Before modern refrigeration was common, a family’s meat hogs were always killed and processed in the winter so the meat wouldn’t spoil. Hams were packed in salt, sometimes with sugar and red or black pepper added, then hung to dry, making them shelf stable through the rest of the year.
The resulting hams were dense, salty, and absolutely delicious. While curing meat for storage isn’t necessary in our modern world, a great many ham producers and individuals hold on to the curing tradition, turning out some fabulous “country hams” that hold their own against the best-known cured meats from around the world. The hams are salty and slightly nutty, sometimes with a touch of sweetness and a bite of heat from the pepper.
Back in the day, country ham would often be sliced thinly and fried for breakfast (it still is in a great deal of the southern U.S.), most often with biscuits as an accompaniment. Legend has it that the trail hands on cattle drives of the Old West would clamor for some gravy to sop up with their biscuits at the end of the morning meal. Not having a way to keep milk fresh for gravy making, trail cooks turned to the only other liquid they always had readily available, coffee. They used leftover brewed coffee to deglaze the pan after frying the ham, mixing it with the stuck-on ham bits and left-behind grease, then simmering the gravy until it thickened. Red-eye gravy was born, and it has been a breakfast staple since.
Besides being a tasty biscuit topping, thinly sliced country ham makes a perfect wrap for thick slices of venison backstrap. Pan-sear until the backstrap is done rare to medium-rare, and the ham has browned and crisped slightly.
While the finished backstrap rests, add a bit of butter and flour to your skillet and pour in about a cup and a half of strongly brewed Death Wish Coffee. Simmer and stir to make red-eye gravy and spoon it over the backstrap medallions right before serving.
2 to 3 pounds backstrap medallions, about 1 1/2 inches thick
Thinly sliced country ham cut into strips about the same height as the backstrap
1 tablespoon dried rosemary, crushed
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Death Wish Red Eye Gravy
12 ounces strongly brewed Death Wish Coffee
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Leftover bits from trimming ham slices to fit backstrap
Season the backstrap on both sides with salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme.
Slice your ham into strips roughly the same height as your backstrap slices. Save any leftover bits and pieces of ham. Wrap the ham in a single layer around the backstrap medallions. Pin in place with a toothpick.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the bits left from trimming the ham. Stir the small pieces of ham until they are crisp and the fat has rendered out. Remove the ham bits from the skillet.
Add the backstrap, meat side down, to the skillet. Sear for 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the backstrap to sear the off side for another 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the medallions on their side and brown the ham, rotating often, for 2 to 3 minutes. Cook the backstrap in batches, if necessary.
Move the backstrap to a warm platter and loosely cover with foil to rest. Add the butter to the skillet, adding it to the rendered fat from the ham. Once the butter has melted and begins to bubble, sprinkle in the flour. Stir for a few minutes to cook the flour and begin to brown the roux.
Slowly pour in the coffee, stirring as you go to remove any lumps in the flour. Bring the mixture to a light boil and cook until the gravy thickens. Move the finished gravy to a warm bowl.
I like to serve the backstrap on a bed of fried hash browns. Spoon the red-eye gravy over the backstrap and hash browns just before serving, or place on the table so that everyone can spoon their own. The strong coffee flavor of the red-eye gravy matches perfectly with the rare venison.
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