No, nothing kinky: it’s just that about 10 days ago I cooked up squirrel in three different ways for a gathering at our house. I have a friend—well, let’s say acquaintance…or even better, let’s say there’s this guy I can’t avoid meeting from time to time who fancies himself a butch, outdoorsy type. He’s so much of a man that he even dares to take on the most dangerous game of all: squirrel. Late last year he bagged a few and I was supposed to cook them up back in December. We never quite got around to it but in all the talk other people got involved and interested and finally he had enough for us all (he’s not a very good shot, you see). Now, don’t worry there was nothing illegal about any of this. Squirrel hunting is legal (and our hunter is an environmental biologist)—there’s a daily limit of seven in our parts and the possession limit is thirteen; we had a total of eleven taken on several different occasions (see above for his issues with aim) and so we were square with the law. Oh yes, it’s also illegal to shoot firearms within city limits but before you call our mayor you should know that these were hunted outside the town.
[Be warned: there be pictures of squirrel carcasses ahead.]
So, why did we decide to cook and eat squirrel? It’s not that I’ve always wanted to eat squirrel (though I have wished mayhem on the bastards who chomp my tomatoes). I know that it’s a traditional food in parts of the US and the UK (Fergus Henderson serves it from time to time at St. John and there may be a recipe or two in Nose to Tail) but it’s not like I’ve been dying to try it. But when the opportunity presented itself I was curious. It’s a rodent, like rabbit, [“Rabbits are not rodents”, Ed.] and I figured at worst it would taste like chicken. Beyond this I had no expectations. I can tell you, however, that even if I had had high expectations they would have been met or even exceeded. Yes, my friends, squirrel is a very tasty meat.
In approaching our feast I did some desultory googling to see how people who cook it up cook it up. American takes on it—and please remember that I only did some desultory googling; this is not research—seemed to fall generally into two camps: squirrel pot pie and grilled squirrel. Pot pie doesn’t interest me greatly and so at first I thought I would marinate and tenderize them and make faux-tandoori squirrel on the grill. But as the day approached my interest in this waned. Our patio is all torn up for some ongoing construction and I didn’t want to stand out there amid the debris grilling skewered squirrels (with their kin watching from the trees). So, I decided to go with the Henderson approach as gleaned from various references: braise the suckers with aromatics as you would rabbit.
Since I had a lot of squirrels I decided to do both a vaguely Franco-Italian style braise with white wine and potatoes as well as an Indian style braise or, if you prefer, curry. The squirrels had come to me already beheaded, skinned and dressed so all I had to do was butcher the carcasses. This is very easy with a squirrel. One whack of a cleaver is enough to separate the hindquarters (which I further separated into two sets of leg-thigh quarters) from the back and ribs and another whack is enough to separate the forequarters (which I Ieft whole). The plan then was to do the white wine braise with the hindquarters and a spicy curry with the forequarters. The back/rib portion I figured I would use to make stock for the two braises.
I had no idea how long the squirrels would take in a conventional stock pot (I had no idea how young or old any of these were when they were still alive) and so I dumped them in my pressure cooker with onions, carrot and celery and cooked them for 30 minutes. After the pressure subsided I took a taste and man, the stock was amazing! Imagine a rich, deep chicken broth with nutty overtones. I decided I was going to serve the stock straight up to begin with some of the picked back meat, garnished only with chopped scallions. Here are rough recipes for the other two preparations—though you’re probably not going to be running out to cook squirrel tomorrow. But if you are, one squirrel per adult is what you should plan on.
Squirrel Braised in White Wine
- Leg and thigh portions from 11 squirrels
- 1 large white onion, sliced
- 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 3 cups dry white wine
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 4 large yellow potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthwise
- 1/2 cup green olives, rinsed and drained
- A large pinch dried oregano
- Olive oil
- Marinate the squirrel overnight with one cup of the wine, salt, pepper and the oregano. Bring to room temperature before cooking.
- In a large pan heat oil and brown the meat in a couple of batches for a couple of minutes on both sides. Set aside.
- In a large pot (I used enameled cast iron) heat some more of the oil and add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and stir over medium heat till the onion is translucent.
- Add the browned squirrel to the pot, sprinkle more salt and pepper and add the rest of the wine.
- Let the wine bubble away for five minutes or so, add the oregano and the chicken stock.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and cook over low heat till the meat is beginning to become fork tender (this took just about an hour for these squirrels).
- Once the meat is beginning to become tender add the potatoes and the olives and cover the pot again.
- Cook till the potatoes are done, taste and add more salt if needed and serve with good crusty bread or rice.
- Forequarters of 11 squirrels
- 1 medium red onion, chopped
- 1 large clove garlic and about as much ginger, grated
- The following ground to a coarse powder: 2-5 hot dried red chillies, 1/2 tspn black peppercorns, 1/2 tspn cumin seed, 1/2 tspn coriander seed, 1/2 tspn turmeric powder, 1 small piece cinnamon
- 1 cup crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups water
- Cilantro for garnish
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan and saute the onions until they begin to brown on the edges.
- Add the ginger and garlic and saute some more till they lose their raw aroma.
- Add the powdered spices and salt and saute for another minute.
- Add the meat, mix in and cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly till oil begins to separate.
- Add the tomatoes and cook down till oil begins to separate.
- Add the water, mix in, reduce the heat to medium, cover the pot and cook till the meat is completely tender. Uncover the pot from time to time and add more water if necessary. The final dish should not be dry but should have a thick sauce that clings to the meat.
- Garnish with cilantro and serve with steamed rice.
So there you have it. Squirrel three ways: broth, braised with white wine and potatoes, and curry.
Now, when I first posted about this on Facebook (in the lead-up to our gathering) a couple of people said they’d eaten squirrel once and that once was enough. After our lunch I can only imagine that these people have eaten sub-optimally prepared squirrel: probably dry and stringy. Slow-cooked with liquid it becomes very tender indeed; and flavour-wise, imagine all dark meat chicken and you’re mostly there—there’s nothing gamy about it and nor does it have any unusual notes.
Our meal was enjoyed thoroughly by all gathered, including the children who tried it. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was a Minnesota Book Award winning writer present who was clearly there only so she could say she’d taken a bite of squirrel: she wasted her entire bowl of soup and tried to pass it off as having been abandoned by some child—and I don’t believe she ate any of the rest of the dishes. I don’t want to name names but let’s just say hers rhymes with Kaethe Schwehn. Not all the writers present were such weenies. Ben Percy, an altogether more ghoulish sort, had seconds and thirds, cackling fiendishly all the while. The non-writers, on the other hand, had a 100% record of enjoyment, which I think means we are more connected to the real (Plato would agree).
Well, I’m not rushing out to buy a pellet gun but I’ve already placed my “order” for a brace of squirrels the next time a minor cull happens. And if squirrel were available in stores I’d be cooking it all the time. Now, if I could only get the ones that eat my tomatoes.