I have been working through my remaining game meats from last season, and I recently came upon a lone Western gray squirrel. Now most people would think, “ew!” and most hunters would think, “Ah, Hank’s leaving the bushy-tailed rat for last — not quite so tasty as venison or duck, eh?” Both thoughts would be very wrong. Nope, the truth is I was hoarding this squirrel.
Ironic, considering that all squirrels do is hoard. For a while I was waiting to shoot another one, because as large as Western grays are, they are still pretty much a single-serving critter. I shot this one as part of the Marvelous Mixed Bag hunt from last New Year’s Eve.
But the season ended, and with it the chance at another squirrel. So in the freezer it sat. I thought about making a hunter’s stew, but I really wanted to highlight the little beast and mixing it in with other meats would defeat that. Highlight squirrel meat? You bet. I have a thing about squirrel hunting. I wrote about it for the magazine Meatpaper recently, although the article itself is not online. The piece even got noticed by the Utne Reader, which I thought was kinda cool.
The article was about how for many who hunt the wily squirrel, squirrel hunting becomes part of their identity. I an no different. I know many hunters, but very few who deign to hunt Mr. Bushytail. He’s either too small, or too much like a rat (they are cousins, after all) or something only Those Other People (insert derogatory ethnic group here) eat. I would like to affiliate myself with Those Other People.
Squirrel hunting with a .22 rifle is exactly like deer hunting: You need to be just as stealthy and just as good a shot. Mind you I am talking about wild, forest squirrels, not those that scamper around at the Capitol or your backyard.
And squirrel meat is delicious. Squirrels can live a long time, up to 6 or 7 years, and as such can be deeply flavorful. The meat looks like rabbit, but is grayer. It has a far denser texture than rabbit, which rarely live more than a year. Squirrel also takes on flavors of what it eats — yes, you really can taste a nutty flavor in squirrels that live in a walnut grove.
Back to the lonely squirrel in my freezer. I finally decided to braise him slowly, because that’s the safest thing to do when you don’t know the age of a squirrel — young ones are fantastic fried like your favorite fried chicken recipe. But what sort of braise?
I immediately thought of a Spanish braise I’d made a few years back when I hunted squirrel in Minnesota. Squirrel Aurora, it is loosely based on a rabbit recipe in Penelope Casas’ Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain, a fine cookbook. The main flavors are almonds and green olives, both of which I had lying around. But with only one lonely squirrel I added fingerlings to bulk it up; it proved a good choice.
The dish was fantastic, although I brined the squirrel a bit too long so it was pretty salty. A rich sauce, a dense, flavorful meat, great with crusty bread. What’s not to love?
For those of you who hunt, I highly recommend you head up to the Sierras or wherever and bag a few bushytails to make this dish. You will not be disappointed. For those of you who don’t hunt, sadly you cannot buy squirrels. But you can try this recipe with domestic rabbit, or with chicken thighs and legs. Still, the squirrel makes it in my mind. But then I have a thing about squirrels.