On Monday I went into the woods with a gun and came out with three squirrels. I learned and am still learning a great deal from that experience… Of course, it’s not over yet.
Finding, shooting, and cleaning the squirrels was only the first step of the adventure. My primary purpose for hunting is food, and the next step began as soon as I pulled into the driveway and unloaded the truck.
I soaked the squirrels in a brine overnight. Many hunters suggested that to help draw out any extra blood, to help tenderize, and– particularly important in my case– help remove hair that stuck to the meat.
I’ll tell you what, there’s nothing that reminds you what you’re eating more than a piece of hair on it.
Of course, this is part of the point– to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of my food– but nobody, not one person anywhere finds hair in their food appetizing.
My plan was to make a simple dish so I could really taste the squirrel. I enjoy highly-seasoned dishes with tons of flavor, but today I wanted to know what squirrel tastes like. I needed something that wouldn’t cover up the squirrel flavor. There aren’t many squirrel recipes on the internet, but a popular preparation seems to be squirrel and dumplings.
Done. I’ll make that.
This morning I pulled some squirrel pieces out of the brine, put them in my big stockpot, and began making stock. Making stock is one of my favorite things to do, as it serves so many purposes and can’t help but make delicious things. It also fills the house with the unmistakable smells of something good cooking. It’s hard to go wrong making stock. It’s gonna be good.
I made this stock just like I made the gallons (yes, gallons) of chicken stock in our freezer– except using squirrel this time. Squirrel pieces (in this case a few legs, ribs, and the backbones/backs of my three squirrels), bay leaf, green onion (just the green part), salt, and water went into the pot.
Within minutes of simmering the house was filled with the glorious smell of chicken stock. Oh wait, that’s not chicken. And it’s true, as I tasted the stock at various stages of completion, it was both like and unlike chicken stock. There was some other flavor in there.
Of course most of the flavor was squirrel– the onion and bay leaf only added their own complementary flavors to the liquid, they didn’t cover anything up. There was no chicken of any kind in that pot and, looking over the edge into the simmering liquid, there was no mistaking that fact.
The squirrel meat didn’t exactly fall off the bone, but I didn’t exactly want it to; In my experience if you simmer meat for too long it gives up all its flavor into the liquid and keeps none for itself. I thought a compromise was in order, so I removed the squirrel once it was plenty tender but still on the bone.
Just as I have done with many chicken carcasses before, with my fingers I pulled the meat off the bones and made two piles: Meat and other stuff.
As I picked I tasted an especially large, meaty piece.
Not chicken, that’s for sure. I focused intently, trying to examine each part of the flavor (perhaps a little easier with synesthesia). Similar to dark meat chicken, but a deeper flavor and hints of.. Was that sage? Rosemary? Sort of a pine flavor– not like juniper or spruce, more of a subtle background note. Almost as if I’d emptied a large portion of my spice cabinet into the boiling pot, which of course, I hadn’t.
Like meat that came pre-seasoned.
And of course it was: These were totally wild, deep woods, free range animals that ate whatever they could find. All three squirrels had been in oaks, but there were plenty of coniferous trees nearby as well– and I knew they ate them, judging by the piles of destroyed pinecones I found on the forest floor. I wondered if that flavor I was getting was literally pine. I suddenly understood why so many game recipes include juniper. Similar flavors always go well together: Lemon and lime, peanut butter and chocolate, pine and juniper.
The biggest, juiciest pieces of meat came from the backbone– just as I expected. That’s always the case with the domestic meat I cook, and that’s why I always cook on the bone. The best meat is closest to the bones.
Soon I had a pile of bones and other stuff, and a pile of meat that I returned to the now reduced stock.
In a bowl I combined flour, salt, minced green onion, and two tablespoons of some schmaltz (chicken fat) I’d rendered the other day from some Two Sparrows Farm chickens.
I know, I’m so domestic. I have too much free time on my hands. Yes, I’m well aware.
I cut the fat into the flour, then added water to make a thick dough. I grabbed dough by the handful and carefully dropped it into the simmering squirrel stock. I set my timer for twenty minutes, put the lid on the pot, and responded to some emails.
After twenty minutes the pot of liquid had been transformed into a gravy-like substance brimming with tasty-looking dumplings and thin strips of meat. A quick addition of fresh ground pepper and I ladled some dumplings and gravy-broth into a bowl. I took a bite.
Very, very good. So good I ate the first bowl and immediately filled the bowl again and downed that as well. The dumplings were soft but not too soft. The flour and chicken fat had greatly thickened the liquid in an extremely pleasing way. Every bite contained a great contrast between the comparatively bland dumpling and the flavorful squirrel meat. The onions in the dumplings made everything pop, and went a long way to rounding out the flavors of the dish. And I found only one tiny piece of lead shot, a constant possibility until I get better with my .22.
The only problem with my meal was I made too much of it and I ate it all in ten minutes.
I sit here typing, my belly uncomfortably full from squirrel. I’m satiated in more ways than one. Those squirrels didn’t die for nothing; They went on to become one of the more delicious things I’ve cooked. And that wasn’t even all of them: I have at least that much more squirrel left in the fridge.
It’s a strange thing, eating a creature that you knew, or at least saw for a few minutes, in its native habitat. In its home. Doing its thing.
Chewing on the delicious meat it’s hard not to think about where it came from, hard not to remember my hours of slow stalking, the excitement of finally locating squirrels, the mechanical reflex of shooting them, and the complex mix of emotions I felt while cleaning them.
But that’s the point.
Besides yielding delicious meat, flavorful broth, and fly tying materials, these squirrels are teaching me what it means to have a direct connection to my food. To know– really know– where it came from and what it took to get it to my plate.
Or in this case, my bowl.
Squirrel and Dumplings
For the broth
- Various pieces of squirrel, especially backbones, ribs, and legs
- 1 bay leaf
- Green tops of 1 onion, or 1/4 onion
- Salt to taste
For the dumplings
- 1 cup flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons chicken fat, lard, or shortening
- 2 tablespoons minced green onions, white and green parts (optional, but really good)
- 1/2 cup, more or less, water
- Put squirrel, bay leaf, onion, and salt in a pot. Cover with water, bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Simmer for 2-3 hours, skimming off foam if any appears.
- Once squirrel is nice and tender, remove squirrel pieces and pick the meat off the bones. Strain the stock if necessary (any extra hair will probably be floating in the liquid, and you don’t want hair in your food)
- Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl
- Cut in shortening until crumbly
- Stir in onions, if using
- Stir in enough water to moisten flour
- Add squirrel back to the broth, bring back to a simmer
- Drop handfuls (or spoonfuls) of dumpling batter into steaming kettle
- Cover, cook for 20 minutes
- Ladle into bowls, enjoy immediately. Don’t eat too much.