Chicken of the trees | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

Chicken of the trees 

The rural eastern gray squirrel has long been a valued food source, but what about its urban cousin?

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The author's squirrel burgoo, featuring "heirloom tomato, tree nut, and alley-fattened wild caught game." - MICHAEL BOYD
  • The author's squirrel burgoo, featuring "heirloom tomato, tree nut, and alley-fattened wild caught game."
  • Michael Boyd

"The favor of your company is requested," read the invitation, "for the most local of harvest meals." I sent this to a healthy mix of 30 eaters both adventurous and particular, and set a date. On the menu: juleps made with the mint growing from my compost pile, coconut curry simmered with the mysterious squash that had taken over the backyard, dinosaur kale, cornbread, and the main event: a thick burgoo, featuring "heirloom tomato, tree nut, and alley-fattened wild caught game."

I didn't expect nearly all of the invitees to accept, but evidently curiosity about urban squirrel's viability as a protein source isn't merely a weird, solitary obsession. A few days before the event I defrosted and cut up the legs and saddles, seared them off in a pot, and deglazed it with Madeira, a la James Beard. I sauteed diced bacon, onions, and garlic, added homemade chicken stock and the squirrel pieces, and braised them slowly.

After three hours or so, the squirrel meat was falling off the bone, so I carefully removed the carcasses, let them cool, and then meticulously separated the meat from its tiny skeletal remains. It was painstaking work, and I was certain a few small fragments remained behind, but in the end I had nearly three and a half pounds of shredded, mostly boneless squirrel flesh. I added it back to the pot along with vegetables and herbs from my garden and the Green City Market—the last of my tomatoes, thyme, corn, potatoes, lima beans, and a few small hot chilies—and let it simmer until the vegetables began to break down. Then I cooled it. (Many recipes advise that a night in the refrigerator and then a slow reheating the following day helps the flavors harmonize.)

Acting on the advice of my butcher I made a paté with the offal, searing the diced hearts, livers, and kidneys, flambeing them briefly in bourbon, and mixing them into a pork and bread crumb matrix before pressing it into a terrine.

When the day arrived my guests brought their own contributions—garage-cured Serrano-style ham from a Slagel Farms pig, a classic midwestern relish tray with chopped liver, olives, pickles, and crudites, Michigan apple pies, and, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, a honey cake from a pastry chef. There was Chicago beer and Indiana bourbon, and I smoked a massive lamb shoulder, mutton barbecue being the traditional accompaniment to burgoo.

Low and slow cooking had deepened the stew into a roasty reddish brown, all the vegetables softening but for sweet, crunchy corn. Conventional burgoo wisdom says that when it's thick enough for the spoon to stand up in the pot by itself, it's ready. And with that, most of my guests dove in.

After the heads braised in mirepoix and sherry, a friend demonstrated with a nutcracker the proper technique for extracting a squirrel brain from its cranial cavity, and a half dozen of us popped them into our mouths. They looked like oversize walnuts and tasted slightly creamy, almost like a soft, roasted chestnut. We pulled out the tongues and cheeks, which contained the most concentrated expression of squirreliness. One guest described the meat from the head as "nutty"; others compared it to pork, duck, or lamb. To me this seemed like the very essence of the rodent. If squirrels grew to the size of pigs, you'd really have something.

I don't think folks were being overly kind when they praised the stew. Out of two gallons of burgoo, at the end of the night I was left with only a cup and a half. In short, with the help of a lamb shoulder and some vegetables, squirrel meat can indeed feed a crowd. If it was just me and my family we could survive on it for a week.

"It was so good that I got kinda depressed," my neighbor e-mailed later. "There are so many people who don't get enough protein and here is this menacing squirrel, there for the taking." She's a prolific gardener herself, with her own squirrel problem.

click to enlarge Squirrel heads braised in mirepoix and sherry - MICHAEL BOYD
  • Squirrel heads braised in mirepoix and sherry
  • Michael Boyd

Some guests pointed out that the flavor of the squirrel itself was diminished or subsumed by the stew or muted by the spices in the paté. "I was expecting a more gamy flavor like an elk sausage or something," one reported. "But I thought it was more comparable to a turkey or duck."

"If I hadn't known in advance," said another, "I doubt I would have been able to tell. But I tasted the cheek and even that, while incredibly delicious, tasted like something between pork and lamb. I never would have guessed it was squirrel in a blind tasting."

Most guests communicated a general surprise that city squirrels didn't taste like the wild muskiness of bigger wild game. I don't think that's an indication that it was overseasoned. I think it's because squirrel doesn't have an assertive flavor to begin with, at least not one that corresponds with its brazen behavior.

Proverbially, it tastes like chicken.

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