IN A half-timbered Munich inn, venison was drenched in sweet red sauce and cooked to the texture of Grandmother's pot roast. Following the grapevines of Burgundy led to venison that warned the nostrils via vinegar that a long-marinated beast was coming. In Paris, venison bled when cut, sending meaty rivulets into the hill of chestnut pure'e. Austrian venison stews tasted as heavy and strong as a winter wind.
Venison had its rules, that was the message that came with every specialite' du jour. Venison went well with red -- lingonberries, currants -- and demanded the sugar kick of those roseate sauces. Venison could not exist without chestnuts shoring it up. Or venison needed the alchemy of a vinegar marinade to tame its wild disposition.
They could be delicious, the products of those venison traditions. But venison, I was still to learn, could play more than one note. It need not be sauced with something sour or sweet-and-sour. It has its own distinctive ultra-meat flavor that does not require submersion in acid and juniper berries. It can be as versatile as tournedos -- which, after all, are being mated with roquefort and pear pure'e and all manner of piquancies these days.
All this I was taught after an all-day game feast last winter. Everything we ate tasted good and hearty and wintery. But it all tasted the same. The possum and raccoon and muskrat and deer became, with their intense marinades, long cooking and heavily spiced brown sauces, just stew, good stew but any kind of stew.
Hank Burchard, The Post's big-game hunter/writer, protested. Venison was wasted in such concoctions, he insisted. Venison properly bagged and properly cared for should be properly cooked, which meant quickly and barely. It is meat with little fat, so that long cooking dries it. It should be cooked like a a beef filet, only more quickly.
To prove the point, he gave me some meat for experimentation, and warned me that under no circumstances does venison go well with mustard.
He was right. Except for the mustard. I cut the meat into four-ounce steaks and saute'ed them about two minutes on each side, trying various seasonings and pan sauces. (Beef steaks, of course, could be substituted for venison in any of the following recipes.) Six experiments and one failure (venison with dried apricots and cognac) later, Burchard was willing to concede on mustard, and I had discovered venison steaks and their quick-dinner possibilities. Venison came out of the marinade and into the light.
WHERE TO BUY VENISON
The cost of federally inspecting fresh venison would make the cost prohibitive for the consumer. However, a few area markets do supply frozen venison:
French Market, 1632 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 338-4828 -- saddle roast $9.50 per pound; boneless leg $13.
Georgetown Boucherie, 3206 Grace St. NW, 333-3206 -- back roast and whole leg $9.50 per pound.
Larimers, 1727 Conn., Ave. NW, 332-3366 -- roast $6.50 per pound; steaks $13.50.
Washington Beef, 9812 Falls Rd., Potomac, Md., 983-9200 -- stew meat $5.99 per pound; steaks and unboned leg $9.49.
PEPPERED VENISON STEAK (1 serving)
This was the favorite of the recipes, combining an explosive pepperiness with the sweetness of raisins and cassis. Another sweet fortified wine, liqueur or fruit syrup could be substituted if you have no cassis on hand. 4-ounce venison steak 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, coarsely crushed 1 tablespoon raisins 1 tablespoon cassis (black currant liqueur) 2 1/2 teaspoons butter 1 teaspoon oil
Pat crushed peppercorns firmly into both sides of venison steak. Set aside. In a small bowl combine raisins with cassis and set aside. In a small, heavy skillet, heat 1 teaspoon butter with 1 teaspoon oil. Saute' venison steak in the hot butter about 2 minutes on each side, until rare. Remove to serving plate. If butter has burned, pour it out and wipe the pan before proceeding to the next step. Otherwise, leave it in the pan and add the raisins and cassis, being careful because it readily bursts into flame. Facing the pan away from you, ignite the cassis and swirl it in the pan, removing it from the heat as you do. The cassis caramelizes and burns quickly, so blow out the flame or cover it with a lid as soon as the cassis begins to bubble so that it does not burn. Swirl in 1 1/2 teaspoons butter and pour over steak.
HERBED VENISON STEAK (1 serving) Walnuts give a slight crunch, herbs and garlic add aroma, and the faint touch of vinegar highlights these flavors. 1 tablespoon (or less) olive oil 4-ounce venison steak 1 clove garlic, mashed 1 tablespoon walnuts, finely chopped 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon vinegar
Heat olive oil in small, heavy skillet and saute' venison with garlic and nuts, turning the steak once after 2 minutes. Add parsley and oregano to the pan when you turn the steak, and stir the seasonings so they don't burn. When steak is cooked rare, remove it to plate. Add 1/2 teaspoon vinegar to the skillet, scraping to loosen any crusted bits from the pan, and cook for a moment until the vinegar evaporates. Scrape the herbs and nuts from the pan onto the steak and serve immediately.
SALT-GRILLED VENISON (1 serving)
Grilling on hot salt sears meat quickly, forming a flavorsome crust. Instead of adding a sauce to this steak, put the hot steak on cold shredded cucumbers so that the meat juices mingle with the vegetable, which contributes moistness and textural contrast. 4-ounce venison steak Salt 1/4 cup shredded cucumber or cucumber and radish combined
Sprinkle a small, heavy skillet with a very thin layer of salt and heat until it is quite hot. Grill steak on the salt for about 2 minutes on each side, until rare. In the meantime, make a bed of shredded cucumber on a plate. When steak is done, place it on the cucumber and serve immediately.
VENISON STEAKS WITH ROQUEFORT AND MUSTARD (1 serving)
The two strong flavors, mustard and roquefort, complement each other and match surprisingly well with the meat. Any blue cheese can be substituted for the roquefort. 4-ounce venison steak 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard Fresh bread crumbs to coat steak Butter and oil for sauteing 1 tablespoon roquefort cheese
Rub mustard on both sides of steak. Dredge in bread crumbs, patting them on to adhere to the meat. In a small, heavy skillet heat equal amounts of butter and oil, as little as needed to coat the pan. Saute' the steak on both sides until crumbs are browned and meat is rare, about 4 minutes in all. Top with roquefort cheese and cover the pan for a moment, just until the cheese melts. Remove to plate and serve immediately.
VENISON WITH GINGERED PEARS (1 serving)
Sharpened by the ginger, this topping has a sweetness that is delicate and quite different from the usual venison-red currant combination. 1 pear 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger (preferably fresh) Salt and pepper to taste 1 teaspoon butter 4-ounce venison steak Oil for sauteing
Peel and grate the pear. Combine with ginger in a small saucepan and add just enough water -- a spoonful or so -- to keep the pear from burning as you cook it, stirring, for 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in butter. Set aside.
Heat oil in small, heavy skillet and saute' steak for about 2 minutes on each side, until rare. Top with pear pure'e and cover pan for a moment to heat the topping. Remove to plate and serve.