall apart.

When meat cooks in a skillet, any meat, the proteins in contact with the surface of the heat source bond and, if you give the first side enough time, when you slide that spatula under the meat, the first side is cooked/bonded enough to not only turn in one piece, but not stick to the pan.  How do you know it’s bonded/cooked enough to turn safely? You’ll see caramelized, browned meat on the edge of the burger, at least ¼ of the way up the side.  If you wait for that, the first side will be cooked, and you won’t have to turn the meat again to ‘finish’ it nor will it crumble into a thousand pieces.

So, does the meat stick to your skillet?  Do you have to turn it two or three times to finish it? Put the spatula down.  Smell the roses.  Have a few sips of that India Pale Ale everyone’s talking about.  Don’t walk away, but don’t fiddle with the meat. With medium-high heat, and a bit of oil in the pan (and waiting until the oil is hot enough that ripples appear on the surface, or a wisp of smoke rises–that wisp is pretty subtle unless you’re watching for it), it won’t take long. Four, five minutes at most, then look for that edge of caramelized/browned meat before you even pick up the spatula.

One more thing.  Foodies are always talking about ‘don’t crowd the pan.’  Most suggest placing the meat, be it steak or ground venison burger, 1 inch apart.  I find ½ inch works well and gets the job done more quickly. The space keeps the pan from cooling down too much, after all that’s cold meat going into a hot pan.  Keeping it hot limits the release of moisture. Your pan should not be full of ugly tan bubbles; what you should see is the cooking surface through the hot oil, and richly browned meat. Caramelizing adds rich flavor; steaming subtracts.

Venison Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe

Serves 4

A comfy and tasty way to cook ground venison.  And if you’re into making your own sausage, or want to start, I’d have used 100% my Fresh Italian sausage from Sausage Season for this ground venison spaghetti recipe (page 57).

Venison Spaghetti and Meatballs Ingredients

  • 8 ounces Italian sausage
  • 8 ounces ground venison
  • 3 tablespoons olive or grape seed oil, in all
  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried leaf sweet basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried leaf winter savory
  • 1/2 cup medium dry sherry
  • 2 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced tomatoes
  • 1 pound spaghetti or other pasta
  • Grated Parmesan cheese

Cooking The Venison Spaghetti and Meatballs

  1. Combine the sausage and ground venison, and shape into 1” round meatballs.
  2. In a 4 to 5-quart well-seasoned or enameled Dutch oven, heat half the oil over medium-high heat.  When the oil starts sizzling, add the meat balls a few at a time, without crowding the pan, and lightly brown them.  Turn gently to brown them all around, without their breaking apart.  Transfer the meatballs to a heated platter and cover with foil.
  3. Add the remaining oil and sauté the onions and garlic over medium heat, until golden brown.  Add the basil and savory, and stir together.  When the aroma of herbs starts filling the room, deglaze the pan with the sherry, pouring it into a measuring cup first, and removing the pan from the heat 4 to 5 seconds beforehand.  Stir up all the caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan.  Let the sherry reduce by about half, and then add the tomatoes.
  4. Bring the sauce back to a slow simmer, return the meatballs to the pot, and let it all cook about 20 minutes, as you prepare the spaghetti.  Serve with lots of Parmesan cheese and a green salad.

For those watching their fat, you can also just add the raw meatballs to the simmering sauce.   Drop them in gently, pressing them down so they submerge completely in the sauce, and they’ll cook in 8-10 minutes.    The rest of the cooking is just to let the flavors mix.   And to vary the sauce now and then, consider adding one or two chopped fire roasted red peppers.  They add a lot of flavor, and come prepared, in a jar, easy to use.

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