Mild Fall-like weather continues to prevail into mid-December in these parts. At this time 4 years ago, not only was it cold, it was cold enough to freeze the Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park, allowing college students to go ice skating and create breathtaking works of great artistic merit in the snow.
By contrast, I kindled our usual morning fire before taking Charlie to the bus stop, only to damp it down at 11AM. This afternoon we’re forecast to hit somewhere around 50 degrees, with well above-average temperatures continuing throughout the month. This is good news for our wood cellar, as we still have several weeks worth of dry wood from the dead ash tree remaining. We’ve about 3/4ths a cord to go before delving into the stacked reserves cut and split from two summers ago. At this rate we should have enough dry wood to keep us warm during the cold months this year without having to scramble or buy wood from Frank down in Stahlstown.
Another positive aspect of the extra-long warm season is that it’s allowed fermentation to continue longer than anticipated. Our “fridge-brewed” Cider/Perry turned out so well that I plan to allot more of the fruit juice to self-ferment next year. The bucket-brew Cider/Perry, to which I’d added sugar and allowed to ferment to bone-dry near the fireplace, has been racked and is now sitting in a secondary to mellow out for a few weeks. At present it tastes….pretty bracing. My plan is to kill any remaining yeast and back-sweeten to taste. If it’s any good I’ll have to hunt around for some way to bottle it come January.
Over atop the refrigerator, the Perry/Cider Vinegar has also fermented out, and is starting to SCOBIFY a Mother-of-Vinegar. I removed the apples (which had been pressed below the surface of the liquid with a small canning glass to protect against mold growth) and filter-funneled the vinegar to its new home. It’ll hang out in the cupboard above the stove to age for a good while, and I’ll be sure to post an update when I’m ready to use it.
The tepid weather doesn’t much affect felling trees at this point, but does prevent me from skidding logs without tearing up the ground. With wood production on hold for now, I’ve been focusing on our current food stock and storage, keeping the pantry, larder, and basement freezer well organized. This makes dinner prep easy, as all I need to do is peruse our stores to inform my dinner and shopping lists.
I keep a notebook on the kitchen counter and fill it out with everything that I want to make. Then I figure out some kind of weekly meal order so that we’re not eating Golumpki 4 days in a row, and start with the prep work accordingly. Usually I try to make two dinners at a time. This keeps food fresh, and also increases the amount of time that I get to spend away from the kitchen. I freeze or chill the prep for the next few days as needed, and save the leftovers (because too much is always the appropriate amount of food to make). It usually works out pretty well, except when Sarah eats all the left-over rice before I have time to use it in a stir-fry. That girl sure loves rice. Friday is always Pizza Friday- sometimes we even eat our fresh slices in the living room next to the fire and have a family movie night.
It’s a well-known fact that cold-weather cooking is the most enjoyable both in the preparing and the eating. For me, there’s nothing like walking in from a winter’s dark and cold to be greeted with wood-fueled warmth and the smell of something delicious that you’ve made yourself (even moreso if you’ve harvested it yourself). The above list is my current example of fairly typical fare during these colder times of the year, with an emphasis on soups/stews and casseroles- often sprinkled with Eastern European cuisine that I call “Grandma Food” because it reminds me of what my Baba used to make. I’ve always been told that eating cabbage will put hair on your chest, handy for helping to keep one warm in the winter. Remember -facts are not disputable.
A recent entrant on the Hillstead’s menu, you may have noticed, is venison. While I’m glad to have given an update regarding the Cider/Perry, the elephant in the room is actually a deer, and the aforementioned room is actually our chest freezer. How did it become so? Just follow me on an adventure spanning forest to fork. Well, in this particular instance the implement in question is really a spoon, but that’s not particularly salient.
After the business of dressing, hanging, and breaking down the deer, butchering can begin. I’d even installed a fresh blade in the hacksaw for the occasion. Set up in the unheated garage, a scrap bucket, grind bucket, cutting board, and a variety of cutting implements sit prepared and sanitized. The process of getting the most meat possible, safely, took me about 6 hours total over two days. I broke down primal cuts just as I used to with beef in my old cooking days- the process felt distantly familiar. An experienced butcher probably could have done it in under an hour- but perhaps my speed will improve in the future.
From a single rear hind quarter- rump (not pictured, it made its way to the grind bucket), Shank, Sirloin tip, Bottom Round, and Top Round. I found it easiest to remove stray hairs by wiping with a damp cloth, rinse and repeat. I saved the sirloin tip for a roast along with a backstrap (for stuffing and wrapping with bacon). A filet was made into bacon-wrapped medallions. All other nice large cuts were sliced into jerky-sized strips.
I’ve tried deer jerky both ways- sliced with and against the grain, and have tasted both good and poor examples of each. Basically, either will work- it mostly just comes down to your texture preference. I lean slightly into the longer, thinner, with-the-grain slices camp. That being said, deer jerky is a rare and wonderful treat- probably my favorite way to eat venison. In my experience if the jerky doesn’t turn out very well it’s almost always due to over-drying, turning the meat into very hard, tough, crumbly slabs. 8-10 hours low and slow (145 degrees), rotating the trays once or twice (but at least once), seems to be just about perfectly suited to my tastes. I dehydrated the jerky in several batches over the course of several days- giving the later batches up to 3 days of marinating time.
4.5lbs was the total dry yield on jerky. I did three different marinades, a “sweet”, a “teriyaki”, and a “spicy.” While all taste fantastic (the sweet probably being the best), differences between the flavors were actually pretty subtle. I seems I need to work on my marinade game. We distributed half amongst some pals, finished off one container ourselves in about 2 days, and have just a little remaining at present.
When I got to removing the skirt steak cuts, I admit I wasn’t sure what to do with them. There’s lots of connective tissue to deal with that can’t really be removed without ruining the cut- so low and slow and wet cooking was really the only option.
I cross-hatched the steaks on both sides and tossed them in the Insta-pot with garlic, onion, a bay leaf, a can of crushed tomatoes, and our own Hillstead-made chicken stock. After 6 hours on slow-cook it was pull-apart tender, and I set it aside while sautéing more onion, garlic, mushrooms, and celery. I chopped potatoes and carrots and added everything back to the pot, along with the shredded venison, a sprig of rosemary, pepper, and parsley (herbs also grown on the Hillstead in Sarah’s Herb Spiral!) and continued cooking until the potatoes were soft. I was concerned about the fat turning the stew gamey, but I was relieved to find this wasn’t the case.
In fact it turned out somewhere beyond delicious. Enjoyed heartily by all, this simple stew has become an instant Hillstead classic and will absolutely be on the menu again in the coming years.
That which I did not cut into steaks, roasts, or jerky was chopped, fat removed, and brought to a local processor for grinding. Many processors are inundated this time of year (Especially in PA and NY, I’m told), and some have even had to turn away folks looking to have their venison processed. Because all I wanted was straight grind from boneless, they were able to fit me in. I’ll give them another week before I give them a call and check up. We’ll be getting single-pound portions that we can re-grind (thanks for the KitchenAid attachment Harrison and Nora!) with pork or beef and make our own hamburger blend and breakfast sausage- so the forest-to-spoon tale is not quite over just yet!