One of my most-treasured inherited pieces is a hand-colored photo of a hunting party, most likely from the 1940s. Seventeen hunters proudly pose with 17 deer — my grandfather is third from the left. The man standing second from the right pops out from the crowd — bow tie, crisp white shirt and apron, and in place of the rifles all the others are holding, he grips the largest frying pan I have ever seen. Both Grandad and the frying pan come to mind as I start the night’s meal: peppered deer steaks.
These are not just any ol’ deer steaks, but backstrap meat from the first doe I ever harvested. The first deer I ever gutted and butchered, and the first game meat I ever processed. Those in the growing Locavore movement would call it a meal of “fresh, locally sourced, organically raised, in-season protein” . . . or, as Grandad would have called it, “supper.”
Just like the deer from the photo, this wasn’t a one-man tale of hunting. Over the last few years, my buddy Alex has been a hunting mentor giving valuable advice in the field, and hands-on instruction with skinning and butchering. And Sheila Lewis, or who I prefer to call Mom, lent her hands and years of wisdom processing and wrapping the steaks, roasts and stew meat. Even the steak recipe I’ll describe below was handed down by Dennis McKinney from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife video crew.
Hunting is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, but it has brought an ever-expanding group of people into my life. Chats with coworkers at Colorado Parks and Wildlife have become deeper and more meaningful. Hallway conversations are now full of helpful advice and colorful tales of past hunts. I’ve even taken Greg McDowell, a good friend — and vegetarian — on scouting trips. One of our excursions ended with a few hours of fishing where he caught a nice rainbow, which became the first fish he had eaten in 25 years.
Back to the meal of asparagus, butternut squash and peppered deer steak.
I try to time it so all the food comes out of the oven at the same time.
I preheat the oven to 425 and then I start by cutting the butternut squash lengthwise in 1-inch-thick slices that I place on a large pizza pan. I coat the tops of each slice with butter and brown sugar. I try to leave enough space on the pan for asparagus which will be added later, then set the timer and cook squash alone in the oven for 35 minutes.
I then move on to steaks, cutting six steaks from the backstrap about 1.5 inches thick. I try to process my deer meat in sections that will yield that out of the freezer. I chop about eight cloves of garlic, half for the steaks and half for the asparagus. Then lightly salt the steaks and coat both sides with coarse, seasoned pepper.
I drizzle the asparagus with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and the garlic. When the timer goes off, I place the asparagus on the pan with the squash and put back in the oven.
Here’s where another connection to Grandad comes in — if the photo is a most-treasured piece, the skillet I’m using is the most-used inherited piece. And it’s a distinct possibility that Grandma used it to cook the deer that Grandad was posing with in the photo. A properly seasoned skillet acts like teflon and will last a lifetime — maybe two.
As the 35 minutes on the timer for the squash nears the end, I turn the stove on high and heat until it is “way hot,” according to McKinney, then add a tablespoon or so of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter. I add the other half of the garlic to the oil/butter mixture and sauté for a half-minute then add the steaks, searing on each side for about a minute and a half. Be prepared for, as McKinney warns, “lots of smoke and splatter.”
After the steaks are seared, I carefully sop up some of the excess oil with a paper towel and place the skillet in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes. The meal will all come out of the oven at the same time, ready for the plate and the table. Grandad would have said that I “got a good scald on it.”
Article and photos by Wayne D. Lewis. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.