I’ve been on a cooking spree.
It’s hard not to get excited about cooking when there is a constant parade of amazing ingredients coming in the door. Fresh fruit and veggies from Melody Bee Farms, pastured beef and chicken from Two Sparrows Farms, and a handful of squirrels from the woods.
I also have a strong desire to do these ingredients justice; Those aren’t just any tomatoes, they were grown down the street (or at my in-laws’). That isn’t just any beef, that’s from the farm a short drive away. Those aren’t just any squirrels; I went into the woods with a shotgun, found them, killed them, cleaned them, and butchered them.
This is exactly what I wanted: To have a stronger connection to my food and where it comes from. I expected it to taste good but did not expect it to be so inspiring. And when it comes to the small animals I’ve personally killed, I don’t want anything to go to waste. I killed’em, I should eat’em.
Thankfully, squirrels are delicious: It’s not hard to eat’em, you just gotta cook’em right.
Walking out of the woods Sunday afternoon I picked some sassafras growing near the trail. Dried sassafras leaves make filé powder, a native american ingredient used as a thickener, most famously in gumbo. Sassafras root gives root beer its classic flavor, although a few years ago the FDA ruled it a carcinogen, meaning all commercial root beer arrives at that flavor in other ways. Leaving the woods with sassafras and squirrel in my pack, I knew I’d be making gumbo.
Gumbo, that signature dish of New Orleans… Which, as it turns out, has a history more complicaed than any one place or culture. It’s a very old dish with roots in Africa, Europe, and America. (Read this for the story on this amazing dish.) At it’s most basic, it’s a simple stew; Something delicious made with whatever happened to be around and in season– because that was the only choice. There’s nothing fancy about it: Just good old down-home cooking.
That’s the sort of cooking I like to do.
In my deepest cast iron pan I cooked some bacon and sausage. Once it had released all that delicious fat, I removed the meat and tossed in a bunch of flour and a bit of oil. For the next half hour I whisked and stirred. The white flour was slowly transformed into a brown paste. I was making a dark roux.
The transition was amazing: pale white and raw flour became a dark, almost peanut-butter-like substance over the course of thirty minutes. This was my first time making a dark roux and it was amazing.
I added diced peppers, onions, and garlic; Then diced tomatoes from the garden (my mother-in-law’s); Then a few cups of squirrel stock; Then a half cup of cooked, shredded squirrel meat, the sausage, and the bacon. Bay leaf, rosemary, oregano, black pepper, red pepper, cayenne. Then it simmered all afternoon.
To those who claim they don’t like cooking: Just simmer something delicious on your stove on a crisp, Fall afternoon. There is no better antidote to whatever ails you.
After everything in the gumbo had become great friends, the sauce had slightly reduced, and the entire house was thick with the smell of tasty, I scooped a few ladles worth into a bowl and topped with a big ball of rice. I sprinkled some of the sassafras leaves, dehydrated overnight and ground in my mortar and pestle.
The nutty, almost peanut-like flavor of the dark roux was a perfect companion to the squirrel. The bacon and sausage added a nice backbone of even deeper flavor, and the peppers, onions, and tomatoes filled in all the gaps. The sassafras added thickening power and a faint citrus-like flavor to cut through all those big flavors.
This was my first time making gumbo, but as I savored each bite I knew it wouldn’t be my last. I have big plans to tweak my recipe, get the process down just right, then share it so others can enjoy their own versions of this thoroughly American dish.
My belly full of squirrel and sausage and rice and sauce, I grabbed my gun, hopped in the truck, and headed to the woods to find more.