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Monday, September 29, 2008
Squirrels make a great wild-game dinner

By Keith "Catfish" Sutton
Special to ESPN Outdoors.com

"Squirrel and dumplings" rank high on my list of all-time-favorite wild game dinners. My mother and grandmother often prepared this delicious, filling meal when I was growing up, and I still get a hankering for it when autumn starts chilling the air.

Preparation is simple and inexpensive. Take a tough old squirrel, or a young one if that is all you have, and stew it for several hours in seasoned broth, until the sweet pink meat falls from the bones. Remove the bones from the broth, then take the dumplings you prepared earlier and drop them in the pot with the meat. Allow the dumplings to cook a few minutes until the stock has thickened, and you will have before you a glorious dish that will titillate the taste buds of even the most jaded diner. Serve in large soup bowls with a sprinkling of finely chopped fresh parsley on top and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Tradition dictates that you include on the side several slices of light bread for sopping up the rich gravy.

I admit to being a bit zealous when it comes to my squirrel and dumplings, but I am no less fervent in expounding the virtues of a spicy squirrel jambalaya prepared in a black-iron skillet over a campfire, or a fried young squirrel served with cat's-head biscuits and milk gravy, or marinated squirrel grilled until it is pink and tender over a smoky fire. Squirrel is scrumptious no matter how you serve it up, and there seems no end to the variety of mouth-watering recipes one can create using these delectable small-game animals.

When America was first settled by white men, the abundance of squirrels amazed our forefathers. The country was rich with mast-laden hardwoods, and the forests teemed with fox and gray squirrels.

Not surprisingly, squirrel was the meat of preference served on many pioneer dinner tables. In fact, some experts say the demand for squirrels brought about the development of the famous Kentucky rifle, an extremely accurate weapon capable of putting a ball through a squirrel's head at 50 yards.

Today, squirrels are still highly regarded for their excellent table qualities. Fox and gray squirrels both provide mildly flavored meat similar in quality to cottontail rabbit or chicken, and each is a gourmet's treat when handled correctly from woods to table.

There is no need to field-dress the squirrels you take; their small size allows them to cool quickly. It is best, however, to hang them from a split thong or cord attached to your belt, and avoid the warm interior of your game bag, especially when hunting during warmer parts of the season.

The task of skinning frustrates many beginners because the squirrel's tough skin is stubborn to remove. It's easier done with two people who pull the squirrel's "pants" and "shirt" in opposite directions after splitting the skin crosswise across the middle of the back. When one hunter is doing the skinning, it's best to cut through the base of the tail from bottom to top, leaving the skin intact on the top side. Split the hide up the inside of each hind leg, then place a foot on top of the tail and skin, and pull up on the squirrel's other end. When done properly, the skin will peel off the squirrel from top to bottom, but you may have to practice this method a few times to get it right.

Squirrel cooking methods are dictated, at least in part, by the age of the squirrel. Young squirrels, which are much smaller in size, tend to be more tender, lending themselves well to preparation by frying, grilling or broiling. Older squirrels tend to be tough, and should be cooked by moist, slow-cooking methods such as stewing. I like to parboil larger squirrels four to five hours in a slow-cooker with enough chicken broth to cover. This tenderizes the tougher ones so they can be used in almost any recipe.

Squirrel and Dumplings
3 squirrels, cut in serving pieces 1 cup chicken broth Water Salt and pepper, to taste Dumplings (recipe below)

Place squirrels in a large pot. Add chicken broth, then add enough water to barely cover the pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer until meat is tender. Add dumplings. Cover; boil gently for 8 to 10 minutes. Serves 4 to 6. Dumplings: 2 cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon parsley flakes 1/3 cup vegetable shortening 1/2 cup milk

Combine flour, baking powder, salt and parsley flakes. Cut in shortening. Add milk to make a stiff dough. Shape mixture into a ball, and roll to a thickness of 1/8-inch on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 1-inch strips, and drop into boiling squirrel stock.

Country-Fried Squirrel
2 to 4 squirrels, ready for cooking 1 tablespoon salt 1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper 1 teaspoon garlic powder 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper All-purpose flour Cooking oil

Season the squirrel pieces with a mixture of the salt, pepper, garlic powder and cayenne; dredge in flour. Add 1 inch of cooking oil to a skillet; heat to 350 degrees. Cook the squirrel in hot oil for 5 minutes; turn, cover and continue cooking until golden-brown.

Squirrel Jambalaya
2 squirrels, cut in serving pieces Salt, black pepper, cayenne, to taste 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 large onions, chopped 3 stalks celery, chopped 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1/2 bell pepper, chopped 4 tablespoons chopped parsley 1 cup uncooked rice, washed 1-1/2 cups water 2 teaspoons salt Hot sauce to taste

Season squirrel with salt, black pepper and cayenne. Sauté in oil until brown; remove from skillet. Sauté onions, celery, garlic, bell pepper and parsley in oil until onions are clear. Place squirrel back into skillet. Cook slowly, covered, about 30 minutes or until squirrel is tender. Remove bones from squirrel, leaving squirrel meat in skillet. Add rice and water; stir thoroughly. Add salt and hot sauce. Cook slowly about 30 minutes or until rice is cooked. Serves 2 to 4.

Squirrel Hash
2 cups cooked, diced squirrel 2 cups chopped boiled potatoes 1/2 cup chicken broth 1/4 cup minced onion Salt & pepper, to taste Paprika, to taste 3 tablespoons butter or margarine

Mix squirrel, potatoes, broth and onion. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Cook in butter or margarine heated in a skillet. Cook 30 minutes over low heat, stirring often, until browned on the bottom. Serves 2 to 4.

Charcoal-Broiled Squirrel With Gingered Sherry Marinade
1/4 cup dry sherry or white wine 1/4 cup soy sauce 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 1 teaspoon sugar 1 clove garlic, minced 3 small squirrels, cut in serving pieces

Mix all ingredients except squirrels and pour over squirrel pieces placed in a zip-seal bag. Seal; refrigerate up to 24 hours. Remove squirrel from bag, reserving marinade. Grill to desired doneness, brushing occasionally with marinade. Heat remaining marinade to boiling and serve with grilled meat. Serves 3.