Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Rescue: Bacon-Wrapped Venison with Warm Potato Salad and Hearty Baked Beans

This one nearly gave me my first ever Cooking Nick's Books panic attack. I'd had a little 2 lb. venison roast in my freezer for a few weeks; it was the last one our local butcher had in stock. I'd never cooked venison before, and I was a little scared to even buy it, much less cook it. I didn't want to skip this one, though; when Taylor cooks venison for Denise in The Rescue, he's just returned from a hunting trip that he took with his buddies without telling her because their relationship is starting to get serious and he's scared and doesn't want to deal with it and he knows she's gonna be mad as a hornet when he gets back--he didn't have a cell phone, don't ya know; when this book was published most people didn't own one--so to try and make amends he shows up at her house with some fresh deer meat and cooks it up for her along with some baked beans and potato salad he's either made or bought, in hopes that she'll forgive him. (Read more about Taylor and Denise's story here.)

For the last month or so I've been looking at that frozen piece of meat and pondering ways I might try and prepare it. Joe says he's cooked venison before, back in the days when he used to go hunting with his dad and his brother. He took some venison steaks and marinated them and grilled them--but not too much, because you have to be careful not to overcook them. That was the same advice I got when I had a conversation with someone on Twitter who knows how to cook deer meat. (What would you call a Twitter conversation, anyway? A chirp session? Twitter chat? Cheeps with peeps?) Since I didn't have steaks, I thought of slicing the roast (or maybe it was a tenderloin. I have no idea) into cutlets and grilling them like steaks, but in the end I decided to risk cooking it whole. Since I love bacon, this recipe looked like just the thing:

Sweet Bacon-Wrapped Venison Tenderloin
2 lbs venison tenderloins (a single deer loin or Moose or Elk or Pork or Beef)
1/2 lb bacon (Plain, thin-sliced Bacon is best)
3 cups dark brown sugar
2 cups soy sauce (Regular NOT low-sodium. You'll want the saltiness)
1/4 cup white sugar (Optional for added Sweetness)

1 Mix brown Sugar and Soy sauce together in a bowl. They should combine nicely into a soupy soy liquid.

2 Put Deer Loin in a cooking tray and pour Brown Sugar/Soy Sauce mixture over loin. Roll tenderloin over in mixture, completely covering it.

3 Let meat marinate in mixture at least 3 hours or overnight in fridge. It's best to marinate for 8 hours if you have the time. Also GREAT to use a Food Saver or other Vacuum device to Vacuum pack/seal the meat with Marinade. With this method, you can achieve Overnight-level marinade in just a couple hours!

4 Remove loin from tray, and place on a slotted bake sheet with a drip pan or aluminum foil below to catch dripping. Don't throw away marinade.

5 Wrap a piece of bacon around the very end of the tenderloin, securing the bacon strip with a toothpick.

6 Repeat this process until the entire loin is wrapped in ten or so bacon "loops." The tenderloin should look like an arm with a bunch of wrist watches on it, the watches being the bacon strips.

7 Drizzle remaining marinade over deer loin. You can continue to baste the loin with the marinade throughout the cooking process with either a brush or a turkey baster.

8 Place on center rack in oven and bake at 350°F for 30-40* minutes. *This should cook the meat to about Medium. For those of you who prefer rare meat (like me), cut the time to 25-30 minutes and then follow with the "OPTION 2" step below regarding searing.

9 OPTION 1 - with about 10 minutes of cooking time left, you can lightly dust the top of the loin with white sugar. This creates a sweet crust on top of the bacon. Might be too sweet for some. Try doing it on just HALF of the loin to see if you like it!

10 OPTION 2 - For a crispier crust and crispier bacon, remove Loin from oven and place the Loin(s) directly on a Grill over medium-high heat to sear the bacon and outer loin. (Thanks to all of you reviewers who taught me this. It's a great step for those of us who like a cooked crust and a pink center).

11 Remove from oven and place on cutting board. Using a knife, cut the loin between each strip of bacon so that you have many pieces of meat, each with their own toothpick.

12 You can eat these pieces directly from the toothpick (I don't think this would have worked with the cut of meat we had; it was too big around) or remove the toothpick and eat like steak. You can thank me later.

13 The next day, try the leftovers on a wheat bun with spicy BBQ Saucefor an awesome leftover sandwich.

I put the venison in the marinade early that morning, and then the adventures began...

Potential Panic Attack Trigger No. 1: Curly had basketball practice that night (a Sunday) and I had it all planned out that I would start preparing this meal at a certain time and be ready to eat at 5 so he could be at practice by 6. When we put the kids in the car to go to Mass that morning, we discovered a nail in one of the tires and that I'd have to take it to the tire place to be replaced. I figured, OK, I'll start cooking by whatever- o'clock and Curly should still be able to make it on time. The tire replacement took twice as long as we expected, of course, so by the time I got home I was really on a time crunch.

Potential Panic Attack Trigger No. 2: I realized after getting started that I didn't have any toothpicks. This didn't seem to be a problem, though; the bacon stayed wrapped around the loin pretty well without them.

Potential Panic Attack Trigger No. 3: Worrying that I would overcook the meat and it would be a complete disaster, or that by trying NOT to overcook it I wouldn't cook it long enough and therefore give everybody some fatal sickness like deer trichinosis or some such horrid disease.

Fresh from the oven. I chose Option 1 from the recipe above.

The Good News: Joe said I cooked it perfectly. He and Larry loved it. He said if it had been freshly killed instead of farm-raised and frozen it would have been even better, but that it was neither undercooked nor overcooked and it was delicious.

The Bad News: Curly, Moe, and I, who had never eaten venison, realized something about ourselves: We can't stand the stuff. I mean, I could barely swallow my first bite and didn't try to eat any more of it.

This has nothing to do with the recipe, or how I cooked it, or anything; in fact, Joe can vouch that if you like venison, he would DEFINITELY recommend this recipe. I don't think I would have liked it no matter how I tried to cook it. So no, it was NOT an epic fail, quite the contrary; it turned out quite well. If you like venison. And really, I think the recipe I chose WAS just the thing: I had fun preparing it and it got a thumbs-up from my husband. I couldn't ask for more than that.


I recently took a trip to my aunt's house in North Carolina to attend my cousin Greg's funeral. Aunt A. had been in the process of purging her house of dozens upon dozens of cookbooks she had accumulated over the years. Her dining room table was covered with them, and she insisted to everyone who came through the door that we look through them and take whatever we wanted. (By the way, do you know what else Aunt A. has in her house? A framed picture of herself, her daughter and her granddaughter, and they're grinning from ear to ear because the fourth person in the photo is Nicholas Sparks! They had gone together to one of his book signings in Charlotte a couple of years ago. I'm positively green with envy.)

One of the books I chose was this one:

A McCall's cookbook published in 1963. Since I made potato salad for our fall picnic I decided to try a different recipe, and turned to this book for one.

Potential Panic Attack Trigger No. 4: As I was sitting in the tire repair shop I realized that in order to make the potato salad, I would have needed to cook the potatoes enough ahead of time so as to allow them to cool first, and there was no way I would be able to do that now. I ended up choosing a different recipe from the same book, one that could be served warm. Once again, a disaster was averted.

SAVORY HOT POTATO SALAD 3 lb medium potatoes 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/8 teaspoon pepper 2/3 cup chopped onion 1/2 cup sliced radishes 1/2 teaspoon celery seed 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 9 bacon slices, finely cut up 1 tablespoon flour 1/2 cup white vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar

Cook unpeeled potatoes, covered, in boiling water just until tender--about 30 minutes. Drain potatoes; cool; peel, cut into cubes. (To save time, I did not peel the potatoes) Toss lightly with salt, pepper, onion, radishes, celery seed, and parsley. Saute bacon in skillet, over low heat, until crisp; remove from heat. With slotted spon, remove bacon; add to potatoes. Drain from skillet all except 1 tablespoon bacon fat. Stir in flour until smooth. Gradually add vinegar and 1/2 cup water. Stir in sugar; bring to boiling point, stirring. In serving bowl, toss lightly with potato mixture until combined. Serve warm. (from the1963 McCall's Cook Book, p. 496)

This version was good, but to be honest, I personally prefer my potato salad cold with mayo and all the traditional potato salad trimmings. (Click here and check out the much yummier one I made for our fall picnic.)


The baked beans were my favorite part of the meal, and they were the easiest to prepare:

BARBECUE BAKED BEANS (from the 1963 McCall's Cook Book, p. 572) 2 meduim onions, coarsely chopped 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 2 tablespoons salad oil (I used extra-virgin olive oil) 4 cans (1-lb size) baked beans, undrained 1/4 cup light molasses 1/2 cup catsup 1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese 1/2 cup packaged dry bread crumbs (I made my own with stale bread in my food processor) 2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In 2-quart top-stove casserole (I don't even know what that is. I used my favorite pot, the one that I often substitute for a Dutch Oven, since I don't have one of those either) saute onion and garlic in hot salad oil until golden and tender--about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in beans, molasses, and catsup. In small bowl, toss together cheese, bread crumbs, and butter. Spoon over bean mixture. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes, or until mixture is bubbly and top is browned.

My Favorite Pot

Since Moe is allergic to dairy, I mixed the bread crumbs and butter together, covered the top of the beans with it, and sprinkled cheese over half.

Curly ended up grabbing a snack before practice, and ate his dinner afterward, so this was the first Cooking Nick's Books meal that we didn't sit down to eat together. We would have, were it not for that danged nail...

It sure did look delicious, even if not everyone found it so. The beans were the yummiest! There is one more meal from The Rescue that I want to make for this blog, but I'm saving it for the late spring or early summer. That one will involve digging our electric ice cream maker out of the attic and making sure it works. In the meantime it's on to Nights in Rodanthe, and a roast chicken dinner that Martha Stewart would be proud of. See you soon!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Bend in the Road: Stuffed Halibut, Fruited Rice Pilaf and Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

A Bend in the Road is the story of Miles, a grieving widower with a young son; and Sarah, a divorcee who is new in town and is Miles' son's teacher. Miles' deceased wife, Missy, is very much a part of this saga as well. Four years earlier Missy was struck by a hit-and-run driver while out jogging. Miles spends much of his free time trying to find out who was driving the car, and his obsession with finding Missy's killer (and just wait until you find out who it was--if you love drama, this is right up your alley) sometimes causes some, um, tension in Miles' romance with Sarah. It affects his relationship with his son, Jonah, too, for that matter. Anyway, one night after a particularly unpleasant argument with Sarah, Miles and Jonah are sitting together watching home movies. Jonah barely remembers his mom, and as the two are chatting and reliving some of their last days with her, Miles remembers the last romantic dinner he and Missy shared together: a home-cooked Valentine's Day meal of sole stuffed with shrimp and crab, spinach salad, and wild rice.

As I've been re-reading these books, I'm noticing certain trends in what people enjoy eating. Hush puppies and sweet tea are a common fare (often ordered when they visit a favorite diner or seafood joint), and whenever anyone cooks seafood, they stuff it with crab meat. (At least in the ones I've reread so far, except for The Notebook--in that one Noah just goes for the crabs. Must be one of Nick's favorites, which is good because it's one of ours, too.) I didn't even know what sole was--except that it's a fish, at least I knew that much--and when I started looking around I discovered it isn't easy to find. A quick Google search told me that it's a bottom-dwelling saltwater flatfish, similar to flounder. That's good, I thought, because you can get flounder almost anywhere. When I took a trip to my favorite grocery store that has everything, guess what? No sole OR flounder. Not even frozen. When I asked the guy at the fish counter (at the gi-normous store that has everything, mind you, and I mean everything.), he said that they did have some frozen halibut in one of the cases, and that was a lot like flounder and sole, only better. I took his word for it and brought some home. Here's the recipe I used:


sole fillets (5-6 large, 10-12 small)
4 tbs. butter, melted salt and pepper


4 tbs. butter
1 med. onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1/2 lb. mushrooms, chopped
1 med. red or green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbs. flour
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup cream or milk
12 oz. crabmeat or shrimp (or 6 oz. crab and 6 oz. shrimp)
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
2 tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
1 egg (slightly beaten)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 13x9 baking dish with non-stick pan spray. Brush fillets with melted butter.


Saute onion,celery, pepper, garlic and mushrooms in melted butter until tender. Blend in flour. Add wine and cream and stir until thick. Remove from heat. Add remaining ingredients (except Paprika) and mix well. Stuff fillets with about 3 tablespoons of stuffing (for large fillets, place on one side and fold over; for small fillets, place on one fillet and top with another fillet), press edges together to seal. Sprinkle with paprika and bake covered 25 minutes. Serves 5-6.
(source) (Note to self: Next time you cook fish, transfer it to a platter BEFORE taking the photo. It will look much more appetizing.)

I only had a few halibut filets, so I sliced them most of the way through and put the stuffing in between the top and bottom part. Since Moe is allergic to dairy, I left out the Parmesan cheese and then right before popping them into the oven I sprinkled the cheese over all but one of the pieces of fish. Joe and I loved it. The kids weren't all that impressed, but then again they prefer their fish breaded and deep-fried.


I've never prepared wild rice before, unless you count Rice-A-Roni. I figured my trusty grocery store that has everything would have some, but all the wild rice I could find was combined with other types of rice. After much browsing and pondering, I selected a jar of Rice Select Royal Blend, a mixture of white, brown, red, and wild rice, and cooked it using this recipe:

Fruited Wild Rice Pilaf

• 1/2 cup chopped onion
• 1/2 cup chopped celery
• 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
• 1 1/4 cups hot water
• 3/4 cup uncooked wild rice
• 1 1/2 teaspoons chicken bouillon granules
• 1 red apple, chopped
• 2 tablespoons toasted, chopped pecans(Since Moe is allergic to nuts, I left these out. I had forgotten to pick up pecans, and I had some mixed nuts on hand; I stirred some up in my own serving.)
• 1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel

In a large saucepan, saute onion and celery in butter until tender. Stir in the water, rice and bouillon; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 50-55 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Remove from the heat; fold in apple, pecans and lemon peel if desired. (source)

I had to modify the cooking time, since the instructions on the rice called for only 15 minutes of cooking. I think it's a parboiled variety, kind of like Minute Rice. Whatever--it was delicious.


Ever since I've started this blog, my kids have done two things:

1. Rolled their eyes and reminded my how insane I am every time I announce that we're having something from a Nicholas Sparks book. And when I start taking pictures, it's "Geez, mom, must you really take PICTURES of the FOOD? Quit messing with your plate and let's eat already!" Or something along those lines.

2. Asked me could I PLEASE use a recipe by Alton Brown? According to them, he's the king of TV chefs. So may I present Alton's Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing:


• 8 ounces young spinach
• 2 large eggs
• 8 pieces thick-sliced bacon, chopped
• 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 4 large white mushrooms, sliced
• 3 ounces red onion (1 small), very thinly sliced


Remove the stems from the spinach and wash, drain and pat dry thoroughly. Place into a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Place the eggs into an electric kettle and cover with cold water by at least 1-inch. Turn the kettle on. Once the water comes to a boil, the kettle will turn itself off. Leave the eggs in the water for 15 minutes. Remove and peel off the shell. Slice each egg into 8 pieces and set aside. (Side note: Couldn't he just have said "Boil the eggs in water for 5 minutes"? How many people have an electric kettle anyway, or even HEARD of one?)

While the eggs are cooking, fry the bacon and remove to a paper towel to drain, reserving 3 tablespoons of the rendered fat. Crumble the bacon and set aside.

Transfer the fat to a small saucepan set over low heat and whisk in the red wine vinegar, sugar and Dijon mustard. Season with a small pinch each of kosher salt and black pepper. Add the mushrooms and the sliced onion to the spinach and toss. Add the dressing and bacon and toss to combine. Divide the spinach between 4 plates or bowls and evenly divide the egg among them. Season with pepper, as desired. Serve immediately. (source)

I was a little skeptical about putting warm dressing on crisp spinach leaves (especially since it was made with BACON GREASE, for goodness' sake), but all my doubts disappeared when I took a bite. Amazing. And so easy you wouldn't believe it.

We had some leftover stuffing, and I'll tell you what I did with THAT in a future post. Stay tuned! Next up I'll revisit The Rescue and tell you about the venison dinner I finally conjured up the courage to attempt. That one was definitely interesting!