Michael Rozzi grew up on Shinnecock Bay and as a boy embraced the East End traditions of fishing, hunting and enjoying the bounty of produce cultivated on East End farms – local traditions that have taken root on both the North and South Forks as the “slow food” movement has grown in popularity.
“Growing up out here we have been living by slow food ways long before it became popular,” Rozzi said during an interview at Della Femina, the East Hampton restaurant where he serves as executive chef. “We grew up eating at farm stands, we fished, we hunted. This is what Hamptons food has always been about, going back to the Bonackers – it’s what people have been doing here for centuries.”
Many local families enjoy venison late into winter following the close of deer hunting season in late January. Because of federal regulations, though, restaurants are prohibited from serving locally hunted venison. Chefs at restaurants like Della Femina, The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, Fresno in East Hampton and its sister restaurant Red Bar in Southampton still follow the tradition and feature venison in winter on seasonal menus.
Venison, a lean, tender game that is hunted locally, has history in the End End culinary tradition. Once the venison is butchered, preparations are numerous and often simple, depending on the cut. Venison stew or chili, barbeque, sausage and grilled or roasted steaks and chops are the most common preparations.
Most restaurants serve free-range venison, said Rozzi, often grass or hay-fed, and devoid of steroids or growth hormones. Rozzi said the use of grass or hay, rather than feed or corn, lends itself to flavors more likely to mirror wild venison.
“You are what you ate,” he said.
Venison, tender and flavorful when prepared correctly, is low in fat and rich in iron and high in B-vitamins and zinc. A three-and-a-half ounce portion of venison has only a fifth of the fat as a similar portion of beef, Rozzi said, making it an ideal protein for those craving a hearty winter stew or Bolognese, but also looking for a red-meat substitute.
Both Rozzi and David Loewenberg, the co-owner of Sag Harbor’s Beacon, East Hampton’s Fresno and Southampton’s Red Bar, said they prefer to serve venison loin chops, roasted or grilled.
“From a selling standpoint, I think the chop is a very pretty presentation,” said Rozzi, adding that the chop is less demanding to prepare. For tougher cuts, he suggested braising or stewing the meat.
The key, he added, was using an acidic element, like wine to help tenderize the meat.
“You start with something hard to work with and end up with something really beautiful at the end of the day,” said Rozzi.
Loewenberg stressed the key to cooking venison was to understand each cut of meat. While chops tend to be pan roasted or seared, the tougher cuts, he agreed, are best served after a slow braise.
Braising is cooking tough meat, like venison rump, in a small amount of liquid – usually wine – over low heat over several hours until the collagen and fat begin to break down. Loewenberg sears the meat in a Dutch oven after seasoning it with salt and pepper, then adds aromatics like carrots, onions and garlic and any additional ingredients that add flavor as the venison cooks for two to three hours.
The technique keeps the meat moist when served as a stew or over accompaniments like polenta or potatoes with the braising liquid spooned over as is or enhanced by the addition of rich beef stock.
“There is a richness to venison that is wonderful,” said Loewenberg.”
Loewenberg said he likes to top quickly seared loin chops with a simple, light sauce, often using berries and a demi-glace bordelaise. Creating a trio of dishes of locally inspired game is another popular presentation, he added, with condiments suited to the season – parsnip purees, chestnuts – flavors that highlight an autumnal flavor of venison. Rozzi also adorns his venison chop with Halsey farm apples and crisp, almost sweet, Brussels sprout leaves aimed to compliment the parsnip puree.
“What grows together, goes together,” Rozzi said.
Michael Rozzi’s Venison Bolognese
Serves eight to 10
Heat ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil in a large saucepan. Add 1 medium onion, fine dice, 1 medium carrot, fine dice; 1 medium celery rib, fine dice; 2 ounces Pancetta, fine dice; 2 large garlic cloves, chopped; Cook until soft. Remove from saucepan into bowl. Add 2 pounds venison to the same saucepan, brown. Add ¾ cup white wine and put cooked vegetables back in the saucepan. Add 30 ounces tomato sauce, ½ teaspoon thyme, 1 bay leaf and simmer for 40 minutes on low heat. Add ¼ cup heavy cream, season with salt and pepper to taste and toss with two pounds of fresh, cooked penne rigate. Top with grated Parmesan.