I was chatting with a chef friend of mine recently. We have had an improving relationship over the months and years. He used to be suspicious of me as the moniker “food blogger” had me branded as an ill-educated, amateur critic of the hard working professionals of the restaurant business. Any regular reader will know that I don’t do that stuff. There are plenty who fit the description but I’m not one.
“If you ever want to be a good cook, you need to understand sauces.” he quipped. This struck a chord with me. I have had some saucy success in the past (That’s another story) and I thought I should prove myself in the kitchen by matching a rack of venison with as close to the perfect sauce as possible.
Venison is a winter favourite and I like to match meats with seasonally appropriate flavours. So, blackberries seemed like an obvious choice. I thought this would work best with lentils too. Here’s how I went about it all. I fed two of us very well with this recipe. I could have stretched it to three. I didn’t.
- A rack of venison
- Blackberries (24 or so)
- 4 shallots
- 1 bottle of good red wine (yes, a bottle)
- Half a litre/1 pint of beef stock
- 200 gms of green lentils
- 2 teaspoons of tomato paste
- Salt and pepper
- 1 sprig of rosemary
There are a couple of things to point out at this stage. Firstly, on the wine front. I recommend a whole bottle as a generous glass of it goes into the sauce. The balance should go into the diners. Making the sauce from the same wine as will be enjoyed with the meal makes huge sense as there is a logical tie-up of flavours. Secondly, also on the wine, drink decent wine. Great meat deserves great wine. End of.
The instructions for the venison rack are pretty straightforward. That is, if the rack comes dressed. Mine didn’t and I spent an hour trimming and scraping to get the lovely clean bones you see in the photos. Save yourself a lot of work and ask the butcher to do it for you. Once dressed, season the meat well with salt and pepper.
Heat the oven to 190ºC / 375ºF. Heat a frying pan, add a little oil and place the rack in. Brown it on all sides. Transfer it to the oven and cook until done. I like to use a temperature probe. I cooked this until we had an internal temperature of 55ºC/130ºF. Then I let it rest, wrapped in tinfoil. The roasting took about 30 minutes. The pictures are your best guide to “doneness”. I like mine on the rare side of medium.
Side note on cooking meat: My chef friend has clear views on how meat should be cooked. He despairs when people ask for their steak to be “well done”. He makes the case that the meat becomes tough and dry. I can’t argue with him.
When the meat goes into the oven, you can get busy making the lentils and the sauce. For the lentils, rinse them and cover them with water in a saucepan. Bring them to the boil and cook for about 30 minutes or until they have lost any graininess but still have a bit of bite. Drain them and set aside.
You can finish the lentils now. Simply add the rosemary, tomato paste and half the beef stock to a saucepan. Stir and warm the lentils through. Then leave them sit to allow the flavours to merge.
For the sauce, chop the shallots up nice and small and sweat them down in a frying pan. If you dressed your rack, add some of the trimmings from the venison.
Add the wine and cook off the alcohol. This happens below boiling point. Add the blackberries and cook until they break down. Help them on their way by pressing with the back of a spoon. Add the remaining half of the stock.
With the beef stock added, reduce the sauce over a medium hot flame until yo have halved the volume. Sieve the sauce and reduce it some more. Taste and season as appropriate. Don’t go overboard on salt as it will intensify as the sauce reduces. Add a little honey if the sauce is too astringent. Taste and taste again. A good chef would add a knob of butter at this stage, to give the sauce a nice glaze.
This worked wonderfully. The sauce is a perfect complement to the meat. The wine makes it a threesome of flavour matching. The lentils give it a sensible, yet flavoursome backdrop. Take the advice of the chef, learn to make a good sauce. It will make you a better cook, if not a chef. This one certainly elevated the dish from “nice” to “my complements to the chef”.