Food was how I found my way back, back to a time when someone dear to me was still alive, a time when my grandmother’s midcentury kitchen still churned out the hearty Norwegian dishes that were at once hearty and elegant. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might know the story, how I came to love Norwegian food with such passion. I grew up eating it, but it was one summer in my mid-twenties when I realized just how much it meant to me. (This post in the archives sums it up pretty well.) Over the past six years it’s helped me to better understand the generations who came before me, ones who carried their heritage and traditions all the way across the Atlantic to America.
With each Scandinavian cookbook I read or recipe I cook, I glean a little more insight into where both sides of my family came from. I seem to gravitate toward the sweets, and I love creaming countless sticks of butter into glistening sugar and watching the simplest of ingredients transform into any number of different deserts. (Norwegian baking is remarkable in its simplicity and variety–the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Christmas cookies, are just some examples of what you can do with little more than butter, sugar, eggs, and flour.) But the savory dishes are just as good, and gravlax, fish soup, bacalao stew, and spiced medisterkaker meatballs nestled into surkål are my ideas of comfort food. Until recently, however, I had never cooked venison, a common meat in the Nordic countries.
I’d eaten venison in Norway, of course, during one of those meals that stay with you and linger, even as the details get hazy. We had stopped at a lovely rustic restaurant along a cobbled street in Bergen, up a bit from the main part of town. There I remember eating red deer and drinking crystal clear aquavit that tasted purely like distilled dill. I don’t remember what we talked about (aside from that remarkable aquavit) or what we were wearing. But I remember sitting there with my husband and sharing a meal in a white-hued restaurant with light flooding in through the windows from the soft-bright day. I remember the way it felt to experience Norway for the first time and how much I loved being in that country.
When I cooked venison for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I rubbed it with crushed anise seed, salt, and pepper, and nestled it along with creamy pureed parsnips, buttery chanterelles, and a generous spoonful of lingonberry preserves. Though I was creating my own recipe, I was drawing from many of the preparations I’ve seen in Scandinavian cookbooks, from the anise seed that flavors the venison (a nod to Danish chef and author Trine Hahnemann) to the chanterelles and lingonberry preserves that accompany it (mushrooms and a little something sweet are very typical). Though I didn’t grow up eating venison (neither of my parents likes it so they didn’t cook it), the time I’ve spent exploring its uses in preparation for this recipe has deepened my understanding and appreciation of yet another facet of Scandinavian cooking.
Venison with Parsnips and Chanterelles I created this recipe as an entry in a recipe challenge for Marx Foods. They invited me to participate and sent me a couple of complimentary packs of Cervena Venison to work with. Voting takes place next week. You can learn more about the challenge on their website.
3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
3 cups whole milk
1/2 Tablespoon kosher salt
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
Chanterelles: 3/4 pound chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned and cut lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending on size
3 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons aquavit
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tablespoon juniper berries, crushed
Salt and pepper, to taste
Lingonberry preserves, for serving
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Pat the venison dry, then mix together anise seed, salt, and pepper and rub over the meat evenly on all sides.
Heat olive oil in an oven-safe large pan over medium-high heat. Sear the venison on both sides, allowing it to form a deep golden crust. Transfer to the oven to finish cooking. Timing will depend on how you’d like the venison cooked; due to its low fat content, you’ll want to make sure to not overcook it. (While the USDA recommends cooking farmed game meat to an internal temperature of 160°, the product information for this venison states the following recommended internal cooking temperatures: 104° for rare, 111° for medium rare, and 129° for medium.) Remove from the oven when the internal temperature is a few degrees below where you want it. Transfer the venison to a plate and cover with foil to rest while you finish the rest of the dish.
While the venison cooks, work on the vegetables. Place the parsnips, salt, milk, and thyme in a medium pot and bring to a vigorous simmer. Cook until the parsnips yield easily to a fork, then remove from the heat. Remove the thyme sprigs and discard. Transfer the parsnips to a food processor, along with enough milk to make a smooth puree. Be careful, as they’re hot. Process until as smooth as can be, adding more of the milk as needed. (Parsnips will retain some texture, so don’t overprocess them.)
For the mushrooms, heat butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes until they’re tender but still retain a slight bite. Season with salt.
To make the sauce, deglaze the pan with aquavit, using a wooden spoon to loosen all the brown bits. Add cream and juniper berries and cook for a few minutes over medium or medium-high heat until it thickens and takes on a pale golden color. Strain, then season with salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, spoon the parsnips on a platter, then top with the venison and chanterelles. Pour the sauce over the venison and add a generous dollop of lingonberry preserves.