Somehow, this combination of random freezer leftovers worked itself into the dressing my husband, Les, declared on Thanksgiving to be his “favorite ever.” When we made the decision to scale back Thanksgiving for pandemic safety and change up the menu to experiment with new flavors, I thought immediately of the crudely labeled white butcher-wrapped package in my freezer. The venison sausage had been gifted to me a few years ago by a friend I knew from pool hall, where I played in a 9-ball league. Johnny does both bow and rifle hunting, and in a good season, he’d have venison to spare for lucky friends like me. And if you were in the right place at the right time, you’d be lucky enough to taste his venison jerky. Wow.
I’ve wracked my brain to decide how to describe the flavor of venison to any reader who has never tasted it. Texture-wise, it’s similar to beef, but extremely lean so it’s firmer and drier. The flavor is more wild than beef, but less gamey than lamb. Some say venison is an “acquired” taste, but I’ve been eating it since I was about 6 years old, so I can’t say for sure. My stepdad was a deer hunter, and it wouldn’t have been unusual for me to come home from first grade and find a deer carcass hanging upside down from a tree. In my teens, I’d enjoy a free day off as my rural high school was closed for the first day of deer season. Kind of hard to have classes with half of the upperclassmen (and the teachers) all out. I remember eating venison in soup and chili from such a young age, and once biting into a piece of overlooked buckshot. My enjoyment of this wild game meat is as old as any other food memory I have.
I have no excuse for not using the venison sausage sooner, except that I hadn’t felt inspired, and I feared that after four-plus years in the freezer, the sausage would be too far gone to use. But I may as well have a look, I thought, and when I finally was able to unwrap all five layers of plastic film, I found that it was not the total disaster I’d expected. The outer edges were browned and smelled like the freezer, but inside the meat was red, smelled sweet and was perfectly usable.
So use it I did. I cut away the freezer-burned outer edges and used them to make some homemade cookies for our dog (don’t worry, I researched to learn that freezer-burned meat isn’t dangerous, and Nilla loved them). And the rest of the venison sausage, about 10 ounces, became the star of my dressing.
With non-traditional flavors already at the center of our holiday table, I browned up the venison sausage and used it to flavor this dressing, which also included cubes of challah (also from the freezer) and kale with celery and onions. For a spicy kick, I added a few pinches of dried chipotle flakes. Butter and vegetable broth completed the dish, and—well, it was awesome.
10 oz. ground venison or venison sausage
1 or 2 slices of uncured smoked bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 fat handful kale leaves, washed and heavy stems removed
3 Tbsp. salted butter
2 1/2 cups vegetable broth (low sodium preferred)
4 cups challah cubes, dried in low oven
1 egg, lightly beaten
- Crumble venison sausage and cook it with bacon slices in the cast-iron skillet. When browned, transfer sausage to a bowl.
- Heat olive oil in same skillet, and sauté onions and celery until slightly softened. Add chopped kale and continue to cook until wilted. Season with salt, pepper and chipotle flakes. Transfer mixture to the bowl with the sausage. Refrigerate if working ahead or proceed to the next step.
- Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Melt butter, then add vegetable broth and heat until butter is melted and liquid is warm.
- In a large bowl, toss to combine challah cubes and half of the buttered broth. When moisture is mostly absorbed, add the remaining broth and toss again. Fold in beaten egg until mixture is uniform and fully moistened.
- Fold in venison sausage mixture and blend to combine. Transfer dressing to a buttered casserole dish. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake dressing, covered, for about 35 minutes. Remove cover and bake 15 minutes further, to crisp up the top.