Saturday, January 22, 2011

From the glowing coals of the Pleistocene

One of the things I enjoy doing as a creative exercise is cooking. I heard once that a woman cooks to provide food for her family -- it's a relational thing. But a man cooks to conquer the kitchen. That is certainly true for me. I despise recipes, at least those that I have to follow. A recipe for me is a beginning point, like paint-by-number kits would have been a way for Picasso to get started. I don't know that I've ever cooked the same dish the same way twice. I love things like venison stew and meatloaf and multi-grain bread that can be adapted to the vagaries of the kitchen and my temperament at the time. (Plus, things like this usually turn out at least edible even if I've got some kind of a wild hair for weird recipe experimentation.)

So the other day I ran across a recipe card, in my own handwriting, that I vaguely remember from four years or so ago. I so rarely write down the recipe when I come up with something new, I imagine this must have gone over well with my family. I recreated the dish (with slight variations from the written version, of course) the other day and enjoyed it enough I wanted to share it.

One of the things I love about this dish -- it doesn't have a name yet -- is that with slight variations, you might well have enjoyed something like this in late August or September in the camp of the prehistoric peoples that hunted mammoths in the spruce forests along the shores of Lake Agassiz where I grew up. I enjoy feeling at some level like we still have a connection to those hardy hunter-gatherer types.

So let's call it Venison-stuffed Squash, or maybe Pleistocene Thanksgiving:

1 small onion, diced
2 lbs venison (or other lean meat), diced
1 c. wild rice (uncooked)
1 c. raisins
1 c. diced apples
2 T. worcestershire sauce
1 t. ground sage
1 t. thyme leaves
1 T. salt
2 T. vegetable oil
2 c. water
One large squash or small pumpkin

Combine wild rice and water and 1 tsp. salt; bring to a boil and simmer about an hour. While this is simmering, brown venison and onion in oil and worcestershire sauce in a large saucepan. Add spices including remaining salt. Cook uncovered over medium heat until meat is thoroughly browned and most of the liquid has cooked off (but not totally dry). Wild rice should absorb all the water as it's cooking, but if not drain as needed. Add raisins, apples, and wild rice to venison mixture. Mix thoroughly. Remove seeds and pulp from squash or pumpkin, leaving the lid intact like for a jack-o-lantern (but don't carve eyes and a mouth, please.) Spoon venison, fruit and rice mixture into the squash and replace the lid. Bake at 325 degrees for 90 minutes or until a knife easily pierces the side of the squash.

To serve, spoon meat mixture out and scrape squash from the rind to use as a side-dish. Or, if you're daring, simply slice the entire squash into wedges and serve wedges and meat mixture together on individual plates. I have also heard of people pouring cream over the contents after it's stuffed in the squash. This gels a bit as it cooks and makes it easier to cut the whole business into wedges, I understand. Of course, I don't think they had milking cows in the Pleistocene. It's a matter of priorities, I guess.

The quantity of venison mixture in this recipe will be far more than you need to fill a large squash. So it's a good thing it is also excellent as cold leftovers, and even more so if you're experimenting a bit and decide to add in a half cup of grated parmesan cheese before cooking. I think next time I make this I will try adding dried cherries or cranberries instead of (or in addition to) raisins to give it a little more zing.


  1. Jeff, Sort of a girly-man way to write a recipe. I too enjoying conquering the kitchen from time to time, and one of my specialties is salsa. Allow me to model manly-man recipe notation:


    15 tomatoes (+/-) about.
    3 onions and green peppers.
    3 jalopenos - more for the good stuff.
    1 garlic clove sans the papery husk.
    half a coffee cup of sugar, three big spoons of black pepper, salt, and chili powder.

    Before the football game starts, blanche the tomatoes then toss them in cold water in the sink. Peel them and cut out the stem end. Mush them up into a big pot or use one of those food processors.

    Chop up the onions, peppers, and garlic into the size chucks you like or use the food processor again. Add chucks to the tomato mush in the big pot. Add the sugar, salt, pepper, chili powder, and one can of tomato sauce (if you want). Cook on the big burner.

    Put 12 pint jars in the dishwasher. Make sure you have lids and rings. Then go watch the game.

    Cook until half-time BUT remember to stir during commercials. At half-time get the jars out of the dishwasher and fill them with the hot salsa. Put lids and rings on and lightly tighten. Get another big pot or one of those blue canner thingies with a couple inches of water in it - heat to boiling.

    Put the jars in the boiling water, cover, and process on high for 30 minutes. Set the timer because it will be near the end of the third quarter. When the timer rings, move the pot over to the cool burner and turn off the timer. At the end of the game remove the jars from the water. Yum Yum.

  2. Bruce,

    Well done! I do love making salsa as well. I like the way you use the football game as a timing device. Clever! I will look forward to trying this recipe next August or September! However, I think "dishwasher" "pint jars" "lids" and "rings" disqualify this from being a truly masculine recipe. More masculine might be something like this:

    Drive to western North Dakota.
    Shoot a mule deer. Gut it. Hang it in a tree down along the creek (the only place you'll find a tree in western ND).
    Skin the deer.
    Build a fire nearby. Peel some thin sticks and sharpen the ends.
    Remove the backstraps from the deer. Slice them into one inch slabs.
    Cook on the pointy sticks over the open fire. Put some sage (there's plenty of it in western ND) on the fire to season the meat.
    Remove from flame when roasted to your liking. Eat with bare hands. Wipe hands on grass and stay awake all night protecting remainder of deer carcass from coyotes.

    And yes, I have actually tried this recipe. It's delicious!