Elevate ground venison to fine dining status with classic Italian cannelloni.
Italians certainly have mastered the elevation of ground meat in center-of-the-plate masterpieces. Cannelloni qualifies as one of these and is a personal favorite. It is a perfect place to feature ground venison and elevate it to date night dinner status. This recipe uses pork to add both fat and flavor but go ahead and use 100% venison if you wish.
The little Italian place in my neighborhood features cannelloni year-round and my wife’s favorite sauce is their blend of tomato and cream sauce. This gives the cannelloni a creamy tomato-ey blanket of goodness. The sauce delivers the bright tomato tang while enveloped in velvety cream, the perfect compromise. Below are directions to make a tomato-cream sauce to top cannelloni before adding the mozzarella cheese. I purchased ready-to-cook sheets of pasta from the local Italian shop. You could make your own pasta from scratch or buy dried cannelloni shells, either will work as a substitute.
I approach every big game animal butcher session with a collection of meals in mind. When you butcher your own game, you have complete control over what cuts you put up for future use. Generally, ground venison is something we make very little of. Most of the trim pile makes its way to sausages. This year I ground the shoulder trim of a whole deer to encourage the exploration of ground venison in the pursuit of elevated dinners. Cannelloni is the result of one of those pursuits.
Tools and equipment
Large saucepan to cook pasta
2 Saucepans/skillets (one to pan-fry meat and another to prepare the sauce.)
Baking dish to fit cannelloni
Instant read thermometer
Ingredients for meat filling and pasta
3 shallots, peeled and finely diced
450 grams (1 pound) ground venison (I used whitetail, but any venison will work just fine.)
450 grams (1 pound) ground pork
2 teaspoons each of coarse salt and coarse pepper (you may want a bit more)
200 grams (7 ounces) of frozen spinach
1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs
4 wide sheets of fresh pasta (Or substitute dry pasta cannelloni tubes.)
Ingredients for sauce
125 ml (1/2 cup) milk
125 ml (1/2 cup) of whipping cream
250 ml (1 cup) of chicken stock
250 ml (1 cup) of tomato passata (strained pureed tomato)
45 grams (about 3 tablespoons) each of butter and flour
Topping for cannelloni
225 grams (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
Prepare the noodles
Bring a big pot of well-salted water to a boil.
Boil the fresh noodle sheets for four minutes, remove and submerge in ice-cold water, then drain and dry on paper towels. Set aside until the filling is prepared.
Prepare the filling
Scramble-fry ground venison, ground pork and diced shallots in a cast iron skillet over high heat. When the meat starts to brown add the spinach and seasonings and stir well. Continue to cook on high until the temperature of the mixture reaches 180F.
Sprinkle with half a cup of fine dry breadcrumbs. Stir well and let cool off the heat for 15 minutes.
Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan, add flour and cook over medium heat for five minutes, whisking flour and butter together.
Add cold cream, milk and chicken stock whisking lumps smooth. Turn the heat up high and when the mixture comes to a boil add the tomato passata. Return the sauce to a boil then reduce to a simmer for five minutes. Set aside off the heat until assembly time.
Assemble and top the cannelloni.
When the meat mixture is cooled enough to handle, lay a row of cooked filling along the inside edge of a pasta sheet, roll the pasta sheet around the meat, and place it in the bottom of the pan. Repeat with each sheet of pasta and arrange in the baking dish. Top with sauce and cheese. Bake for one hour at 350F.
It seems a shame to me to use ground venison like ground beef––just to offset the grocery bill. We hunters work so hard (and spend some cash) to acquire game for the table, my orientation is that venison should be used at the highest culinary level possible. Eating and sharing venison should be some sort of hunting celebration with something extraordinary prepared for our guests at the table. This cannelloni certainly hits the celebratory target.