Venison Meatballs

Venison is one of my favorite meats.  The last meal I cooked before leaving to film MasterChef was venison tenderloin.  (Ironically, the dish that sent me home in 5th place from MasterChef was venison tenderloin…I was trying to cook it the way Ramsay cooks it, rather than my own special way.)  Venison is the most common game meat in the US, and while you can find it in specialty stores at a premium price, chances are if you ask around, you’ll find someone who hunts and who would be more than happy to share, particularly the lesser cuts or ground meat, which they usually have an abundance of.

The “backstrap” or tenderloin is the best cut of venison by far, and in my opinion, is the ONLY venison cut worthy of cooking in steak or roast form.  Many people enjoy shoulder steaks and rump roasts of venison, but to me, these cuts can be very gamey and tough, even when braised low and slow.  When I am gifted a venison carcass, everything but the backstrap gets ground up or cubed.  The cubes from the rump go into venison chili and other stew-like applications.  And the ground shoulder meat becomes meatballs…for venison makes the most splendid of all meatballs.  Combined with a little pork for added fat (venison has almost no fat at all), the bold flavor of the venison makes for a meatball that will leave your head spinning, it’s so good.  If you don’t have access to venison, this is still a great meatball recipe, and you can substitute lean ground sirloin for a similar result.

Here’s how I make my venison meatballs, and at the end of the recipe, I’ll tell you how I normally serve them…with spaghetti and tomato sauce.  But they can be served on their own as an appetizer, either browned in a pan until done, or breaded/battered and deep fried.  They can be paired with a salad, added to a soup, paired with another protein as a sophisticated main course, or simply served with some veggies as a substantial supper.

This recipe makes about 70 quarter-sized meatballs.  That’s a lot.  It will serve a big crowd, OR you can place some of the meatballs on a baking sheet sprayed with oil, and freeze them solid.  Then put them in a ziploc bag and toss them back into the freezer for last-minute dinners.  Add them to the saute pan still frozen…they will thaw quickly as they cook.

In a large bowl, combine:

2 pounds ground venison (preferably coarsely ground, or substitute lean ground beef sirloin)
1 pound ground pork
2 cups Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
1 large onion, finely diced
1 head of garlic, cloves finely minced
1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon dried thyme
2 Tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs

There’s no pretty way to do this, unless you leave it in your stand mixer on low speed for 5 minutes.  (Which makes the texture mushy.)  Just get in there with your hands and squeeze…then switch to a folding motion like you’re kneading bread…then back to the squeeze.  Once you’ve got everything nicely incorporated, get a sheet tray and spray it with oil, and start making meatballs.  Get your kids or friends to help, it will go faster.  I use a small ice cream scoop to portion out the meatballs so they’re fairly even in size:

(That squeeze-handle ice cream scoop is an indispensable tool in my kitchen.  I never use it for ice cream, though.  It’s perfect for making cookies and truffles, filling mini-muffin tins, making little dinner rolls or monkey bread or drop biscuits…have I convinced you yet?  Get the sturdiest one you can find.  Many brands are so cheap they can’t stand up to chilled cookie dough.)

Once you scoop the meatball mixture into your hand, first press it very firmly between your palms, which compacts the meatball.  Then roll it around until it’s nice and round and place it on the tray.  69 more times and you’re done!

Now you’ve got your meatballs.  You can freeze them (or some of them) at this point, or proceed cooking them however you like.  This is what I do:

In a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add some olive oil and saute the meatballs in small batches with plenty of space between each one, letting them get nice and brown and crusty all over.  You can either turn them by hand, or just shake the pan a bit every few minutes to rotate them.  When they are nicely browned all over, remove them back to the sheet tray and continue until they are all browned.   Then, into the hot pan, add:

1 cup red wine

Immediately turn off the heat and scrape the pan with a wooden spoon to get up all that lovely fond from the bottom.  Then leave the pan alone and get out a large heavy Dutch oven or pot, and set it over medium high heat.  Film the pan with olive oil and add:

1 onion, coarsely chopped

Saute, stirring every now and then, until the onions begin to take on some color around the edges.  Then add:

1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and chopped

Saute for an additional 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then add:

1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes (less if you don’t like it spicy)

Stir constantly for a minute or two, then add the red wine from the pan you sauteed the meatballs in.  Let the wine reduce until it’s almost gone, then add:

2 cups chicken stock
2 large (28oz) cans crushed tomatoes
1 large (28oz) can diced tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped (half a bunch)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon honey (or sugar)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon Vegemite or fish sauce or soy sauce or anchovy paste (optional, but highly recommended)

Stir well, then add the browned meatballs from earlier.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.  Now taste for seasoning…it may need additional salt, vinegar, or honey/sugar to get the right balance.  (Acidity/salinity/sweet can never be predicted in a tomato recipe because each batch of tomatoes has a different acidity and sugar level, and many brands salt their canned tomatoes at various levels.)  Don’t automatically assume it needs salt, try a little more acid first, unless it’s already so acidic that it bites your tongue.  If it’s too tangy or salty, add sweet.  Once you’ve got the balance right, add:

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped (half a bunch)

Turn off the heat and let the sauce sit for at least 5 minutes before serving, stirring occasionally.

Serve this sauce over any kind of pasta.  If you’re making the sauce in a very large pot and you’re in a hurry, you can add the dry pasta (up to 1.5 pounds) directly to the sauce a few minutes after you add the meatballs.  Instead of taking an hour to reduce, the pasta absorbs the excess liquid from the sauce as it cooks, which concentrates the sauce.  You’ll end up with a much drier final sauce (thin it out a bit with chicken stock if it’s too dry, then re-season) but the pasta will have way more flavor than if you cooked it separately.  (This it the traditional Italian method.)  Only cook the pasta for the minimum amount of time recommended on the package, then turn off the heat, fold in the fresh basil, and serve immediately.  The meatballs tend to fall apart more easily using this method, because of the bulk of the pasta in the sauce, so if it’s aesthetically important for you to present the meatballs on top of the sauce, cook the pasta separately in heavily salted water so that it tastes like the ocean.

**If you freeze the meatballs, do this in one layer on a baking sheet to preserve their shape.  Then put all the frozen meatballs into a big freezer back.  You can pull out as few or as many as you like and take them straight from the freezer to the hot saute pan.

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