Wine & Food Killers: Vietnamese Venison Stew and Idlewild The Bird Flora & Fauna

In her recent book, Cook, Eat, Repeat, Nigella Lawson shares “a defence of brown food”, both a celebration of unlovely-looking but joyous-tasting stews and braises, and a rebuttal against the high-gloss of Instagram food aesthetics.

“So much of what we prize in life, in people, in food, in our surroundings, is such a mixture of mess and beauty,” she commented as a follow-up in the New Yorker.

I can relate to that sentiment: Has any time felt more like a mix of hope and gloom, glow and darkness, as the dawn of 2022? Mess and beauty is everywhere, and so it might as well also be in what we eat and drink, especially now, in winter’s hard fist. This is the time that stews were made for, and a time to celebrate their warming and nourishing power.

This recipe is inspired by Vietnamese bo kho, a braised beef stew made with aromatics like star anise and lemongrass. Instead of beef, I opted for venison, motivated both by sustainability (wild, local venison typically has a lower carbon footprint than its farmed ruminant counterparts) and by flavour: I love venison’s gamey intensity, its rich, ferric tang.

An ingredient as brooding and deep as this is wonderful here, lifted as it is by the lime leaves and ginger and spices, plus that finishing garnish of coriander and mint. And while I opted to make this stew in my Instant Pot – which turns the venison meltingly soft in under an hour – the traditional stovetop version certainly works just as well, if only a bit more slowly.

Because stew and January and beauty and mess all call for red wine, I also reached for a bottle of a special, distinctive wine to go with this recipe: Idlewild’s The Bird Flora & Fauna, which hails from northern California and is made from Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo. It has the light-footedness that those varietals promise, the bursts of cherry and florals with a little pop of carbonic maceration, but there’s an earthy growl underneath, a tannic corseting that provides structure and makes this wine particularly food-friendly.

I found that combination of lightness and weightiness worked beautifully with this stew, which has much the same properties: aromatic high notes combined with inky depths, as opposed and as natural together as beauty and mess. Together, I hope they both nourish you this winter – and I hope they might set a mood and intention for the year ahead.

Vietnamese Venison Stew
Adapted from New York Times Cooking
Serves 4-6

For the marinade:
1 kilo venison, either steaks or pre-chopped stewing pieces
4 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced ginger 2 teaspoons Chinese 5-spice powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the stew:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4-5 echalion shallots, thinly sliced
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly crushed black pepper, to taste
1 thumb-sized piece galangal, peeled and minced
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, peeled and minced
8 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 bird’s-eye chilli, minced
4 tablespoons tomato puree
4 stalks lemongrass, lightly crushed
4 makrut lime leaves
1 cinnamon stick
3 star anise
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon paprika
750ml beef stock
700g sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
Large handful coriander
Large handful mint
Crusty bread (to serve)

1. The night before you plan to cook, prep your venison. If you’re using whole steaks, cut them into 1-inch cubes. Otherwise, add the pieces to a large bowl, along with the remaining marinade ingredients. Mix until the pieces are evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2. The next day, remove the venison from the fridge 45 minutes–1 hour before cooking to let it warm slightly. In the bowl of an Instant Pot, or in a large casserole dish/Dutch oven or other lidded pan, add the vegetable oil. If using the Instant Pot, turn on the sauté function; if using the stove, place over medium heat. Once hot, add the shallots and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for 4-5 minutes, or until softened.

3. Next, add the minced galangal, ginger, garlic and chilli, and cook for 2-3 minutes more, stirring frequently, until they’ve lost their raw smell. Add the venison pieces along with the marinade and mix; cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the venison is lightly browned. Stir in the tomato puree before adding the lemongrass, lime leaves, cinnamon stick, star anise, brown sugar, soy sauce, rice vinegar and paprika. Mix until evenly combined before adding the beef stock.

4. If using the Instant Pot, turn off the sauté function, seal the lid (with the spout in the closed/sealing position) and set on high pressure for 30 minutes; afterwards, let it depressurise naturally for 10 minutes before force-depressurising. If using the stove, raise the heat to high until the stew has reached a boil before turning the heat down to its lowest setting. Cover and simmer for 1.5-2 hours, stirring occasionally and topping off with more broth or hot water if it looks like it needs more liquid, or until the venison is very tender but not yet falling apart.

5. Remove the lid of your Instant Pot or Dutch oven and add the sweet potatoes. Cook for 15-20 minutes on the sauté setting (or over medium heat on the stove), or until the sweet potatoes are fork tender and the venison is just starting to fall apart, adding more liquid if necessary. 

6. Check the seasoning and add more salt or sugar to taste. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the coriander and mint. Serve with crusty bread on the side.

Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer and wine hound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen. Don’t miss out on Claire’s wine and food pairings, which go out every month in our Natural Wine Killers subscription box.