August in Kentucky was always a special time of year when I was growing up. The waning days of summer meant squirrel season was about to open, and that hunting season in general was upon us. Many a morning was spent patrolling the woods around our farm, and many a fine meal resulted. Squirrel meat has been held in high regard by American diners since the days of Lewis and Clark. Even James Beard, in his classic “American Cookery”, wrote,
"Squirrel has been written about rapturously for years. And it has long been associated with elegant dining as well as with the simple food of the trapper and the nomad.”
Fast forward 30 or so years and squirrel season has once again taken a front-row seat. This time it is with my youngest son, Potroast. While he is passionate about chasing bushytails, he tends to be a bit too nomadic to do much harm to the local population. But, a few days ago I talked him into trying it my way and parking under a couple colossal hickory trees along our pasture edge. I pointed out the green cuttings littering the ground as proof that we were in a good spot. By morning’s end, he had four nice young grays in the bag, more than enough for a fine dinner. We headed home and employed the Will Brantley method of skinning our take, then quartered them up and placed them in a bowl of salted water in the refrigerator.
That evening, I rinsed the squirrels well and replaced the salt water with enough buttermilk to cover the squirrel pieces. Back into the fridge for another hour or so and they were ready to fry for dinner.
3-4 skinned and quartered young squirrels. Buttermilk for marinating 2 cups all-purpose flour 2 Tablespoons salt 2 Tablespoons black pepper 1 Tablespoon Cajun seasoning 2 cups milk (for the gravy)
Start by placing flour, salt, pepper and Cajun seasoning into a large zip style or paper bag and giving it a good shake to mix thoroughly. Remove the squirrel pieces from the buttermilk, shaking off any excess, and drop them into the flour bag. Shake thoroughly and then place the coated pieces onto a cooling rack for 5 to 10 minutes to allow the crust to set. Reserve three tablespoons of the seasoned flour for gravy making later.
Next, head on over to the fridge and take out your jar of saved bacon grease. What? You don’t keep a jar of saved bacon grease in the fridge? You should.
Nothing fries food or makes gravy like the magical elixir that remains after frying bacon.
You can always fry a bit of bacon and use the remaining grease to fry your squirrel, or even use one of the lesser frying mediums, like vegetable oil or shortening, and get almost as fine a result.
Heat about half an inch of the oil of choice in a heavy frying pan, preferably cast iron, over medium heat. Squirrels being squirrels, even the young ones do enough running and jumping to be a bit on the tough side, and so a long, slow fry with the lid on helps to soften them up.
Fry the squirrel in batches, lid tightly on, for 10 to 12 minutes per side. When the pieces are browned and cooked through, remove them to a warm plate and cover with foil while you make your gravy.
Start by pouring off all but three tablespoons of oil from the pan. Make sure all of the brown stuck-on bits left from the frying remain. Add in the three tablespoons of reserved seasoned flour and stir well until the flour is lightly browned. Slowly add the milk and continue to stir. Those bits of goodness that were stuck to the pan should loosen and incorporate into the gravy. Stir until the gravy has thickened to the point that it will coat the back of a spoon and tracks remain when you push the spoon across the skillet.
My favorite way to serve fried squirrel and gravy is alongside homemade biscuits and scrambled eggs with a few slices of late-summer tomatoes. Fancy? Nope. It's about as simple as a meal can be. Good? You betcha. About as good as it gets.
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