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Buttermilk Fried Squirrel

Buttermilk Fried Squirrel

I know people who think squirrel is the best meat in the woods. I happen to agree with them. Squirrel meat dances the fine line between the leaner white meat you find in rabbit or chicken, and the darker meat you find in dove or hare. What makes it unique is more than its appearance and flavor, it is the texture too—squirrel is buttery. Wild animals are usually athletes and it is rare that their meat is buttery. Instead, we find we have to add butter and other fats to prevent wild meat from becoming unbearably dry. Squirrel is different. It roams the woods, too, but it feasts on nuts, a wonderful source of fat. They have the same diet as those Spanish pigs called jamón ibérico that people buy thin slices of for $170 per pound. Squirrel costs decidedly less, but still has that sweet flavor. It is a buttery, tender, medium-dark meat, and that makes it rare in the wild.

Young squirrel is good simply quartered and fried. Old squirrel is good stewed. When in doubt, it is safest to braise or stew a squirrel. Sometimes, for flavor and for whimsy, I like to add acorns to a squirrel recipe, because a sense of humor is always in order when serving squirrel to guests, especially unsuspecting ones.

Although you won't see packaged squirrel in the meat aisle of the grocery store, whole traditions have formed around these tree-dwellers. Guns have been crafted in their honor. There are few things more intertwined with American history and tradition. It is one of the most popular game animals in the eastern United States.

There is something about the squirrel that resonates with us, that propels us to craft special guns and seek keen dogs. In the early 1700s, gunsmiths in Pennsylvania developed the superbly accurate Kentucky long rifle, which soon earned the name the "squirrel rifle" by early pioneers. The gun made today just for a squirrel hunter is the combination .22/.410 or .22/20 gauge, an over-under combo with a selector button giving the hunter a choice of rifle or shotgun barrel. We go into detail for squirrel.

The squirrel lives six to seven years, while a cottontail has a much shorter life cycle. The texture is denser, the color grayer and the flavor more complex because of this. The squirrel is a wanderer, sometimes ground-dwelling and social, living in well-developed colonies or sometimes tree-dwelling and solitary. The squirrel perseveres, hoards and makes dietary sacrifices to survive. Maybe the early pioneers saw a bit of themselves in the squirrel. Or maybe it just tasted better. Either way, it never gained favor with the palates of kings abroad the way it has here among certain Americans. I think I have crossed over and become one of those Americans. To me, it is the best meat in the woods.

Have you ever had squirrel? What do you consider the best meat in the woods?

Buttermilk Fried Squirrel
(Serves 4)

2 young squirrels, cut into serving pieces
2 cups buttermilk
1 medium onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, diced
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon tarragon (or a teaspoon each of your 3 favorite dried herbs)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
2-3 cups grape seed or vegetable oil

1. Soak the squirrel overnight in buttermilk with onions, garlic, herbs, paprika and cayenne pepper.

2. Drain in a colander, leaving some herbs on the meat. In a large re-sealable plastic bag, or in a large bowl, mix the flour with the garlic and onion powder and cayenne, as well as a dash of salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet on medium-high heat until a pinch of flour starts to sizzle when dropped in the hot oil but not so the pan is smoking.

3. Place the squirrel pieces in the bag with flour and shake until thoroughly coated. Do this in small batches, just enough pieces that can fit in the pan at once.

4. Add the squirrel to the skillet and fry on one side for about 10 minutes, until golden brown, and then use tongs to turn the pieces over and fry for another 10 minutes, again until golden brown. Be careful to keep the oil hot enough to fry the squirrel, but not so that it burns.

5. Remove the squirrel from the skillet and place it on a wire rack over paper towel. Season immediately with salt and pepper to taste, to help preserve the crispiness. It can be served immediately or cold for lunch the next day.

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