Baseball, roast venison a big hit

Pictured is the Bradigan family in 1962.

Can anyone point out me? Imagine, I used to be kinda cute. The years have not been kind. This photo was taken before the weekly baseball game on a late Sunday morning in the summer of 1962. Baseball was the closest thing us Bradigans had to church. My father played first and third base for the town team, the Forestville Merchants. That’s somewhat ironic because we were farmers.

My oldest brother Bruce — as you can see, he was already edging away from the rest of us — was about 16 or 17 then, and was the catcher. He was famous for being able to throw out runners at second base without getting out of his crouch.

My father could hit for power from both sides of the plate. He played third and first base for the Visalia Single A team in the Dodgers organization before World War II. People often said he could hit a baseball further than anyone they’ve seen before or since.

This photo was taken at a particular moment in time. Within a couple years, my brother Bruce was in the Airborne Rangers in Vietnam, where he served three tours, before being wounded by fire from an AK-47 by a scared Viet Cong. My younger brother Bob, on the left pouting because he was told he was too young to play, joined him in the Army about four years later.

So I grew up with very old-fashioned role models of what a man is meant to be. My father grew up in the teeth of the Great Depression, and went on to become a bombardier on B-24s in the Pacific Theater. He was also wounded in action — with flak from a Japanese anti-aircraft battery. He lost half his stomach and most of his chances to resume his baseball career. He did get a tryout with the Chicago Cubs after the war, but his injury slowed him down, and being fast was a key asset for a baseball player. But as far as I was concerned, he whipped the Great Depression and Hitler and Tojo with one mighty swing of his bat.

Roast Saddle of Venison was a fancy meal for the Bradigan family.

Maybe it was this particular Sunday, or one like it, but I remember wandering off as the teams were warming up, as 2-year-olds are wont to do. I could feel this darkening storm gathering around me. And this spreading fear in my stomach. It was among my earliest memories.

The rain came down, and the lightning crackled around me. I was standing in this field, scared for my young life. Suddenly these brawny arms reached down and gathered me up, and carried me back to the car, where the family was huddled up to wait out the storm.

I remember vividly the smell of my father’s arms as it wrapped around my chest– this very distinct smell of wood, and leather. And how comforting it was.

Countless times since, whenever I get stressed out, I wrap my arms around myself and inhale deeply. Maybe you’ve heard of something called “histo-compatibility.” We smell like our genetic kin. It took me awhile to figure out that I was smelling my father’s smell on me. And that relieved my anxieties.

Something else that relieved anxieties was my mother’s cooking. After a Sunday baseball game she would often make a roast, as a way of celebrating, come win or loss, usually a win, and to stoke that metabolic furnace after the day’s exertions. Work hard, play hard.

The fanciest roast we ever had — that I can recall in any event — was saddle of venison with a stuffing of cherries together with ground veal. Venison is very lean, but also very mild, and takes to the fattier veal (or alternatively, lamb) very well, and the cherries bring equal parts sweetness and tartness.

One generous tablespoon of unsalted butter

A two- or three-pound venison roast (for a large, hungry brood like the Bradigans, double the proportions). Give the roast a light but thorough salt-and-peppering.

1/2 onion, minced

1 garlic clove, mince

Four ounces (about half a cup) of sour cherries, from the freezer, thawed. Then chopped finely.

Eight ounces of ground veal

Half a cup of breadcrumbs

A small handful of sage or mint, each has its characteristics — sage more savory, mint sweeter. If the cherries are particularly sour, then I recommend chopped mint. Mix the veal and cherries.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make the stuffing, melt the butter in your trusty cast-iron pan, then create your “sofritto” of garlic first, just enough to flavor the oil and not enough that it burns, then add the onion until it’s translucent. Give it a good shake of salt and pepper. Braise and deglaze with a splash of good sherry or vermouth for an extra layer of flavor. Add the ground veal and crumble it down as it fries just until it lightly browns. Add the breadcrumbs, then add the sage and/or mint, add another shake of salt and pepper, then remove from heat.

Now for the tricky part:

Put a sheet of tin foil, with a sheet of parchment paper on top (at least two or more inches larger than the roast). Lay out four pieces of string across the kitchen counter and put the foil and parchment on top – the string will help hold it together and seal in the juices. Spoon the stuffing down the center of the roast and shape it like putty into a round sausage-shaped roll down the length of the roast.

Then fold up the venison tightly, using the foil and parchment paper to help get it into a nice tight roll. Tie the strings around the venison, making sure that the foil and parchment enclose the meat but stay outside it. Fold in the ends and tie the other pieces of string tightly around the outside of the parcel to hold it in shape.

Put the venison on a baking sheet. Roast for 30-40 mins or until a meat thermometer reaches 135 or 140 degrees for medium rare. Let it rest for 10 mins, then remove and discard the foil and parchment. Then baste the venison all over with butter, and maybe another light shake of salt and pepper. Return to the oven for a final 8 or 10 minutes to get a nice brown glaze.

Leave it to rest for 10-15 mins. Then remove the string and slice generously.

Excellent with roast root vegetables, potatoes, polenta, risotto or a hard day of playing baseball.

Bret Bradigan is the editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk of the Town.”


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