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.

 

Chicken Stew

chickent_stewUnlike beef stew, which I make from fresh cuts of beef, chicken stew is foremost a way of reclaiming and elevating leftover roast chicken.

There’s not much point in stewing chickens these days.  Old recipes like coq au vin are from a time when we actually let some of our birds grow old enough to be tough and require stewing to tenderize.  Basically all of the chickens that we eat now are less than two months old, so their meat is extremely tender.  Stewing these birds only dries them out.

However, if you happen to have leftover roast chicken, shredding the meat and coating it in the sauce of a stew returns some moisture and savour to the meat.

In other words I consider this a great secondary preparation.  Roast a chicken for Sunday dinner, make stock from its bones on Monday, have chicken salad sandwiches on Tuesday, and chicken stew on Wednesday.

Obviously the exact vegetables should change with the seasons.  Below is an example of a late summer version using corn, bell peppers, zucchini, and potato.

 

Chicken Stew

Ingredients

  • 75 g unsalted butter
  • 200 g onion, 3/4″ chunks
  • 20 g garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 175 g carrot, 3/4″ chunks
  • 100 g celery, 3/4″ chunks
  • 60 mL dry cider or white wine
  • 150 g red bell pepper, 3/4″ chunks
  • 500 g Yukon gold potato, 3/4″ chunks
  • 90 g corn kernels
  • 1 L good chicken stock (approximately)
  • 250 g zucchini, 3/4″ chunks
  • 400 g chicken, shredded or cut into 3/4″ chunks
  • 120 mL chopped herbs, ideally a mixture of parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • kosher salt to taste
  • black pepper to taste

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Sweat the onion, garlic, paprika, and oregano in the butter until the onions are starting to turn translucent.
  2. Add the cider or white wine and reduce by 2/3.
  3. Add the carrot, celery, bell pepper, potato, and corn.  Add chicken stock until the vegetables are just, just covered.
  4. Simmer very gently until the vegetables are tender.  The potatoes will take the longest.  Add the zucchini for the last 10 minutes.
  5. Remove 500 mL of the stew and blitz into a smooth purée in a blender.  Add the purée back into the the sew.
  6. Add the chicken, fresh herbs, and vinegar.  Taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired.

Yield: about 2 L of chicken stew

Chicken Wings

Chicken wings straight out the fryer.Buying whole animals forces you to eat their various components in rigid proportion.

For instance, if you go out on a Wednesday and eat two dozen chicken wings, you have eaten the upper appendages of six chickens.  If you had to purchase those chickens as whole birds, you would then be stuck with a dozen breasts and a dozen legs that you would need to consume before you ever ate wings again.

All this to say I don’t prepare chicken wings at home very much.  But I love them, and sometimes I’ll squirrel away the wings from my chickens, accumulating them over several months, until I have enough to justify preparing them bar-style.

Anatomy of a Chicken Wing.  If you were confused by the statement above that each bird yields four wings, this is because we divide each of the bird’s wings in two: the first segment, closest to the breast of the chicken, is the drumette; the second, farther from the body, is the wingette.  These are the two types of meat that you get when you order wings at a bar.  The drumette looks like a little drumstick.  It has one bone through the centre, and the meat is on the pale, lean side.  The wingette has two slender bones arching within, and the meat is a bit darker, and for my money, juicier.

There is actually a third section of the chicken wing, the wing tip.  This is always removed in western restaurants, but is usually left attached to the wingette in Korean and Japanese restaurants.  If you think that the best part of the chicken wing is the crispy, tacky, saucy crust, you should consider finding wings with the wingtip still attached, as you’ll increase your crust-to-meat ratio.

Cooking Method.  Bar wings are made just like fried chicken: the meat is marinated, then dredged with flour and deep fried in oil.

Sauces.  Most chicken wings are then coated with sauce while they are fresh out of the fryer.

“What about salt and pepper wings?  They don’t have sauce on them.”

I’m going to pretend you didn’t just bring up salt and pepper wings.

Un-sauced wings are fine.  I like plain fried chicken as much as the next guy, but sauce is what makes chicken wings.  At the bar you can smell when the group three tables over gets their platter of wings because the air is redolent of the chili and vinegar in the sauce.  That’s what I like about wings.

My two favourite sauce flavours are “hot” and honey garlic.  You can make a fantastic honey garlic drizzle at home.  Just heat honey in a small pot, then add garlic grated fine with a microplane, some dried herbs like thyme and savoury, and a splash of cider vinegar.

Dipping Sauce.  Wings are often served with a ranch-type dipping sauce.  You take your saucy wing and dip it in yet another sauce.  It doesn’t make sense.  It shouldn’t be good, but it is.  A simple dipping sauce can be made at home by combining mayonnaise and sour cream, then flavouring with garlic and herbs.

The perfunctory celery and carrots seem like a clumsy way to add some vegetables to the meal, but they, too, are perfect.  A cool crunch between firey heat.

A plate of chicken wings, honey garlic and hot

Jackrabbits

A hare hanging out in my backyard, waiting for my fruit shrubs to become vulnerable.I live in McKernan, a neighbourhood in south Edmonton.  Our most common fauna are magpies, sparrows, squirrels, and jackrabbits.  There are jackrabbits everywhere.

Specifically, these are white-tailed jackrabbits, which aren’t rabbits at all, but hares.  Hares are larger than rabbits.  They have longer hind legs, and longer ears with black markings.  Hares live above ground, while rabbits make burrows beneath.  Hares change colour with the seasons; rabbits don’t.  Male hares are called jacks, females jills, and babies leverets.

One last charming tidbit on jackrabbits: they are named because their long ears reminded someone of a jackass.

I learned all of that from this National Geographic post.

As far as I can tell, jackrabbits love neighbourhoods like McKernan and Garneau.  There are very few threats here.  Their main predator is probably motor vehicles, but jackrabbits are so spry I can’t imagine this is much of a worry to them.  The coyotes that venture up from the river valley are probably a distant second.  (This is entirely speculation…)

From observation I can tell you that jackrabbits prefer to eat greens, like grass, clover ,and dandelions (which I can supply them in abundance).  They also eat certain leafy items in our vegetable patch, like Swiss Chard.  This isn’t much of a concern to me, but when it comes to our baby fruit and nut trees, jackrabbits are downright destructive pests.

We have sour cherries, plums, apples, and hazelnuts planted in our yard.  They were all procured as saplings only a few inches high from the University of Saskatchewan fruit program.  They were planted in the summer, and for a few months they lived peaceably amongst the hares.

Then came fall, and all the green growth in our lawn turned dun.  With this the jackrabbits turned their brown, nervous eyes to the baby fruit trees.  The slender specimens were eaten back to ground level.  The larger apple tree had its bark stripped from the lowest levels of the trunk.  The deep snow of winter protected the plants for a while, but come spring, when the snow had left but there wasn’t yet green growth, the devastation continued.

Thankfully, all of the plants, even the ones that were eaten down  to the roots, grew back and are doing fine.  They breed ’em strong at the U of S.

To keep the jackrabbits at bay we constructed cages.  We drove some sturdy sticks into the ground around the plants, wrapped chicken wire in a protective loop, and fastened it with tie-wraps.

A wire cage protecting a young plum tree from jackrabbits

 

I’ve eaten plenty of rabbit, but never hare.  Hares don’t do well in captivity; to my knowledge they aren’t farmed like rabbits.

But there are many classic recipes for wild hare.  I think of these recipes often when I look out my window and see a jackrabbit squatted in a patch of clover in my yard.

Eating an animal that roams a large city seems like a bad idea at first.  Who knows where it’s been or what it’s eaten?  But what if I watch the animal sit in my yard, day after day, eating the exact same dandelions that I sometimes make into salad?

Idea for a springtime dish: broad noodles with a sauce of egg yolk, mixed with shredded leg of hare and wilted dandelion greens.

Towards a Theory of Fried Chicken

Fried chicken cooling an a rack.Usually I don’t post about something til I’m confident I have a best practice down pat.  I have to say that there’s one important point in my fried chicken technique that I am waffling on: I’m torn between the winning flavour of buttermilk-brined chicken, and the superior texture of dry-rubbed chicken.

The Chicken.  Frying chicken is a bit of a balancing act: you want the crust to develop the perfect, deep golden brown at the very instant the meat reaches the proper temperature.  If you were to take an entire leg from a large chicken and deep fry it, the exterior would get much too dark by the time the meat cooked through.[1]

For this reason I like using smaller birds, somewhere around four pounds, and I cut them in the classic 8-cut style.

Brining vs. Dry-Rubbing.  Once the bird has been cut there are two mains methods for marinating it.  The first way that I learned is to submerge the chicken in buttermilk overnight.  If given sufficient time, the tangy flavour of the buttermilk penetrates the flesh.  It also supposedly tenderizes the meat, I think because of its acidity.  The next day the chicken is dredged in flour and fried.

Many chefs expound the dry-rubbing method, in which the chicken is set out on a wire rack, sprinkled with salt and spices, and left uncovered in the fridge overnight.  The salt works its way into the meat, and exposure to the dry, circulating air of the fridge supposedly makes for better skin.  The next day the chicken is dipped in buttermilk and dredged in flour before frying.

This past weekend I tried these two methods side by side.

Dredging.  I dredge in flour spiked with a bit of paprika and dried herb.  I add only a tiny bit of salt to the flour because the brining and seasoning methods above have already made the chicken plenty salty.

Dredging should be done moments before dropping the chicken in the oil.  Shake excess flour from the surface.

Frying.  As always I will emphasize that you don’t need a deep-fryer to deep fry at home.  Any straight-sided, heavy-bottomed pot or pan will do.

Fried chicken is cooked at a relatively low temperature.  I heat the oil to 320°F.  The cold chicken actually drops the oil temperature to 275°F or lower, and it will take several minutes to recover.  Higher temperatures will darken the exterior before the meat cooks.

Even if the chicken is entirely covered in oil I flip all the pieces half way through as the downward-facing sides tend to brown faster.

Cooking takes roughly 15 minutes, depending of course on the size of your chicken bits.  I use a temperature probe and pull all the breast meat at 70°C and all the leg meat at 80°C.

The Results: Buttermilk Brine v. Spice Rub

Some succinct tasting notes.

Buttermilk-brined chicken.  Dark amber colour, actually a bit too dark.  Crust not perfectly cohesive? Tangy, well-seasoned throughout.

Spice-rubbed chicken.  Beautiful golden brown.  Well-seasoned but perhaps not as thoroughly penetrated with salt?  To me no detectable buttermilk tang, even with the dip before dredging.

No discernible difference in moisture content between the two styles.

They were both delicious, and I would be happy to serve and eat either.  The visual difference was striking.  Temperature was carefully controlled, so I figure that the extra milk sugars present in the buttermilk-brined chicken burnt.  Also I think that the extra moisture on the brined chicken caused some of the dredging to slide off during frying.

More work is required obviously.  Below is my dinner plate.  The drumstick in the background is the spice-rubbed chicken.  The thigh in the foreground the buttermilk version.  Accompanied by garlic mash potatoes and green salad.

A plate of fried chicken, buttermilk mash potatoes, and green salad

 

1. If you do find a piece of chicken getting too dark well before the meat is properly cooked, you can take the chicken out of the oil and put it on a wire rack on a sheet pan and hold it in a 250°F oven.  The meat will continue to cook and the browning reaction at the surface will slow considerably.

 

Preßwurst

Presswurst at an Austrian Heuriger.Preßwurst, transliterated “presswurst” and pronounced “PRESS-voorst,” is Austrian headcheese.

Headcheese is a polarizing preparation with a terrible name, but I think borrowing a trick from Preßwurst can make headcheese much more palatable to North Americans.

Both dishes are made from pork head and trotter.  The meat is brine-cured so it is rosy pink, then simmered until tender. The meat is strained, shredded, and packed into a mold with some of the gelatin-rich cooking liquid, which firms into aspic when chilled.  Full details on the procedure can be found in this post.

The most important way in which Austrian Preßwurst differs from North American headcheese is that after being packed into the mold, a heavy weight is rested on the shredded meat and aspic.  This compacts the meat and forces excess aspic from the mold, making for a dense, cohesive texture.  Most North American’s objection (or revulsion) to headcheese is the jelly component.  When the terrine is pressed this way, there is no discernible jelly; the gelatin is simply an adhesive that binds the various elements together.

Besides changing the appearance and mouthfeel of the dish, the properly weighted Preßwurst is cohesive enough that it can be sliced very thin, like ham.

To replicate the Austrian version I use a commercial kitchen container called a 1/3 plastic insert as my mold.  Once the meat and aspic are packed inside I make a 3 kg weight by adding 3 L of cold water to a second plastic insert that rests on top of the first.  The terrine should be refrigerated for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours.

I realize now, looking at the photo below, that my mixture has a lot more fat than the true Austrian version above.

homemade_presswurst

 

Schmalzfleisch

Mixing cured meat and lard to make SchmalzfleischSchmalzfleisch is one of the staple Aufstriche (spreads) at an Austrian Heuriger.  If that sentence made absolutely no sense to you, read this post before proceeding.

Schmalzfleisch literally means “fat-meat”.  It is one of several dishes Austrians have developed to use up irregular scraps of cured meat, like the very end of a ham that can’t quite be passed through the meat slicer.

The process for making Schmalzfleisch is simple: pieces of cured meat are ground, then mixed with rendered lard to form a cohesive paste that can be spread on bread.  Traditionally cured meat and fat are the only two ingredients.  I like to add a touch of mustard for balancing acidity.

If you grew up in eastern Canada and spent any time in a church basement, you’re probably familiar with minced ham.  Schmalzfleisch is similar to minced ham, only it is bound with lard instead of mayonnaise.

 

Schmalzfleisch

Master Ratio – 3:1 ground cured meat, lard

Ingredients

  • 240 g leftover charcuterie (see Note below)
  • 80 g warm lard
  • 8 g mustard

Procedure

  1. Cube the charcuterie and grind once through a 1/4″ plate.  Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer.
  2. Add the warm lard and mustard to the bowl and mix briefly with the paddle attachment, until the ingredients are combined and the ground charcuterie has formed a spread.
  3. Transfer to serving dish, garnish with chives.  Consume on light rye bread.

Note:  “Ham-type” charcuterie, ie. pork that has been brine-cured and cooked, works best.  A small amount of air-dried meat like salami can be used, but not more than 1/4 of the total weight.  Fresh (un-cured) cooked meat like pork chops and roast beef give the mixture a mushy texture and should be used sparingly.

Yield: 320 g schmalzfleisch

A ramekin of Schmalzfleisch

Schweinsbraten – The Ultimate Ham

Schweinsbraten literally means “roasted pork”.  If you order it in an Austrian restaurant, you will get a slice of greyish meat, usually but not always from the shoulder of the animal.  If you order it in an Austrian Heuriger, you will get something a bit different.

Thinly sliced SchweinsbratenAll the food at a Heuriger is served cold, and meat is typically cured.  Schweinsbraten at a Heuriger is cured, like ham.  What makes this particular ham so special is the cut of meat it is made from: the Schopf.

The Schopf extends forward from the loin of the pig, into the shoulder primal.  It has the same round cross-section as the loin, only it also has a very healthy amount of fat marbled throughout.  For more specifics on where exactly this cut of meat is on the animal, and how to remove it, see this post.

To make Schweinsbraten, the Schopf is brined like any other ham.  Once cured, it can be slow-roasted.  If the meat will be sliced thin and served cold, it only needs to be roasted to 65°C.  If you would like to slice the meat thicker and serve it like baked ham, it will need to be roasted or braised up to 80°C to tenderize.

Braised Schweinsbrated with Serviettenknödel and sauerkraut

I suggest this cut as a superior alternative to pork leg for making ham.  When I first started cutting pork I used most of the shoulder for sausages and other ground applications, reserving the leg for hams and roasts.  But the shoulder makes such amazing hams, braises, and roasts, that increasingly I am using lean leg meat in conjunction with fatback for sausage and ground.

Blunz’n – Austrian Blood Sausage

A healthy portion of Blunz'n at an Austrian heurigerWhen I first had Blunz’n at a tavern in Austria I had a very narrow idea of what blood sausage was.  Most of the blood sausage I had eaten before this moment I had made myself, following recipes in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie and the Au Pied de Cochon cookbook.  These versions are simply pork blood studded with cubes of pork fat and onion.  The Austrian Blunz’n before me was radically different: it was soft and moist, but closer in texture to a dumpling then boudin noir, and it was burgundy, not black.

Before I left Austria I got a Blunz’n recipe from one of my chaperones.  I read through the recipe and thought there must have been some kind of miscommunication, as the ingredients list include “cracklings” and “pig head”.

Since then I have done a bit of reading, and Blunz’n is actually one incarnation of a broad style of blood sausages, variously called pressack, boudin, and so on.  What is distinctive about this style is the inclusion of cooked meat and skin, usually from the head and trotters of the pig, that are ground or pulled and mixed into the sausage filling.  The meat adds flavour and texture, and the skin a healthy dose of gelatin that helps to bind the interior.  This is the “crackling” that was in my recipe that I found so confusing: not the crispy pig skin that North Americans are familiar with, but soft, poached pig skin.

While the meat and skin from the head are traditional, truthfully any fatty, slow-cooked meat can be used.  One of the best blood sausages I ever had was made from leftover corned beef and beef blood.

Some manner of starch is added to the meat and skin, the exact ingredients varying widely from region to region and from house to house.  Whole grains like barley and buckwheat are common.  I was told that in Hungary they use rice.  Where I was staying, in the grenzland between Lower Austria and Styria, they use stale bread.

Everything is combined and run through a grinder.  The nexus of protein and starch, a strange but comforting unity of meat and dumpling.

 

Blunz’n – Austrian Blood Sausage – The Skeleton of a Recipe

  • 1 part minced, sauteed onion
  • 1 part bread
  • 1 part pork stock or milk
  • 3 parts cooked, chilled meat and skin
  • 1 part pork blood
  • salt and spices to taste

General Procedure

  1. Soak the bread in the stock or milk.
  2. Combine the soaked bread, onion, meat and skin and grind through a 1/4″ plate.
  3. Stir in blood to achieve a mashed potato consistency.
  4. Stuff the mixture into a broad casing (2-3″ in diameter) and poach gently to an internal temperature about 72°C.
  5. Let chill overnight before cutting.

Homemade blunz'n, Austrian blood sausage

 

 

Leberkäse

Loaves of Leberkäse Leberkäse is an emulsified sausage mixture that is shaped into a block, baked, and sliced to order.  Picture hot dog filling, only instead of stuffed into casings it’s packed into a loaf pan.

Yes: a hot dog terrine.

For the record the name literally means “liver cheese,” but usually contains neither liver nor cheese.  There is, however, a preparation called Käseleberkäse, which is Leberkäse studded with cubes of cheese in the style of a Käsekrainer.

Where would you eat Leberkäse?  Austria and Bavaria, for starters.  More specifically sausage stands, beer gardens, grocery stores, and any other place that might hot-hold food for quick service.  The loaves are baked till they have a brown, crusty top, then kept under a heat lamp until ordered, at which time a half inch slab is sliced from the end.  Leberkäse is commonly served in a kaiser roll with mustard or mayonnaise.

I didn’t return from Austria with an authentic Leberkäse recipe, but the flavour and texture of the dish reminded me so much of North American hot dogs that I have developed my own formula from a standard hot dog recipe.  The main departure is that I substitute a small amount of the beef shortrib with pork shoulder, and add a healthy dose of sautéed onion to the mix.  And of course it’s baked as a loaf.

For meals at home I slice slabs from the baked, chilled loaf, then sear them on a griddle and eat them on a crusty kaisersemmel.  Think fried baloney sandwiches.

leberkaese_plate.JPG

 

Leberkäse

Ingredient Percent (%) for 5 kg (g)  
beef shortrib 66.7 3335
pork shoulder 33.3 1665
kosher salt 1.20 60
curing salt 0.578 29
water 20.0 1000
mustard powder 0.711 36
paprika 0.489 24
coriander 0.222 11
garlic, minced 1.422 71
black pepper 0.178 9
corn syrup 2.400 120
sautéed onion 10.0 500

Procedure

  1. Combine the beef, pork, kosher salt, curing salt, and water.  Mix briefly, then cover tightly and let stand in the fridge for 48 hours.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients.  Chill thoroughly and grind through a 1/4″ plate.  (See this post for details on grinding technique.  Properly chilling the meat is especially important for emulsified sausages such as Leberkase.)
  3. Chill thoroughly and grind through a 1/4″ plate for a second time.
  4. Chill thoroughly and blitz in a food processor in small batches until mixture is a uniform paste.
  5. Line loaf pans with parchment.  Bring a pot of water to the boil.
  6. Pack the meat paste into the loaf pans.  Cover with foil.  Cook in a water bath until an internal temperature of 150°F is reached.