"In wildness is the preservation of the world." -H.D. Thoreau

Why eat from the wild? The answer is obvious to anyone who has felt the emotional uplift from the weight of a basket brimming with morel mushrooms, the earthy-sweet scent of digging Sassafras roots, or the heavy pulsing of a fish testing the limits of your fly rod.
There are a million reasons to eat wild, to get dirty, to taste fresh food. It is here where we connect to the Earth, our Ancestral past, immediate present and hope for a healthy future...

"Nothing else can build such awareness as surely and powerfully as practicing the ancient ecological art of humankind - foraging. It is not observation of, but rather participation in the phenomena of Nature that brings us to our greatest understanding of our place in the mosaic of life."
-Samuel Thayer The Forager's Harvest

Foraging in the Tip of the Mitten!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

In praise of Small Game: Squirrel!

For many a rural child, the hunting of a squirrel is a rite-of-passage - an introduction into the world of death.

Unfortunately many of these squirrels fall  in vain from pre-pubescent boys who are testing the sights of their new Daisy Air Rifle. I was not immune to such bloodthirsty behavior, and although I truly regret taking animals lives without eating them, I recall sneaking through the forest in search of prey was the most entertaining activity that I did. The stalk, the concealment, the fleeting glance of movement in an old hickory, the perfect shot, the rush, the fall... but then came remorse.

It was wrong, but us wielders of BB-guns and pellet pistols knew the bird calls, we knew the difference a robin makes shuffling leaves as opposed to a gray squirrel. We knew where the mast producing trees were and always the best approach - which was different depending on the weather. Where other kids could tell you batting averages or T.V.'s prime time line-up, we could tell you tree identification and 'possum tracks vs. coon tracks. Most of our peers idolized Barry Sanders and spoke at length of the Mario Brothers. We were obsessed with Native tribes, Frontiersmen and Robin Hood. Our only real 'modern' hero was Indiana Jones. Oh, and Atreyu from The Neverending Story. And Wesley from The Princess Bride. I bet ya those guys could cook up a mean squirrel over the coals.

I'm not trying to justify my wanton shootings, I just wish I had someone to teach me skinning and cooking so that I could complete the circle and not look back with regret. But when I turned 18 the first thing me and a buddy did was go out and buy .22 Long Rifles. With it I bought a detailed picture book on cleaning and cooking wild game. Now we were on to something. All those years of training were going to pay off in getting our own food, feeding ourselves like the wild men we so revered growing up.

It is truly a shame that squirrel meat has fallen from once-renowned to the status of 'Redneck' food. The 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking marked the first time in all those years that it failed to show how to skin one. L.L. Bean author Angus Cameron calls it "the most delicious of all small game meats."

"Squirrel has been written about rapturously for years and it has long been associated with elegant
dining as well as the simple food of the trapper and the nomad. Fortunately it is plentiful. Novels and books on the old South and on the trek westward abound with references to squirrel pies, squirrel stews, Brunswick stew and other dishes using this ever-present little animal. Squirrel is as typical of America as grouse is of Scotland."
-James Beard, James Beards American Cookery

In our Sugarbush here at the Martha Wagbo Farm and Education Center, we have UV resistant tubing connecting the trees that stays up year-round but is only used during sugaring season. That is a lot of time for the squirrels to do some serious damage. I don't blame them. I hate to admit it, but the first time I saw the plastic tubing connecting the trees was when I was walking through an "experimental forest" owned by a university known for GMO research and development. We thought for sure they were doing some kind of gene manipulation on these poor maples and my friend promptly unhooked them.
So the Friends of the Wagbo Sugarbush encourage me to hunt the Sugarbush in order to thin out these cunning saboteurs and I oblige.

The beautiful Fox Squirrel pictured above is probably the largest squirrel I've ever seen. When I first saw it running down the hill I thought it was a woodchuck! Big, older squirrels tend to be tough, so braising is a necessity. Here's what I did with him:

 After skinning and gutting, I kept it in salted water overnight. I then quartered him because he wouldn't fit in my crockpot. Boy, was he a fatty. Many game cookbooks insist you must remove a lot of the fat or else they will be too 'gamey.' I have found this is true with some animals, but not squirrel. 
I braised him for 6hrs on medium heat in a cup and a half of apple juice. I always try and save the liver which I gently fried and ate over buttered toast in the morning. Many believe that the liver collects too many dangerous toxins, and therefore leave it in the field. Sally Fallon, author of the classic cookbook Nourishing Traditions, says that this is a legitimate concern in store-bought liver, but the "nutritive value [of organic liver] outweighs the dangers of any toxins it contains. Not only does liver provide copper, zinc, iron and vitamins A and D in abundance, but it is also a rich source of antioxidants - substances that help your own liver remove toxic substances from the body."

Sweet -n- Nutty Squirrel Salad


After braising the squirrel, I pulled the meat from the bones. Then, I toasted some pecans and hazelnuts for 15 minutes at 375 degrees F. I gently broke them up and through them and the squirrel on top of fresh salad greens with raisins. Splashed a bit of red wine vinegar and olive oil over it. Presto.

The squirrel tasted a lot like dark turkey meat, but more rich-n-greasy from the ample amounts of fat. It was sweet from the slow cooking in apple juice. 

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