I love the opening day of squirrel season. The first muggy August morning in the woods has always been the kick-off to my favorite time of year. While I don’t get out as often as I did when I was a kid, I’ve passed that love of squirrel hunting to my youngest son. The two of us always make an opening morning hunt a family tradition.
While most of the young squirrels we kill are destined for the deep fryer or iron skillet, older squirrels require a bit more cooking time to make them nice and tender. The slow cooker is the perfect tool for this recipe where squirrels get simmered all day with tomatoes, roasted green chile peppers and a Mexican-inspired spice blend until they fall off the bone.
The mixture is folded into a flaky, buttery crust with a bit of cheese and fresh cilantro, and then baked in the oven until golden brown. As always when slow cooking squirrels, I prefer to trim the rib bones tightly to the loin before cooking. Those little bones have a tendency to fall away from the spine and can be time consuming to pick from the boned-out meat.
2 large fox squirrels or 3-4 small gray squirrels, cleaned and quartered with ribs removed
8 ounces canned or fresh roasted green chile peppers
1 can (14 ounces) fire-roasted tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
4 tablespoons fresh cilantro, diced
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup lard
1 cup cold water
1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water (do not beat until ready to bake)
Start by trimming the ribs from your cleaned squirrels. Add the meat to the slow cooker, along with the tomatoes, green chile peppers, salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne and garlic powder. Cook on low for 8 hours or until the meat pulls easily from the bone.
Gently lift the squirrels from the slow cooker and allow them to cool enough to pick the meat from the bones. Transfer the boneless meat back to the slow cooker and blend into the tomato and pepper mixture left from the cooking process. Transfer the filling mixture to a shallow dish and allow to cool to room temperature before filling the empanadas.
To start the dough, add the flour, salt and baking powder to a large bowl. Stir with a fork to blend well. Add the butter and lard, and use a pastry cutter to cut the fat evenly into the flour mixture. Add about 3/4 cup of the cold water (I add one cup of water to a two-cup measuring cup, then add ice to keep it chilled; strain the ice with your hand as you add the water to the flour) to the dough. Use your fingers to work the mixture into a loose dough. If you need a bit more water, add the remaining quarter cup.
Once the dough starts to come together, knead it for a minute or two in the bowl, then turn it out onto a floured work surface. Use the heel of your hand to knead the dough a few minutes more until it's smooth. Divide the dough into 8 equal portions and cover with plastic wrap to rest for 20 minutes.
To fill the empanadas, roll a section of dough on a floured work surface to roughly an 8-inch disc. Add some of your squirrel filling to half the dough circle, leaving it at least 1 inch in from outer edge. Top the meat mixture with shredded cheese and a sprinkle of diced cilantro.
Beat the egg and water together. Using a pastry brush, coat the outer 1 inch of half the dough disc with egg wash. Fold the dough over to form a pie and roll and crimp the edges together with your fingertips. These empanadas freeze well, so if you don’t want to cook all eight at once, simply freeze at this point on an open sheet pan, then wrap individually and store in the freezer until you want to bake them. There is no need to thaw the frozen empanadas before baking; simply go from freezer to oven and add 10 minutes to the cook time.
To bake, brush the surface of the empanadas with egg wash, place onto a parchment-paper-lined sheet pan and bake in a 400-degree preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until the pie is golden brown. If you are cooking the empanadas on two pans, rotate them at the midway point of cooking time. Serve with sour cream and salsa, if desired.
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