It’s small game hunting season! Hunting squirrels and rabbits this time of year is exciting, accessible and can often be done successfully with friends. While incorporating the basic tenets of hunting including patience, stealth and marksmanship, small game hunting can also include conversations, camaraderie and a great sense of exploration of our public lands with friends.
A day in pursuit of bushytails 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 meal, share their thoughts and build memories.
Squirrels are often fried, served in gravy with dumplings or used as a filling in pot pie. This recipe is a bit different and is based in the old-world traditions of northeast Spain. Catalan cooking is often done in a round terra cotta casserole dish called a cazuela, and many dishes feature a sofregit, or sofrito, traditionally made of tomatoes, onions, garlic and sometimes 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 also can be prepared with rabbits, grouse, quail or even chicken. Since cazuelas are somewhat uncommon outside of Spain, we’ve adapted by using cast iron. If you don’t have cast-iron cookware on hand, 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
Ingredients: The brine
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 2 small bay leaves
- 2 cups water
- 3-4 cleaned and brined squirrels with belly and ribs trimmed and cut into five pieces
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3-4 squirrel livers (optional)
- 3 tbsp. olive oil (more as needed)
- 3-4 medium peeled cloves of garlic
- 1 tbsp. 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 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley; more for garnish (optional)
- Crusty bread
- 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 eight hours or overnight.
- Remove the squirrels from the brine, pat them dry with paper towels and generously season with kosher salt and pepper.
- 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.
- 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 one minute. Transfer to a small dish and set aside.
- Due to the brown sugar used in the brine, you may want to clean your pan before using it to make a sofregit; the burned sugar has a tendency to impart a bitter taste.
- To make a sofregit, melt the butter and add the onion to the pan, stirring frequently until it becomes translucent – three to four minutes (add a bit more oil if it seems dry).
- 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). Add a little broth as required to keep from drying out and sticking.
- Return the hindquarters to the pan, turning to coat and then slowly drizzle in the wine. Gently stir and heat for one minute before adding the carrots, broth and thyme.
- Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Then, reduce the heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes.
- 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.
- 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 tbsp. water.
- Stir the paste mixture into the sauce until well blended and continue to cook for approximately 10 more minutes.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper, garnish with parsley (if using), and serve from the pan with the bread.