Verjus & Sumac Squirrel

 
 
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Wade and I have been on a wild game diet for a few years now. It started as a challenge- we were new to hunting and fishing, and we wanted to see if we’d be able to sustain our protein intake solely with meat we’d bring home ourselves. If we didn’t have enough, we’d just go without. We haven’t looked back.

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At first, the challenge was simply bringing home enough. Now, a few years in, the challenge is variety. What’s in our freezer changes pretty dramatically year to year and season to season, but generally, venison or goose breasts are our most-consumed red meats, and snakehead fills out most of our seafood intake. That leaves a lot of gaps, especially for white meats like poultry and pork. We don’t live in an area with abundant, natural upland hunting (canned hunts are always available, but ick) and have no wild pigs to speak of. That leaves turkey and squirrel.

And man, do we go after some squirrels. Not all that successfully, honestly, but squirrel hunting is nothing if not humbling. After a few weeks of being tormented by them kicking up a racket while we’re deer hunting, we’ll usually decide that a squirrel hunt is in order. These are what we call “negative calorie” hunts. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but the same squirrel that’s barking in your face when you’re deer hunting is in the next county by the time you pick up a .22 or shotgun. After a lot of sitting and walking and sitting and walking, we’ll usually come home with a handful of squirrels, enough for a meal, but seldom enough to really store up on for the year. Which is what makes squirrel such a treat.

The most challenging part of eating squirrel (other than hunting them) is getting it tender and avoiding all the tiny little bones. An older, tougher squirrel really benefits from a braise, but by the time the meat is tender, it’s fallen off the bone, and that means squirrel bone shrapnel scattered through the stew. Or you can go to the trouble of de-boning your squirrel before you cook it, which, more power to you.

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In my opinion, the absolute best way to cook a tough old squirrel is to confit it in a sous-vide bath. You get the low-and-slow heat that will cook the meat until it’s melty and tender, but the bag helps hold everything together so the small bones don’t fall out while it’s cooking. This way, you can pull it out of the bag, shred the meat from the bone if you want, and use it in all sorts of recipes.

For this dish, bright, citrusy sumac and verjus lighten up a silky squirrel confit. You can either broil or grill the legs after you’re done with the sous-vide- a little bit of smoky flavor really kicks up the complexity here. It’s perfect with a cucumber salad and some rice for a light, refreshing lunch.

 
 

Verjus & Sumac Squirrel

A note on ingredients- sumac and verjus are not all that common on pantry shelves, but are usually available in decent Middle Eastern grocery stores. You can also source these ingredients yourself if you’re a resourceful forager- sumac berries are abundant in the late summer, and you can dry them for use year-round. Verjus is made from the juice of unripe grapes- Hank Shaw has a wonderful article on making your own.


Prep time: 15 minutes active, 24 hours inactive

Serves: 2

 


Ingredients

2 squirrels, whole or quartered

2 tbsp duck fat

Marinade:

½ c verjus

1 small onion, diced fine and pulverized with flat side of knife or food processor

1 tsp sumac berry, ground



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Method:

Mix ingredients and marinade squirrel for 3-6 hours. Remove from marinade and shake off excess. Season with salt and pepper, place in vacuum bag with duck fat and seal. Place in sous vide bath set at 167F for 16 hours.

Pull from water bath and remove squirrels gently, place on grill or under broiler to crisp up skin. Serve with cucumber salad, extra virgin olive oil, and an ice cold vinho verde.

 

Cucumber salad

Ingredients

½ english cucumber, seeded, diced

1 medium shallot, sliced thin

1 tsp sumac berry, ground

Salt

Extra virgin olive oil

Method


Mix cucumber, shallot, and sumac berry with a pinch or two of salt and a drizzle of olive oil.