Hunting has changed my eating habits. When decades of eating industrial beef and chicken is your frame of reference, wild game can do nothing but challenge that. The flavors and textures are just different, especially when you get away from the more straightforward cuts of venison. Of course, hunting also gives you access to the sort of meat which you simply cannot legally obtain any other way, thanks to the US ban on selling wild game. The rewards are enormous if you can only learn new rules for cooking.

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I’ve had some disasters over the past few years, with the more challenging game meats (ex. squirrel) featuring prominently.  I’m always trying to learn, and so with a party to attend this weekend I saw an excuse to read up and try something new.  A search of the freezer found a nice venison roast, 1/3 of a wild turkey, and half a dozen squirrels tucked away.  With this variety in hand, I decided to try a variation on the traditional french farmhouse dish: cassoulet.

Cassoulet is meant as a excuse to use up leftover bits of meat in a way which accents their flavors in harmony.  You braise the meats with an assortment of vegetables, add a bunch of wine and some partially cooked beans, which then suck in the braising liquid as they finish cooking.  The whole thing is brought together with a crunchy, broiled breadcrumb crust.

I used the following:

  • 2 lbs venison shoulder
  • 1.5 lbs bone-in wild turkey
  • 6 red squirrels (read: really small, 2-3 fat eastern grays would be equivalent)
  • 1/2 lb bacon
  • 6 jalapenos
  • 4 onions
  • 2 bulbs garlic
  • 2.5 cups dried red beans
  • 1 bottle cabernet savignon
  • 6 slices sourdough bread
  • brown sugar, bacon grease, butter, salt, cayenne pepper

This recipe takes a lot of time, so plan ahead.  Begin by soaking your beans in water overnight, ~24 hours before you’ll begin everything else.  At the same time, put the squirrels and turkey (and vension, it can’t hurt) in a brine of 1/2 cup salt, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 Tbsp cayenne, and enough water to cover.

A day later, drain the brine and rinse the meat thoroughly.  Place the squirrels, turkey, and 1/3 of the wine in a small baking dish with a tight-fitting lid, and place in the oven on 275F for 4-6 hours.  The end result should be meat which can be easily stripped from the bone, and a nice potent liquid.

At the same time, begin boiling your beans in plain water, in a pot with a tight fitting lid.  Rough chop the vegetables, cube the venison, rough chop the bacon, and begin cooking the bacon in a skillet.  When the bacon is half cooked, drain most of the grease into a stove-top dutch oven* well warmed, and add the vegetables.  Cook the vegetables until they are well roasted and beginning to get just a little black in spots, for a nice smokey flavor.  Finish the bacon until crisp, add to the vegetables, then brown the venison cubes in the bacon skillet.  Add venison, the partially boiled beans, and the rest of the wine to the dutch oven, cover, and simmer for several hours.  Reduce until you have a thick soup.

When the squirrel and turkey are falling off the bone, carefully debone and add the meat and liquid to the main stew.  Cook until the venison cubes can easily be cut in half with a wooden spoon, and the beans are soft but not falling apart.  Add water if necessary to maintain some liquid content.

To prep the crust, toast the bread until it is partially browned and crisp to the point of shattering.  Break the slices into a large bowl, add a stick of melted butter, a generous dusting of cayenne, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and mix until the bread is pulverized and uniformly moist.  Turn the oven to broil.  Spread the crumb mixture evenly over the top of the stew, and broil the uncovered cassoulet for 10 minutes, or until the sugar is well caramelized and the crust is deeply browned.  Let stand for 15 minutes before serving.

If you don’t have access to wild game, or only to deer meat, there is no reason to not have at it.  As is obvious, this dish is stacked with rich flavors which when combined cannot go wrong.  Any array of meats which present a variety of flavors, colors, and textures will no.  Duck or goose is very traditional, as is some form of sliced link sausage.

As for the reception at the party?  “I can’t believe it’s squirrel” was a frequent refrain, including one friend how had been an unfortunate victim of a previous squirrel experiment of mine.  The squirrel isn’t hidden here, it amalgamates very well with everything else.  It is a great excuse to head to the woods with a shotgun (when squirrels are in season), and to freeze a few away for use before special occasions.

* The Le Creuset dutch ovens are stupid expensive, but exceptionally versatile.  They’re perfect both in the oven and on the range top.  M found one on sale and gave it to me a few years ago, and I use it at least once a week.