Squirrel

A squirrelLast week I went on a hunting trip with Kevin, and I shot and killed my first animal.  It was a squirrel.

I know: that’s not very impressive.  I’m sure most boys who grow up in the country have done this by age ten.  And I know: you think squirrel is something that only hillbillies or starving back-country adventurers eat.  Actually it’s pretty tasty.

Once skinned, gutted, and cleaned, the squirrel carcass looked very much like a tiny rabbit.  The meat was shockingly dark.  I thought that a small critter with such rapid, twitching movements would have light meat.

The cleaned carcass:

The cleaned squirrel carcass.

I divided the squirrel that same way I would a rabbit: into forequarters, a saddle, and hindquarters.

The squirrel carcass divided into quarters and saddle.

I made a simple stew.  I had a sausage on hand, so I removed the casing and cooked the meat in the pot to get some of the fat.  I seared the squirrel in that sausage fat, then added onion and garlic and sautéed briefly.  I poured in some leftover Labrador tea, brought it to a boil, then added wild rice.  The stew was gently simmered over the fire until the wild rice had popped and the squirrel was tender.  Mid-way through I added some potato.  I finished the stew by wilting foraged dandelion.

Squirrel stew in a pot over the fire.

So, how did baby’s first squirrel dish taste?  It was good.  The squirrel meat itself reminded me of spruce grouse more than anything else.

 

Pheasant Pot Pie

Hanging pheasantsLast November we started getting game birds, chiefly grouse and pheasant, from Mr. McLarney, who hunts them with his English pointer.  In exchange for the wild poultry, I provide Mrs. McLarney with a recipe for their preparation.

Cooking grouse and pheasant is fairly new to me, and I’m still figuring out the whole hanging-plucking-gutting-cooking thing.

From the cook’s perspective, the ideal game bird (or rabbit) is shot cleanly in the head.  That way there’s no shot hidden in the meat.  You get a higher yield, and diners won’t unwittingly bite down on a piece of lead.  I have very little experience with guns, but apparently getting that head shot is relatively easy when the slow-witted bird is standing on the ground.  Mr. McLarney’s birds are flushed from the grass and shot in flight, which makes it next to impossible to get a clean headshot.  The hard fall to the ground often breaks some of the bones and causes bleeding.  The damaged flesh has to be cut away before cooking.

I’m very interested in hanging the birds, which is supposed to make the meat more tender and flavourful, but the gunshot wounds and bruises that result from the flushing-method make me hesitant.

My bewilderment continues once the birds are in my kitchen.  Purists insist on dry-plucking game birds in order to preserve the skin, which is considered a gastonomic delight.  I’ve tried this a couple times now, and have found the skin of both grouse and pheasant to be inedibly rubbery.

As far as cooking, most sources, including Charlie Trotter’s book Meat and Game, say that the birds can be roasted to just-doneness and yield moist, tender flesh.  I haven’t had any luck with dry-heat methods.  My birds have all required a bit of stewing or braising, though maybe only 45 to 60 minutes.

In that vein, the most successful dish this year was pheasant pot pie.  Fergus Henderson has popularized the combination of pheasant and pig trotter.  The gelatin produced by cooking out the trotter goes a long way to masking any dryness in the pheasant.  In the recipe below, the procedure is adapted from Henderson.

 

Pheasant Pot Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 pig trotter
  • 1 L stock, either pheasant, chicken, or pork
  • 1 pheasant, skinned and jointed
  • 1/2 white onion, small dice
  • 1 carrot, peeled, small dice
  • 1 rib celery, small dice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry apple cider
  • 1/2 cup cooked wild rice
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 small bundle sage
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 12 oz of your favourite flaky pie dough

Procedure

For the filling:

  1. Season the trotter and pheasant pieces with salt and pepper.  In a braising pot, sear the meat over high heat until thoroughly browned.  Remove from the pot and reserve.  Lower the heat to medium-low.
  2. In the same pot, sweat the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic until translucent.  Do not brown the vegetables.  Remove from the pot and reserve.
  3. Deglaze the pot with the apple cider and reduce the liquid by 3/4.  Add the stock and bring to a boil.  Add the trotter and simmer until very tender, about 2 hours.
  4. Add the jointed, browned pheasant to the pot.  Return the stock to a boil and simmer until the pheasant is cooked through, roughly 15 minutes.  Remove the trotter and pheasant from the pot.
  5. Add the cooked vegetables to the pot and simmer gently for 30 minutes.  In the mean time, pull the meat from the trotter and pheasant (be sure that there are not bones left in the meat!)  Pull or chop the meat into large pieces.
  6. Add the herbs to the pot.  Simmer for 15 minutes, then remove the herbs and discard.  Add the chopped meat and wild rice to the pot.
  7. In a separate pan, melt the butter.  Once it is foaming, add the flour.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the flour is just starting to colour and becomes very aromatic, about 10 minutes.  This is the roux.
  8. Stir the roux into the other ingredients.  Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook until the mixture thickens.  Add the cream.  Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  9. At this point the filling can be chilled and kept in the fridge for a few days.

To serve:

  1. Spoon the filling into an oven-proof ceramic dish.  This can be one casserole, or several individual ramekins.  Roll out the pie dough to 1/8″ thickness.  Press the pie dough over the filling.  Cut a few holes in the dough to vent the filling.  Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes, then at 350°F until the crust is golden to amber, about another 40 minutes.
  2. Let the pie rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Pheasant pot pie

 

Apple-Braised Grouse

Step One: Acquire Grouse

A friend’s father, Mr. McLarney, hunts game birds with his English pointer. I had never, not once, paused to consider the signficance of common canine descriptors like pointer, setter, and retriever, until Mr. McLarney’s hunts were explained to me. The dog walks a ways in front of him, and when it comes upon a bird it stops and “points”: it aims its snout at the prey. Mr. McLarney moves within range and readies his gun, then makes a call to the pointer. At the signal, the dog scares the bird into flight, so that Mr. McLarney can pull it from the sky with his shotgun.[1]

Mr. McLarney trained his pointer in his backyard with a fishing rod and a feather. I have a hard time imagining what those sessions might have looked like.

This fall I received two grouse from the McLarneys. They had been shot the day previous. The condition of receiving the birds was that I provide the McLarneys with a recipe. Apparently Mr. McLarney is such a skilled hunter that Mrs. McLarney has run out of ways to prepare the birds.

Step Two: Clean Grouse

The most common way to clean game birds is to remove the skin, which takes all the feathers with it. I spread the feathers on the breast to expose the skin, which on this bird was paper thin and easily torn.

The breast and ruptured crop of a grousePulling the skin and feathers away from the breast, I had my first glimpse of the crop, which is a pouch at the base of the throat that moistens the food before it is sent to the stomach and gizzard. As I removed the skin, I broke the wall of the crop, exposing a handful of bugs, berries, and leaves that released a pungent aroma into my kitchen. This discovery affected me. Not because it was grotesque, but because later, when eating the meat, I could taste that same sourness I smelled in the crop. The picture at left could be titled, “Why game meat tastes different than farmed meat.”

The next step was gutting, which was easier than I anticipated. I cut around the anus, then slid my fingers through the incision and into the chest cavity. The organs separated easily from the walls, and came out in a fairly uniform piece.

Step Three: Cook

One of the main reasons I was excited to receive the grouse was because this would be one of the few times in my life that I would get to cook an old bird.

Let me explain.

Almost every chicken in the grocery store was killed about one month after it hatched. Young animals have tender flesh, and many of their bones and joints are still made of flexible cartilage. Next time you are breaking down a chicken, observe how the keel bone (sternum) is still pliable and lustrous, almost like plastic.

Older birds have much tougher flesh, their bones are solid, and their joints have little cartilage. These birds need long cooking and moist heat. Chances are you will never find an old bird in a grocery store, which is unfortunate, because we have inherited recipes, like coq au vin, that depend on them. If you were to try a traditional recipe for coq au vin with a young chicken, the lengthy braising would leave you with mushy meat.

I am very grateful to the McLarneys. This was my first experience plucking and gutting birds, and my first taste of wild poultry (and buckshot). As promised here is a recipe that I think will suite Mr. McLarney’s palate. It is based on faisan à la normande, or “Norman pheasant,” the word “Norman” simply indicating that there are apples in the dish.

Mrs. McLarney’s Apple-Braised Grouse (or Pheasant)

Ingredients

  • a few thick slices of bacon, cut into small pieces
  • half an onion, diced
  • a grouse (or pheasant): two breasts and two legs
  • half a cup of white wine or cider
  • three apples, peeled, cored and quartered
  • two cups stock (ideally made from the bird you are cooking, but chicken stock would work fine)

Process

  • Sweat bacon pieces until they are lightly browned and all their fat has rendered into the pot. Remove the pieces of bacon from the pot.
  • Crank the heat and deeply brown the grouse. Remove the grouse from the pot.
  • Lower the heat and sweat the onion in the same pot until translucent.
  • Deglaze the pot with white wine or cider.
  • Return the bacon and grouse to the pot. Add the apples.
  • Add the stock and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer.
  • Cover the pot and simmer until the grouse is tender, maybe two hours. The apples should break down into a sauce that can be served with the bird.

A plate of apple-braised grouse

1. After learning that pointers point and setters set, I spent the next hour looking up the etymology of every breed of dog I could think of, just to make sure there wasn’t an easily understood meaning to their name that I was missing. “Poodle” is derived from the German word “pudeln,” meaning “to splash in water,” which makes sense, as poodles were originally bred as retrievers for hunting water fowl. Shitzu is mandarin for “Lion Dog,” as apparently those pups were bred to resemble the lions in traditional Chinese art.
Addendum: Apples

Ask, and it shall be given you

-Matthew 7:7, also Kevin Kossowan

A box of apples from a neighbour's treeWe received the grouse at the height of apple season, so the apple-braise was a no-brainer.

I just wanted to mention that Lisa and I don’t have our own apple tree, but this year we asked some tree-owning acquaintances if we could partake in their bounty. Overwhelmed with deteriorating fruit, they happily obliged us, as you can see at left.

This fall Kevin drew a lot of attention to the amount of fruit that grows in Edmonton, and I just wanted to corroborate his statement that, regardless of how much or how little you speak with your neighbours, they are probably eager to share their crop with you.

Civet – Stew Thickened with Blood

Civet of elk with morelsThis week I had the opportunity to cook with pig’s blood. There’s actually more classical applications for blood than you may think.

Fresh blood has a beautiful colour, similar to red wine, but with an opalescent sheen. When heated, the blood turns burgundy, then brown, and eventually black. It coagulates somewhere around 75°C, which makes it ideal for thickening liquids.

Civet: A Gateway Dish

If you’re at all squeamish about cooking with blood, this is probably a good dish to start with.

The two things that make a civet a civet are: one, that game is marinated in wine which is later used to braise the meat; and two, that the braising liquid is thickened with blood and used as a sauce. In some cases this is the blood of the animal you are cooking. Collecting the blood of true game animals is difficult because of how they’re killed, so pig’s blood often stands in as a substitute.

In this case I had some stewing meat from a calf elk that Kevin hunted. Here’s the basic procedure.

  • Marinate the meat in red wine (I used a Syrah) with sliced onions, carrots, garlic, bay, and black pepper.
  • Remove the meat and let it drip dry in a colander.
  • Cook bacon in a braising pot. Remove and reserve.
  • Brown the game meat in the bacon fat.
  • Return the bacon to the pot. Pour the marinating liquid (with sliced vegetables and aromatics) over the meat. Scrap the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to capture the delicious fond.
  • Cover and simmer until meat is tender, maybe two hours. I also added some reconstituted dried morels partway through the braising.
  • Separate the liquid from the meat and vegetables. Remove the bay leaf. Reduce the liquid to concentrate the flavours.
  • Use maybe two tablespoons of blood per cup of braising liquid. Temper the blood, then add to liquid. Heat while stirring until the sauce thickens. Be careful not to bring the liquid to a boil, as the blood will curdle and ruin the smooth texture of the sauce.
  • Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables.

The purplish brown of the finished dish is from the wine, though the cooked blood happens to have a similar colour.

The blood adds a very pleasing mineral note that works well with the flavour of the meat.

It’s also a dead-simple thickener to use. Even quicker than cornstarch or roux, as it doesn’t need to be cooked out. It brought my braising liquid to a nappé consistency in a few moments.

I don’t think I’ve used the word “nappé” on this blog before. Let me explain. “Nappé” (said “nap-EH”) is one of the those fantastic French cooking words that doesn’t have an acceptable substitute in English. Napper (also pronounced “nap-EH”) is the infinitive form of a verb meaning to coat evenly with a thin layer of sauce. When thickening a sauce, the most common way to judge consistency is to simply dip a spoon in the pot, remove, and observe how the sauce clings to the back. In the early liquid stages the sauce will simply slide away, perhaps leaving a few streaks behind. Once the sauce has thickened, it will cleave to the spoon and leave a perfectly even coating. This is a nappé. You should be able to run your finger across this coating and leave a clearly defined streak.