are something very difficult to master. The best way to tell an
"ambitious" restaurant from a "seriously good" one is to try the
sauces. Even the brainchild of this dish (Johanna Maier, of the Hubertus
in Filzmoos, which is not only one of the top four restaurants in Austria, but also a most picturesque spot in the beautiful province of Salzburg) admits in interviews that she sometimes works on a particular sauce over
the course for years to get it just right.
I have experienced the same. Not her fame, and not her aptitude in the kitchen, of course, but although I've been delving into more serious cooking for a few years now, I am only just beginning to feel confident at making my own sauces. For the longest time, it hasn't been a matter of just whacking some ingredients together in a pan to form something delicious, perfectly complementing the meat it was served with. I was either following a recipe and/or, more often than not, screwing things up despite all my good intentions (my incountable attempts at making my own hollandaise are the best example).
Over the years, rather than perfecting one basic sauce recipe like the goddess of Austrian cuisine, I have just become less fussed about making a "classic" sauce... and that's really done it for me. Once you leave all the worries about "doing it the right way" behind and don't feel guilty for using a shortcut or five, it all suddenly falls into place. You realise that as much as making the sauce in the pan where you seared your meat might add flavour, it also means that you completely stress out at the last minute, when really all you should be doing is to serve plates full of gorgeous food to your guests - and smile while you're doing it... Having to reduce first some sherry or wine, then some stock and lastly some cream, before mounting the sauce with butter only to find that rather than thicken, it decides to split, is not conducive to appearing like the perfect hostess when you have some hungry (or even worse: discerning) guests around the dinner table!
So over the years, I have learnt to go my own ways. Call it cheating, but I don't bother with all that much reducing and mounting anymore - allowing me to smile, rather than sweat. over a sauce behaving badly. This dish is the perfect example: the sauce combines all that goes so well with venison (wine, orange, thyme), but it's also infinitely simpler to produce than the original and, in fact, most sauces home cooks aspire to re-produce in the confines of their own kitchens.
I am not ashamed to say that I use shortcuts such as stock concentrate and thickening granules, but hey, I live in the 21st century, plus I only get to start cooking when the wee ones are in bed and asleep and I've got a hungry mob to feed. So to some extent, convenience is a virtue. If you crave standing at the stove for hours, skimming the froth emanating from the veal/venison bones and the like, then be my guest and buy Johanna Maier's book to follow it to the letter (if you read German, that is). Or read up in your Larousse.
This recipe, however, is for those who want gourmet on the go. Well, not quite. But an impressive meal prepared in no more than half an hour. It's full of surprising flavours, apart from the delicious sauce there's the freshness of the apple paired with cinnamon and cloves. As I said - all the usual suspects coming with the venison, but in an entirely new and exciting combination. Dishes like this one prove that Johanna Maier truly deserves her place up in the 19 points (4 toques) ranks in the Gault Millau she shares with Ducasse, Savoy and the like... and they taste just as good when you use a few tricks here and there to make entertaining easier!
Venison fillets on apple-asparagus lasagne*
2 venison fillets (ca. 200 g each)
1 apple (Granny Smith)
12 green asparagus stalks (the thin, Thai variety)
For the apple marinade:
250 ml water
125 ml white wine
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp sugar
1 cinnamon stick
For the potato mash:
2 white potatoes (floury)
3 tbsp single cream
For the sauce:
50 g onions (finely chopped)
1 sprig thyme
20 g butter
100 ml port wine
100 ml dry red wine
100 ml orange juice
2 tbsp stock concentrate (beef)
thickening granules (ca. 1 tbsp, optional)
Prepare the sauce first. Fry the onions and thyme in the butter
until starting to brown. Deglaze with the port and wine, then add the
orange juice and stock concentrate. Reduce to the required consistency
(you should be left with roughly 6 tbsp of sauce). Use thickening granules to
your liking (I love these granules, as they'll thicken anything and
unline Maizena, you can add more as you go along. They don't have any
taste at all and they don't cloud your sauce either, and for me they
have become as indispensable as pepper.)
Meanwhile, peel and dice the potatoes, then cook in salt water until soft. Mash with a potato ricer or similar and add the single cream. Process to a smooth mash.
Cook the asparagus in the chicken stock until al dente, refresh and keep warm.
Warm the ingredients for the apple marinade, take off the heat, core the apple and cut into very thin rounds. Add the apples to the marinade and leave to infuse.
Fry the venison fillet in some oil or butter, until just pink inside (ca. 2 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness).
Put a tbsp of mash in the centre of your plate, top with an apple slice and some asparagus, repeat 3 times. Top with the venison fillet and drizzle with sauce. Serve immediately.
* The basic idea for this dish is taken from Johanna Maier's cookbook. The way to prepare the venison as well as the sauce, as well as the addition of potato mash are my own contribution.