Chicken of the Tree


    I'd like to talk to you about one of my favorite game animals, the Eastern gray squirrel. Often maligned, known to many as tree rats, the squirrel does not have a good reputation to the masses as table fare. I myself am guilty of having raised my nose at the idea of eating squirrel, that is, until I actually tried it. I took my first squirrel in New Jersey last year while bow hunting for deer, and since that first meal of tree-chicken, I have salivated every time I have seen the creature in the wild. 
   
    If you're reeling in disgust right now about the idea of eating squirrel, let me walk you through a few things. Firstly, let's make one very clear distinction: city squirrels and rural squirrels are two very different animals. Sure, genetically, in both cases we are looking at Sciurus carolinesnsis, but practically speaking, they are very different critters. A major distinction, and culinarily the most important one, is their different diets. While city squirrels will scavenge just about anything edible, rural squirrels eat a diet consisting predominately of acorns. While I don't claim to know the science of why, I do know that a diet of acorns does magical things to the meat of a given animal. Let's look to one of my favorite delicacies, Jamón Ibérico. The pigs that become Jamón Ibérico, or Iberico ham, are finished for the last month of their lives solely on an acorn diet. This is the main cause for their delicious, complex, semi-sweet and very distinguished flavor. Rural squirrels live their entire lives on a diet of mostly acorns, and their meat is accordingly delicious.   

    Another major difference  is that city dwelling squirrels (at least in New York) do not fear humans. This might lead one to believe that in the forest, these tree-ninjas would be easy to hunt. The polar opposite is true. Rural dwelling squirrels are incredibly weary of humans, as we are just another creature in a long line of beings that want to eat them. They are difficult to hunt. They take just as much stealth and skill to hunt as do deer.  While their sheer numbers in many places increase your odds of a successful harvest should you pursue them, they are a far cry from a guarantee.  It takes real skill to kill a smart squirrel in the woods. A meal of squirrel is always well-earned.

    Something else I'd like to also point out is that one of the most prominent figures of 20th Century American Cuisine, James Beard, was a huge fan of eating squirrels. Every cookbook he ever authored included squirrel recipes. To win a James Beard award is today one of the highest honors in the world of culinary arts. If James Beard thought so highly of squirrels, then they simply must be good to eat. End of story.

    I've only cooked squirrel one way, by braising them in apple cider for several hours with carrot, onion, and tarragon according to a recipe by chef Ian Knauer that I came across in Bon Appetit.  From everything I've read about cooking squirrel, low and slow is the way to cook them, as the meat can be incredibly tough with a hot and fast cooking method. But when braised, the meat becomes fall-off-the-bone tender, and chef Knauer's recipe makes for an incredibly flavorful dish that highlights the flavors of Fall, the season when squirrels can be hunted in most of North America.    

    While bear hunting last weekend in New Hampshire with my dad, I took advantage of the afternoon lull to go after some squirrels with my shotgun, Rosie. I was able to harvest two for us for dinner. They were delicious. It was the first of hopefully many meals of squirrel for this season. If you've never tried squirrel, I cannot recommend it enough.  I'm planning on pursuing them as often as possible this season, so chances are good that at any given time I'll have a few in my freezer, and if you'd like to try it, give me a shout. You bring the wine, I'll braise the squirrels.






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