Small game hunting! Note the exclamation mark, because it is exciting, easy to access and can often be done successfully with friends. While incorporating the basic tenants of hunting including patients, stealth, and marksmanship small game hunting can also include conversations, camaraderie and a great reason to explore public land with friends.
A day in pursuit of bushy tails can yield several meals of wild game, the processing of which is an easy entry point for new hunters. Better yet, a brace of squirrels provides an opportunity for sportsmen and women to gather around a wonderful field to meal, share their thoughts and build memories.
Squirrel is commonly fried, served in gravy with dumplings or used as a filling in pot pie, but this recipe is based in the old world traditions of northeast Spain. Catalan cooking is often done in round terra-cotta casserole dish called a cazuela and many dishes feature a sofregit or sofrito traditionally made of tomatoes, onions, garlic sometimes including bell peppers.
Rather than use flour to thicken the braise, the recipe is thickened with a ‘picada’. Picada is a paste made from almonds or hazelnuts, garlic, and parsley. Traditionally it is ground together with a mortar and pestle, but picada is easily prepared in a food processor.
This dish can be prepared featuring rabbits, grouse, quail or even chicken. Since cazuelas are somewhat uncommon outside of Spain, we’ve adopted cast iron as a replacement. If you don’t have cast-iron a traditional kitchen pan will suffice but you may want to use a heat diffuser or even a sturdy pie plate over your burner to help distribute heat evenly under your pan.
Braised Squirrel in Catalan Sofregit Reduction
For the brine:
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 small bay leaves
2 cups water
For the braise:
3-4 cleaned & brined squirrels with belly and ribs trimmed and cut into 5 pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3-4 squirrel livers (optional)
3 Tbs. olive oil; more as needed
3 – 4 medium cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon of butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
4 plum tomatoes, halved, seeded, and grated
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups carrots, roughly chopped or cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1 cup chicken broth; more as needed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/3 cup toasted almond slivers
1 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley; more for garnish (optional)
Crusty bread, for serving
1. Place the squirrel portions In a Ziploc bag, then in a non-reactive bowl combine the brine ingredients. Pour the brine over the squirrel portions, seal the bag and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.
2. Remove the squirrels from the brine, pat them dry with paper towels and generously season with Koshersalt and pepper.
3. Heat the oil in a large cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, brown the squirrel pieces (and liver, if using) on all sides, adding more oil as needed.
4. Transfer each batch to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small dish and set aside.
5. Due the the brown sugar used in the brine you may want to clean your pan before using it to make a sofregit. The burned sugar had a tendency to impart a bitter taste.
6. To make a sofregit, melt the butter and add the onion to the pan, stirring frequently, until it becomes translucent, 3 to 4 minutes (add a bit more oil if it seems dry).
7. Next add the tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly, uncovered, stirring frequently and tapping down the sofregit with the back of a spoon until the mixture thickens and darkens (about 10 to 15 minutes) adding a little broth as required to keep the from drying out and sticking.
8. Return the hind quarters to the pan, turning to coat then slowly drizzle in the wine, gently stir, and heat for 1 minute before adding the carrots, broth, and thyme.
9. Increase the heat to medium high, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.
10. Add the remaining squirrel pieces and continue to cook until the squirrel is tender, about 30 minutes more, adding more broth if needed to keep the sofregit sauce moist.
11. Using short pulses in a food processor grind the liver (if using), garlic, almonds, and parsley into a fine paste. Loosen with 1 to 2 Tbs. water.
12. Stir the garlic mixture into the sauce until well blended, and continue to cook about for 10 more minutes.
13. Season to taste with salt and pepper, garnish with parsley (if using), and serve from the pan with the bread.