Perfect meatballs: Game on with this no-fuss venison dish

Also, recipes for perfect hasselback potatoes and charred hispi cabbage with almond romesco

Delicious: Jess Murphy’s venison meatballs

Delicious: Jess Murphy’s venison meatballs

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We’re in the middle of game season, probably the most cheffy and macho season of them all. For me, when I was a kid this time of year meant making a “maimai” (a little hut we made out of manuka, the humble shrub found throughout New Zealand) with Dad and uncle Rob on the local swamps and wetlands. We would spend hours there waiting in silence for the mallard to swoop in. People who know me know I’m not very good at the silent part and I was soon relegated to sit back in the truck . . . so that was some great bonding time! 

There were no handcrafted tweeds or hunting lodges in Wairoa in the 1980s and we didn’t have a pack of well-trained spaniels to retrieve for us. There was just me – wearing my togs or my brother’s wet suit – and Olly, my uncle’s beautiful black Lab to do that job. 

In our family there was always great debate over wether you were a dry plucker or a wet plucker. Pop was a dry plucker but Mum was a staunch wet plucker. When we came home, the bath would be run for me and the mallards. My mother would then have a blast, with a paint-splattered, old cordless radio belting out her plucking soundtrack of mixtapes. Madonna’s Material Girl was played a lot. She would pluck away, and afterwards, the birds would be hung out and left to dry on the clothes line over night. 

Game can be intimidating unless, like me you watch constant re-runs of Two Fat Ladies on repeat. This meatball recipe is brilliantly simple and uses good-quality Irish minced venison. You can also use the venison to make lasagna, roll it in puff pastry and bake like a fancy sausage roll, or make it into a meat loaf – it’s seriously adaptable. 

To make a meal of it, I’ve added the ultimate hasselback potato recipe and grilled hispi, which is just a trendy name for the sweetheart cabbage, my personal favourite next to the January King. The golden rule for perfect hasselbacks is to use an Irish-grown floury spud.

VENISON MEATBALLS

Everyone loves meatballs (well, maybe not vegetarians). Keep a few extra for lunch the next day: you’ll be glad you did. Home-made meatballs and some good cheese in garlic-rubbed toasted bread make the perfect sandwich.

Serves four
Ingredients
For the meatballs
500g venison mince 
30g ricotta cheese
1 white onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic minced
1 small bunch parsley, chopped
2tbsp curry powder
1tbsp harissa
3tsp salt and pepper
2tbsp mushroom ketchup

For the sauce 
2tbsp olive oil 
1 small handful of fennel seeds 
2 red peppers, chopped 
2 bay leaves 
1tbsp oregano 
3 garlic cloves, sliced 
Salt and pepper 
1 tin of chopped tomatoes 
25g tomato puree 
1 vegetable stock cube 
3tsp sugar 
Grated Parmesan, as desired

Method 
Bring the mince to room temperature and heat oven to 200C. 

In a large bowl, combine all of the meatball ingredients and mix by hand until they come together well. Roll into golfball-sized rounds until all of the mixture is used up.

Place the balls onto a parchment-lined baking tray and bake for 12-15 minutes or until nicely browned.

Remove from the tray and allow to cool.

In a wide saucepan on a medium heat, heat the oil add the fennel seeds and cook until fragrant – this takes about 1-2 minutes. Add the onions, red pepper and bay leaves. Allow to soften for 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Add the oregano, garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

Add the tin of chopped tomatoes and fill up the empty tin twice with water, using this to top up the ingredients. The tomato puree and stock cube then go in before cooking over a low heat until nicely reduced. 

Fish out the bay leaves and then using a hand blender, blitz the sauce to a soupy consistency.

Put the meatballs back into the sauce and heat them back up thoroughly. Serve them up with your favourite pasta or some good bread for mopping up the sauce and juices with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan on top.

WARM ROASTED SQUASH AND RUBY GRAPEFRUIT SALAD WITH SALSA VERDE

Warm roasted squash and ruby grapefruit salad with salsa verde
Warm roasted squash and ruby grapefruit salad with salsa verde

Winter time is pumpkin time. I like to use the Hokkaido pumpkin. The outer covering of the squash is hard but the inside is fleshy and delicate, with flavours like a chestnut. It tastes amazing and you don’t have to peel it – who doesn’t like a shortcut?

Ingredients
1 medium sized squash
15g of sumac
1 small handful of oregano
40ml of olive oil
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 large ruby grapefruit

For the salsa verde
50g of capers, rinsed
Zest of 3 lemons
50ml of apple cider vinegar
2 cloves of garlic
100ml of extra verging olive oil
200g of roughly chopped curly parsley
Pinch of salt and pepper

Method
Preheat the oven to 180C. Cut the pumpkin open and remove all the seeds. Cut into 2cm slices and spread them on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Sprinkle over all the other ingredients except the grapefruit and toss well with the olive oil. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes or until soft. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Peel and slice your grapefruit, removing all pips, then scatter the slices over the squash.

Place all the salsa verde ingredients in a food processor and blitz together until the sauce reaches a pesto-like consistency. Spoon over the roasted squash and grapefruit.

HASSELBACK POTATOES

Roasted hasselbacks
Hasselback potatoes

Me and potatoes have a lot in common. We are not from here, but we have integrated very well. You can throw any number of herbs and spices at them and they just smile and take it as a compliment.

A bowl of leftover mash in the back of the fridge or a few cold boiled potatoes in their skins are a treasure waiting to be explored. I sometimes think that potatoes are the only way to get through an Irish winter. Steamed, boiled, sautéed, fried or baked . . . each method provides its own unique flavour and texture.

Nearly every other nation on Earth has a favourite potato dish. Exotic, elegant, plain or traditional. Hasselbacks are the best known of the Swedish potato recipes. The original uses butter and breadcrumbs and sometimes Parmesan. The potatoes are sliced deeply, almost to the base so that the slices open out slightly like a fan when cooked and the edges get beautifully crispy and golden.

Ingredients 
4 large Yukon gold potatoes (Roosters make good hasselbacks too) 
4tbsp butter 
4tbsp olive oil 
Fine sea salt 
Cracked black pepper

Method 
Preheat your oven to 200C.

To prepare the potatoes, scrub and cut: the easiest way I have found is to lay the potato lengthways on a board and place two chopsticks on either side. Using a sharp knife and holding the potato in place with the sticks, make crossways cuts 3mm apart, cutting just down as far as the sticks. You could alternatively place them on a wooden spoon, or I have also seen them speared with a skewer about 5mm from the base, sliced across and the skewer removed. Anything that stops the knife slicing clean through the potato will do.

Place the potatoes on a parchment-lined baking tray. Brush the spuds generously with melted butter and olive oil. Season well with the salt and pepper.

Bake for 50 - 70 minutes, basting every 20 minutes until the slices spread apart and are golden in colour.

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