On a recent Texas evening, as the sun grew pale, I sat in a deer stand with a young guide and we talked about exotics, the animal kind, and hoped for an Axis deer to appear before the sun vanished.
The Axis deer, like the pheasant and the chukar, is an immigrant. It is an exotic from Asia that thrives in the Texas climate, which is similar to parts of Africa. The famous Texas YO Ranch began bringing exotics into the United States in the 1950s and '60s, and today the selection includes Axis, Fallow Deer, Blackbuck Antelope, Sika Deer, Audad, and Addax among others-all of these exotics have naturally flourished here.
Axis deer tend to run faster than other breeds, and as a result, have a significantly larger and tougher muscle mass, similar to mule deer. This requires a sharp, long-handled knife for field dressing, particularly when butchering the front and hind legs.
Axis mostly graze on grass, as well as weeds and forbs. This makes the meat very lean, and slightly sweet. The meat is also a beautiful red color, and is denser than other venison.
There are other things that make the Axis interesting, too. For example, their vitals sit further forward, so you have to shoot very close to the shoulder blade.
Axis deer also make a point to not breed until they rub off the velvet on their horns and are fully horned. Once they rub it off, they kick into fighting gear and the breeding begins. And while whitetails are hard horned in the fall and winter, 75 percent of Axis are hard horned in the spring and summer.
Which brings me to meatloaf, somehow. Everyone has a different relationship with meatloaf, a memory often defined by a grandmother or great aunt. I am no different. My grandmother Frances Pellegrini is a home cook extraordinaire. Whenever she invited me to dinner growing up, I always requested her meatloaf. I recently discovered her recipe, taken from a family recipe book, as best as it can be put into words. She never was one to take measurements, it was always about whim and intuition. And there was something in her kitchen air that made it turn out in a special way that I have never been able to duplicate.
But this recipe is close, and I even took it one step further with a modern-day twist: venison, in this case Axis venison. I think I have started a whole new tradition. Give this a try sometime, and see what your grandmother thinks.
Axis Venison Loaf
1 carrot 1 large onion 1 stalk celery 2 cups button mushrooms (one standard package) 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 ½ pounds ground Axis venison 1 egg, beaten 2 tablespoons Marsala wine ½ cup bread crumbs 1/3 cup tomato puree ½ cup parsley ½ cup basil 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon sea salt 1 teaspoon pepper
1. Blend the carrot, onion, celery and mushrooms in a food processor until fine but not pureed.
2. Heat the oil and sauté the mixture until softened, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt along the way to help release the juices.
3. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine the vegetables with the rest of the ingredients.
4. Form the mixture into a loaf and put on a baking dish. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F for 30 minutes more. Let cool slightly, then cut into thick slices and serve.