CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The first week of hunting season, it was beginner's luck for Rob Thaw. The eighth-grader at John Adams Middle School was out hunting for just a short time when he bagged his first deer on his family's property in Pocahontas County.
I got to hear about the event firsthand on a recent visit to the Thaws' mountain cabin. When we arrived for a ski weekend, Rob quickly disappeared. His parents knew his plans -- take the four-wheeler to the neighbor's house to retrieve his processed deer.
Just as quickly, he reappeared with armloads of neatly wrapped frozen packages of meat, each stamped to identify its contents. Filet. Steak. Ground. His enthusiasm overflowed into the group of visitors.
I immediately started asking questions: "What are you going to do with it? Do you have a favorite recipe?" I secretly hoped I'd be invited to participate in the harvest share. I have never cooked with venison but have always been intrigued.
Rob and his mom, Laura Thaw, shared some ideas and together we turned to the Web. Unlimited sites turned up recipes in every category imaginable. Then, in this crowded vacation home, the conversation quickly turned to snow sports. I was left to daydream about what cooking possibilities lay ahead with a freezer full of venison.
Later, back in Charleston, my mind continued to wander about the delicious dishes that could be made with all those packages of fresh-frozen venison. Recipe surfing on the Web made my head spin, so I turned to a local hunting enthusiast and avid home cook, Craig Ellis, for direction.
The bass player for the popular Fort Hillbillies band, Ellis first asked what cuts we would be cooking with. I described what I remembered seeing Rob unload.
"Meatballs are great, hard to beat," I recall him saying. I added, "I'd really like to make some jerky." And with that, Ellis walked me through some basic steps.
Though I lack experience in this category, his guidance gave me confidence.
Rob and I go way back -- we have had multiple cooking sessions together, and he is well aware of my mantra, "Eat real food, clean food." He assured me that his deer from the mountains of Pocahontas County was impeccably clean.
"Think of the clean air and fresh water where this deer lived," he reminded me.
Ellis echoed this, adding, "You can talk about natural and organic, and, really, nothing beats this healthy protein. It's really versatile too."
When school closings were announced last week, I called Rob to see about scheduling a cooking session. We discussed some recipe ideas and settled on classic Italian meatballs -- à la the late, great Marcella Hazan -- and spicy venison jerky. We mixed up a smoky marinade that we taste-tested before adding strips of cube steak.
"Tastes like Texas," Rob said, smiling.
The meat needed to marinate overnight for the tastiest results. Once we got that in the fridge, we moved on to the meatballs and sauce.
Rob chopped onions and parsley, which he added to some milk-soaked bread. Then he mixed in a beaten egg, a little olive oil, some freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a hefty pinch of seasonings.
We followed Hazan's recipe exactly, substituting ground venison. We baked the meatballs rather than pan-fry them and dropped them into our simmering tomato sauce.
Once we ladled it over hot spaghetti, we sat together and enjoyed the fruits of this young hunter's labor. What a fun cooking adventure, and I'm so grateful that Rob was eager to share.
Special thanks also to Craig Ellis. When we spoke, I got a sense that he has a cache of recipes up his sleeve. I inquired about a future cooking story in his home kitchen and he responded, "That would be great. I'd love to do that." Stay tuned.