I am driving along the bay, the sun emerging as a thick red line pushing the blanket of night away. As I approach the cabin, I see men, women and children dancing around a bonfire. I am surprised by the noise: shouldn’t they be quiet? They’ll scare away the deer. As I walk towards them, I hear another sound that’s primal, ancient. I see the silhouette of a man against the sunrise as he blows an animal horn. The men grab their guns, kiss their women goodbye, and head into the woods. The women gather their children and walk into the cabin. I stand there, unsure of where I should go. The horn continues blowing, and I wake up with a start to my alarm clock. I shake off the dream as I dress for my first opening day. I am going deer hunting.
My father is a hunter and a chef. We ate venison often and I loved it. When my late husband and I moved to northern Michigan, we became friends with a hunter who provided us with venison for our Christmas Day dinners. One Christmas, our friend ribbed my husband about joining him in the hunt when I blurted out, “what about me?” I was in my 40s and decided maybe I should participate in the whole cycle. I was curious, having rejected the notion at a young age that I would ever be able to kill an animal. I also wondered how it was that my social and gregarious father spent so many hours of his life hunting, where he had to be alone and quiet.
My father was excited by the news and sent me some of his hunting clothes. On opening day, I wore his old plaid wool pants held up by red suspenders, and a classic checked coat, covered by a bright orange vest. The boots were too large; I filled them by putting extra socks on my feet. I waddled up a two track to the blind in the dark, trying to make as little noise as possible. Once in the blind, I slowed my breathing and tuned my ears to the nuances of the sounds around me. I practiced being perfectly still. A magnificent sunrise illuminated hoarfrost on the branches of the trees. It was so beautiful. I was alone with my thoughts and it was the best meditation I could imagine.
My friends host an annual game dinner; a major event rivaling Thanksgiving and Christmas for its excesses. Their old Victorian home is the perfect setting, with a large dining room that accommodates a table for 14, two sideboards, and a fireplace complete with a 10-point trophy buck presiding above the mantelpiece. Guests who are hunters bring the game: we’ve had pheasant in phyllo, woodcock pâté, grouse wrapped in bacon with jalapeno, duck breasts and red currant sauce, smoked rabbit. There have been elk roasts and bear stews. Venison is a constant, and I can taste the difference between the Michigan venison and New York venison I grew up eating.
The pace of game dinner is perfectly slow, beginning in the kitchen with appetizers and cocktails, until we are shooed out into the dining room. Those in charge of cooking take turns in the kitchen preparing their courses. At the table, we open the wine, special bottles saved for the occasion, and watch as beautifully plated food appears. We take our time between courses. There are always many stories, toasts and much laughter. There were years we danced in the living room with the rugs rolled up after dinner.
Over the course of 30 years, the faces at the table have changed. We are older, some have moved, and others have passed away. At the most recent game dinner, a description of the guests begins like a well-worn joke: “a hunter, a vegan, and a rabbi...” That night, we welcomed new neighbors down the street into the fold. There was a man who loves his farming life, growing grapes and raising sheep in his retirement, a physician who hunts birds and bakes the most incredible desserts, and a woman with a wicked sense of humor who grew up in a U.P. Finnish community and swore off venison after a childhood of eating it.
We also marked the changes in the landscape; lamenting the loss of an orchard to a housing development, and the warmer weather during the annual bird hunting trips. The food was, as always, amazing. I smiled going to bed later, thinking of all the new stories told and the old memories brought back to life.
As the rabbi sang the blessing that evening, I realized how glad I was to have experienced the hunt. It taught me a lesson I imagine my father learned; that our usual kinetic selves need the stillness of the woods for balance. I also thought about the importance of holding on to traditions, not with a tight fist or regret about life’s inevitable changes, but with wonder at how change opens avenues to new experiences. Tradition may get us to the table, but it doesn’t hold us there; we go because something new and exciting might happen.
Roast Venison Loin
I don’t hunt deer any longer but spend time in the woods mushroom hunting and bird watching. I was happily tasked with cooking the venison for our recent game dinner.
4-5 lb. loin of venison (a beef tenderloin may be substituted)
2 T. olive oil
½ C. soy sauce
¼ C. dry sherry
¼ C. orange juice
2 T. honey
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 sprigs fresh rosemary or 1 T. dried
10 black peppercorns
Mix marinade together, stirring to dissolve honey. Trim any fat or silver skin from the tenderloin and cut into two pieces if long. Tie the meat in places to form a more rounded piece as this will help it cook more consistently. Place in a glass pan or ziplock bag and pour marinade over the meat. Cover and marinate in a refrigerator for at least 4 hours, and up to overnight, turning the meat periodically.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Remove meat from marinade and pat dry with paper towels, then sprinkle with a little salt and fresh ground pepper.
Put two tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet and heat oil over medium high heat. Add loin and sear, about 3 minutes per side, to brown the meat.
If skillet can go into the oven, place in oven, or place meat in a roasting pan then into the oven. After about 15 minutes, check meat with a thermometer.
You are looking for a temperature of about 120-125 degrees for rare/medium rare.
The thicker the loin, the longer this will take. When done, remove meat from oven and let rest about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.
— Rose Hollander
I love a roast served with a bearnaise sauce. The following “sauce” is equally delicious but much simpler.
Makes 1 ½ cups
1 C. heavy whipping cream
½ t. salt
¼ C.+ prepared horseradish, well drained
1 t. fresh lemon juice
Whip cream with salt until stiff. Fold the horseradish and lemon juice into the cream. Taste and add more horseradish if you like.
— Rose Hollander
Kale and Roasted Vegetable Salad
Serves 6, can be easily doubled
4 C. of your favorite root vegetables, washed and peeled, cut into wedges or cubes (I like parsnips, sweet potato or butternut squash, beets)
2 T. olive oil, divided
1 bunch kale, ribs cut out and leaves torn or shredded, about 5 cups
1/3 C. quick pickled red onion (recipe follows)
2 T. lemon or orange juice (or combination) or cider vinegar
1 T. toasted whole coriander seed, lightly crushed (optional)
Salt and pepper
1/3 C. olive oil, or less
Pepitas (pumpkin seeds) or toasted walnuts
¼ C. crumbled feta, goat cheese, or cheese or your choice
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash and cut root vegetables, placing them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with some olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Roast, turning the vegetables occasionally, until vegetables are tender when pierced with a knife and have a bit of brown on the outside. Timing will depend on how thick the vegetables are cut; should be about 20 – 25 minutes. Set aside and let cool to room temperature.
Place the kale in a large bowl and sprinkle with a little salt. Massage the kale with your hands until it becomes tender, anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes depending on the age of the kale. Make the vinaigrette: in a small bowl, place about ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper, coriander, and the juice. Stir together. Whisk in some olive oil, a tablespoon at a time, up to 1/3 cup. Dressing should be light and not oily. When ready to serve, pour some of the dressing over the kale, and toss with your hands, and taste for seasoning, adding salt if needed. Arrange the roasted vegetables on top, and sprinkle vegetables with a little more vinaigrette. Top with pickled red onion, pepitas or walnuts, and crumbled cheese if using. Let the salad sit a few minutes before serving.