Written by Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Pittsburgh – Dave Rasiccott has been a deer hunter for longer than he’s been a professional chef, which means: a very long time.
The Indiana, Pennsylvania native was about 10 years old when he started hunting with his maternal grandfather, Joseph Farren. He soon discovered that sitting in a position for hours on end could be very boring, patiently and calmly waiting for a man or a doe to roam in plain sight.
“Every year I went with Pap,” recalls Racicot, 43, who has been executive chef at The Commoner at the Monaco Hotel in Pittsburgh, since 2019.
What made it worth it was the fact that a family had to eat venison whenever someone was lucky enough to harvest a deer.
“Everyone who says they hate it or don’t like it, they’ve been overcooked.”
“It tastes so good,” he says of meat that’s been roasted, dried, stuffed with sausage, or made into a savory hot pepper.
Racicot continued this tradition as he grew up and switched to shooting hunting, which he says is more challenging, emotional, and intimate than rifle hunting. “If I don’t enjoy eating [deer meat]I wouldn’t do that.”
While he hasn’t harvested a deer this year yet, he still has plenty of venison in a deep freezer in his basement from previous years, all of which he handled himself from start to finish. He has some in the fridge in his garage, too.
Not a fan of venison? you are not alone. Deservedly or not, deer meat has kind of taken a hit outside of the hunting community.
Rasikut heard the reasons for it a thousand times, and shook his head each time: It’s too dry! It tastes nice! It is not safe to eat!
In fact, says the chef who cooks at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Notion and Poulet Bleu, if your venison tastes bad, well, it’s because you’re not cooking it properly.
“Everyone who says they hate it or don’t like it, they’ve been overcooked,” he says. But her service is rare to average, and “it’s amazing.”
Venison is rich in iron and full of B vitamins, and is lower in fat and calories than beef. Since they are fat-free, and protect the fat from inexperienced cooking, they are very easy to overcook and dry out. In addition, poorly processed meat will not taste good. Deer can only hang in coolers for a limited time before spoilage begins, and a lack of treatments this year means some hunters may end up slaughtering their deer themselves, even if they don’t know how.
To create a winning dish, you not only need to cook it properly — hot and fast for thinner cuts like steaks and chops, and low and slow for the tougher turn or shoulder — but also be sure to buy it from a trusted source.
In Pennsylvania, it is illegal to sell deer meat unless it has been bred and inspected on the farm. But the good news is that even if you’re not friends with a decent hunter, venison is very easy to find.
However, it will come from a farm rather than the forest, and it likely won’t be the white-tailed species you see in the woods. Most retail venison comes from red deer that are raised on pastures, grain and hay.
It generally costs a little more than beef. You can also buy it online or by mail order through retailers like Whole Foods, Cabela’s, and D’Artagnan.
Its relatively high price, says Racicot, is the reason you don’t often find venison on restaurant menus. It can easily go for $48 a pound, and fine dining venues often charge upwards of $42 for a 5-ounce serving, “which is a really small piece of meat,” he says. “So it is difficult.”
To lead home how easy it is to cook a good piece of venison, Racicot recently prepared a 6-ounce piece of tenderloin from his own stash in The Commoner’s commercial kitchen.
After covering the steak with plenty of salt — much of it dripping into the pan, he explains — he crushes a couple of garlics on the stainless-steel counter with the palm of his hand, peeling and peeling them. Set it aside with a small bunch of fresh thyme and half a shallot.
By placing a small carbon steel frying pan on the stove over high heat (you can use any thick pan that suits you), pour in 3 tablespoons of grapeseed oil, a neutral oil that is highly valued due to its high smoke point. When the oil sizzles and gives off a slight whiff of smoke, it puts the tenderloin into the pan.
“You want it hot and fast at first,” he says.
After about 2 minutes, flip the steak, add 3 tablespoons of butter, and lower the heat immediately. After the butter has melted in the oil, he adds garlic, shallots, and thyme, and begins to put the fragrant, sizzling liquid over the steak over and over again.
“This is where the cooking process happens,” he says. Although not necessary, fermentation allows for faster and even cooking.
Four minutes later, when the steak is golden brown, caramel brown, the chef announces it is done. The whole kitchen smells amazing.
After letting the meat rest for at least 4 minutes – 133-135°C is suitable for a medium to medium sized pie – cut it across the grains, grind it with aromatics and place a spoonful of raspberry gostaric on top.
“The longer you leave it without cooling, the better,” he notes. Taste reveals that Racicot is on the money: While you can tell you don’t eat beef, it doesn’t taste good, but it’s only special in a good way.
When he cooks venison at home for his wife, Kelly, Racicot usually prepares it with winter seasoning and roasted root vegetables because it “makes sense.” It’s a little more sophisticated in action, with braised red cabbage, caramelized apples, and sauces made with beets and juniper berries.
“We see?” He says with a smile after a reporter took two bites. “it is good!”
“This recipe works really well, it’s easy to make and any number of substitutions can be made and it’s still delicious,” says Racicot. He likes to garnish it with cheese and sour cream, with some crusty bread or oyster crackers on the side. Cocoa powder adds to its depth and richness.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onion cut into cubes
1 cup diced pepper
1 habanero (optional)
6 garlic cloves, mashed and minced
3 tablespoons of chili powder
1 1/2 tablespoons cumin
1/4 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
2 pounds ground venison
12 ounce beer (Iron City of course)
24 ounce can sliced tomatoes
6 ounces tomato paste
15 ounce can beans, optional
1/4 cup cocoa powder
salt to taste
Grated cheese, green onions and sour cream, for serving
Add oil to a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over moderate heat. Add onions, peppers, and habanero (if using) and cook until peppers soften, 7-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the spices and venison. Cook meat with a spoon, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
Add the beer, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, and beans (if using) and mix well. Add cocoa powder and stir until well combined, then season with salt.
Reduce the heat to low and cook the chili for a few hours, stirring occasionally, until it thickens.
Serve hot in a bowl with your favorite garnish.
– Chef David Rachicot, The Commoner