Friday, October 11, 2013

Hillbilly Fusion: Tree Squirrel Curry


“Care for some gopher Everett?”

“No, thank you Delmar. A third of a gopher would only arouse my appetite without quite bedding her back down again.”

“Oh that’s O.K. You can have the whole thing. Pete and I already had one. We come accrosed a whole gopher village!”- Oh Brother Where Art Though?


 
I will start this post by saying this- there is a tree squirrel hunting season for a reason- they are delicious! Tell most folks that you hunt squirrel, or Tree Elk as I like to call them (sounds more fearsome ;), and you will certainly meet some skepticism. To most folks the concept of eating squirrel is right in line with chowing down on gopher or rat. But squirrel has been a popular small game to hunt in rural parts of the country for a long time. Squirrel hunting is especially popular in the rural south. It has, in fact, been a key dietary component of Native American cuisine for thousands of years. And even though, these fearsome tree elk are better than 100% organic, better than free-range, and incredibly abundant and sustainable…eating them seems at times to be admittedly downright hillbilly!
Growing up taking deer hunting trips to remote and scenic destinations such as the Sierra Nevada's and the Trinity Alps, we were not always rewarded with successful big game hunts. However, mid-day when most crepuscular big game species bed down, we would routinely change our focus to fishing for trout in the snow melt streams and hunting small game in the forest and high desert sage. My mom could transform a few squirrels into exquisite gourmet meals including a personal favorite squirrel au poivre (in a French cream green peppercorn sauce). The first game I took after passing my Hunter's Safety Course from the California Department of Fish and Game were a pair of tree squirrels. This was also the first time I remember cooking a meal for anyone other than myself. I sautéed the squirrel and served it alongside deer liver (the result of our buddy Juan's success). Yes, squirrel was a very influential meat for me as a young hunter, so this year I decided to pursue this formidable tree elk once more.
I had been watching the English walnut crop disappearing fast and noted that the squirrels were nimbly snatching up this year’s crop as rapidly as they could ripen. As I mentioned in my earlier post on almonds and walnuts, I did end up gathering the residual nuts these great tree foragers had left behind, but I also shifted my attention to the squirrels themselves.

Squirrels can be divided into two main classes, ground squirrels and tree squirrels. Both were once popular Native American cuisine, however only tree squirrels are taken now. This may be due to the presence of bubonic plague in some California ground squirrel populations (No, I am not joking!) In any case, tree squirrels (do not carry plague) can be further subdivided into numerous subspecies. I am concerned with only two of these here, the native Western Gray Squirrel and the invasive Eastern Fox Squirrel. I have hunted both with success over the years, but this season I began to notice a demographic shift in the local population that influenced my hunting style. The eastern fox squirrel had arrived a few years before, but this year I began noticing that the populations of local tree elk were dominated by this invader by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1. I decided that even though it is legal to hunt either species, I was going to spend the season stalking the non-native eastern fox squirrel to help restore balance to our native western gray population. 
 
Western Gray Squirrel and Eastern Fox Squirrel 

I was using an old Chinese .22 Cal pellet rifle that had taken its fare share of small game (and even a wild turkey) over the years. Old trusty had a bit of rust here and there, but shot true every time. I stalked into position where a stand of English walnut trees met a large grove of tall conifers and black walnuts. This was prime tree elk foraging territory. Using a technique I picked up from the squirrels themselves I crunched two walnuts together bit by bit while sitting motionless with my back against a tree. The crunching sounds exactly like a squirrel feasting on pine cones or walnuts and worked like a charm to call them in. The tree elk, upon hearing that a “comrade” was enjoying a fine meal while they waited in the shadows, were convinced that the coast was clear and came in fast and thick. The first red squirrel made it over my head, into the tree I sat under, snatched a walnut, crossed back over and disappeared. Every time I drew a bead with old trusty he moved just as the tension began to apply to the trigger. I was left with an empty game bag and a big grin. He deserved that nut!
The second visitor was a western gray who took the same path, stayed a while, knocking two nuts to the ground to dry in the sun and stole off with a third. I gave him a friendly nod and directed my attention to the third squirrel. Over the next few days I had several successes. My first shot on an eastern red fox squirrel hit the brain, the second shot hit the spine of another, and the third landed in the heart of a third squirrel. I know such details seem graphic and to some unwarranted, but I bring this up to illustrate that every shot was well placed to intentionally cause as little suffering as possible. As I mentioned in my Jack Rabbit Stew post, killing is not the pleasure of hunting. It is the total experience from observing the animal in their natural habitat, to seeing all of the other wildlife around who have grown accustomed to your presence, to the stalk, a full day without a single word spoken, total concentration, a well placed shot, giving thanks, and finally sharing a great meal with family and friends. There is so much more to the hunting tradition, which predates anatomically modern humans by hundreds of thousands of years, that I cannot sum up here but take it from me the hunter-forager is far more connected to every ingredient of a meal than many care to ponder. This was a great hunt and I gave thanks as I cleaned my quarry with my Grandpa Hunter’s Old Timer knife.

 

From there I sautéed kidneys, livers, and hearts and shared the next day’s breakfast with my dog who had happily helped me retrieve one squirrel from the bramble bushes. Abalone has learned to expect a good meal after a successful small game hunt.


Next I slow cooked the remaining meat from one squirrel until it fell off the bones (and believe it or not there is a lot of meat on a squirrel). I added as many veggies as my brother’s girlfriend Karen could dig up from her exquisite garden and made an old classic, squirrel stew. And man was it tasty!



Removing the bones from the next pair after a slow cook, I mixed in Indian spices including garam masala, cayenne, tumeric, cumin, coreander and yogurt and set the meat aside to take on the flavors. In a pot I started a curry and let it cook for the next few hours time. This was hillbilly fusion at its finest! Squirrel Vindaloo. Vindaloo, a curry traditionally made with chicken, is native to the coast of Goa, India. It uses a fusion of Indian spices with some vinegar, an influence of Portuguese colonists. I decided to use Alex’s organic heirloom apple cider vinegar and gave it a shot.
As the curry cooked, I started in on the bread. Many know of Indian Naan, but few know of Roti. I find this funny as the latter was served to me far more often on my travels to India than the former. Roti is a simple type of unleavened flat bread. Flour, salt, and water make the dough which is kneaded, spread thin like a pizza crust, seared in a cast iron skillet and tossed on an open flame to puff up like pita bread. I also add a little melted butter to the surface of each which gives the roti a rich depth.
 



Sitting back with my dog at my side at our new house, I enjoyed a lunch that cost nearly nothing, but with every content bite I knew I had done it again! This was one of the best meals I have had all year! Many thanks to the squirrels who gave their lives to sustain my own.

Keep the old ways alive!

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