I was talking to my girlfriend about hunting the other day. We’re a few weeks into hunting season already and I haven’t yet had a chance to get out into the woods. I finally made plans and I was excited. There is something really special about the feeling of heading off into the woods with a rifle slung over your shoulder. It is one of those tasks that just feels right to me. Like I am doing what I am supposed to.
I don’t know exactly where the feeling comes from, but it is not unique to hunting. I get it whenever I set off to do something related to the gathering of food, be it gardening, fishing, foraging, whatever. There is a deep connection to the earth and its riches that I can feel when I am involved in those endeavours. It is basic, it is primal, and it feels good.
The amount of food I produce from these days in the garden or the forest certainly does not make financial sense. Sometimes I come home empty-handed. Even on a good day, when I shoot a limit of squirrels or bring home a goose, the amount of time, energy, and money that goes into producing that meat would put a hefty price tag on it. But there is just something that feels right and good about gathering and growing your own food.
It may be primarily the romantic notion that I enjoy. I have overblown romantic tendencies and am particularly drawn to things like this. Things like the feeling that I can stand on my own feet, that I could survive in this world separate from the glut of technology on which we all rely now (he types into his laptop). Which, honestly, likely isn’t true. Whenever anything goes wrong in the garden, I google it. When I struggle with fishing or hunting, I read articles online or download books to my kindle on the subject.
So, maybe I am just playing frontiersman. Regardless, be it a connection to my ancestral history or just a fun day of pretending that I am proper woodsman, it is always a blast to get out into the woods and connect with the world in that particular way. And I am very excited that it is once again hunting season in Colorado.
So, early on a Thursday morning, I set out for my favorite patch of woods, which I grew to know quite well last winter, to try to bring home a few pine squirrels for supper.
Pine squirrels are the first animal that I managed to bring home to eat. They are both plentiful and noisy, so they are easy game. But fun, as well. They will announce themselves before you get too close, but then they go still and silent and blend perfectly into the mixed-conifer forest. It is a game of all the senses.
They are also quite small and have a bit of a liver flavor to them, so I think they are often overlooked. But, dressed up right, these little guys are delicious. And this is a pretty lovely way to dress them up.
Pine Squirrel Ravioli
4 Pine Squirrels
2 cups beef broth (or other stock)
1 cup dry red wine
2 cloves garlic
2 stems celery
1 large carrot
½ large white onion
A few pine needles (I used ponderosa)
2 cups ricotta
1 cup grated parmesan
1 cup blanched and chopped kale or other green
Salt + Pepper
Begin by searing the squirrel in olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. I use an enameled cast iron pot for this kind of thing and it really is the perfect tool for the job. All the benefits of cast iron without the finicky cleaning rituals. The goal here is to brown the meat and get some good caramelization before the braise.
Once the meat is looking pretty good and you have a bit of brown on the bottom of the pot, pour in the wine and scrape up that good stuff on the bottom. Then add the garlic, onion, celery, carrot, broth, and pine needles. Cover the pot, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer gently for a couple hours. It is done when the meat peels easily away from the bone.
During that time you can make your pasta dough and blanch some kale. I used this recipe for my ravioli dough. It was a thick, hard dough, not the easiest to roll, but it worked great for the ravioli. You want to make this a bit ahead because it should sit in the fridge for an hour or so to allow the dough to hydrate.
As far as the kale goes, just boil it until it is nice and done and then chop it finely.
When the squirrel is finished braising, you will pull of the meat and toss it in the food processor with about half the braised vegetables. Pulse this mixture until it is well-chopped, but not paste. Remove it to a bowl and mix in the ricotta, parmesan, and kale.
At this point, the filling is technically ready. But the ravioli will be easier to fill with a thicker mixture, so I would toss it in the freezer for a bit. It’ll firm up a little while you roll out your pasta dough. Alternatively, you can make the filling a day ahead and refrigerate it.
Make the ravioli by laying out a wide sheet, dropping a row of small dollops of filling close to one edge and folding the dough over on itself. Make sure to let out air bubbles before sealing each ravioli by pressing the two layers of dough together. If you have a crimper or ravioli knife, you can use that now to cut the individual ravioli out. I do not have a ravioli knife, so I use the dull side of a kitchen knife. It makes it a bit more difficult to cut the pasta, but by using the dull side you really seal the edges.
Once you have all your ravioli, cook them by tossing them into a pot of boiling salted water. Pluck them out when they begin to float. You can now add whatever sauce you like. Personally, I like to saute them in butter briefly over medium-high heat. This adds a little salty kick and crisps them up a touch. Delightful.
P.S.: Here’s a link to the enameled cast iron dutch oven that I own–definitely one of my favorite pieces of cooking equipment.