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Posts Tagged ‘squirrel’

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Huber Woods, Navesink. New Jersey’s a dish, isn’t it?

Every year on Thanksgiving I make my family’s recipe for stuffing, eat it in great quantities, then go hiking. (The unfathomably good recipe is here.) This tradition does not vary, because like diamonds and a little black dress, like Valentino and the smoulder, it works. It ain’t broke.

But. I had to alter the tradition a bit this year, as I’m still nursing the effects of last month’s scratched food pipe. The stuffing starts with a loaf of crusty Italian bread. When it’s done, it’s spicy, rich, and chewy—the kind of addiction you wouldn’t mind having. And I don’t.

How it ought to look.

I was disheartened for a good week beforehand because I thought I would have to forgo this dish. But I decided to buck up, and good techie that I am, made a plan: to eat stuffing, somehow, and not have it aggravate my condition.

Instead of buying my Italian bread on Monday and letting it go stale on my dining room table until Thursday, I bought it fresh, the day before. Next I pulled the crust from the fluffy white insides—the part I was hoping I could swallow easily—and froze the two portions separately. I also prepped some homemade chicken broth.

On Thanksgiving morning I defrosted the bag of bread insides and added it to my pan with the sausage, spices, olive oil, eggs, toasted nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I ground the dried rosemary with a mortar and pestle so it wouldn’t be too spiky going down. Then I poured broth over the whole thing to make it even more tender.

I am not going to lie and tell you that it was delicious. It was decent. The next day it was quite a bit better. But it was more important that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and I wasn’t. I made it work. This was a huge win.

Then I went hiking.

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Gradations of light and shadow, eastern meadow.

Longtime readers know about my love affair with nature—with the wildest parts especially. It is at once a source of serenity and energy for me to leave the paved walkways and cross meadows, hills, glens, groves, the untidy places, the unmanicured country. There is no grass, let alone neatly trimmed grass. The spicy fallen leaves are slippery. I get my ankles tangled in the snarls of vines that cover the rolling ground. Chipmunks, groundhogs, and squirrels dart between thistles. Once I even saw a coyote. I always hope I’ll run into him again. But I hike mostly because I love the feeling of being enveloped by something ancient and unspoiled. It’s like getting massaged on the inside. And I always try to see something I haven’t seen before.

A few Thanksgivings ago I found a hidden cemetery, with maybe 30 occupants in all. I always wish them a nice holiday.

Last year I found tiny old wooden shacks labeled with numbers—1937, 1938—and I fancied them past years, relegated silently to the woods of Navesink. I could not bring myself to look through the windows and still cannot. This year I found 1929.

And also this year, beyond the eastern meadow, I followed a deer path until I was surprised by the shadow of a horse. It stood perfectly still, so I ventured closer to investigate. It was a sculpture, perfectly to scale, and made entirely of driftwood blackened with age. Imagine coming across this with no warning.

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The afternoon light gets low pretty early these days. I watched it ride the edge of the trees and wondered if I had enough time to look just a little farther. I’d never been beyond the brook at the western end of the woods, and it was tempting. I decided it was getting too late to chance it. Coming across a coyote at nighttime is somewhat less appealing.

But here’s the thing. Being sick or injured can make a person want to withdraw and not take chances. God knows it’s happened with me, especially recently. After a month of ping-ponging between my food pipe being okay and being uncomfortable, you can believe I’ve hung back from time to time. If I’m not careful, though, that can become a new habit.

Last Thursday I wanted to go farther. I’m so glad I wanted to. It’s a good sign. There are times when I won’t be able to, like this time. But I figure as long as I always want to know what’s beyond the brook, I’m okay.

For dinner that night I ate half an Italian sausage, some caramel applesauce I stirred up on the spot (sliced apples with a little butter, brown sugar, and water), and vanilla pudding I’d made the night before. And it was okay again, and I was grateful.

The crust from that loaf of Italian bread is sitting tight in my freezer, waiting for another batch of stuffing. It’ll happen.

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I love game. Let’s get that out of the way right up front, or this post won’t make any sense.* Elk, deer, alligator, goat, pheasant, moose, buffalo—love it all. Bring it.

It should be noted I did not grow up eating game. But I started reading pretty early, and was and still am a wild devotee of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. So from very early on, the notion of preparing and very much enjoying meals that included game has never struck me as anything but normal. When I had the opportunity to try game for the first time, the luscious Game Pie filled with rabbit, duck and venison at Colonial Williamsburg’s King’s Arms Tavern, sweet Jesus I hope they never stop making it, I went for it. Rich rewards.

I say all this because game freaks out a lot of people—at least many I know. I’m not entirely sure why, although I suspect Madison Avenue’s been whispering Glade Bali Bloom air-freshened propaganda into our ears, making us believe game like rabbit is for lesser humans.

And if I can be frank, and I can since it’s my blog, that thinking is awfully short-sighted. Unless those critics’ descendants were Inuit or from an island where there aren’t any miniature mammals, they probably ate rabbit. Which means they’re alive on this planet because of it, so they should please check their snooty at the door.**

Those I know who will admit to eating game will say they’ll eat it as long as it doesn’t taste ‘too gamey.’ That’s their prerogative, but for my money, the gaminess is exactly what’s good about it—that non-homogenized pungency, that flavor that just insists its way onto your taste buds.

I chose this recipe as a part of my cooking project, detailed here. It’s courtesy of Johnnie Walker, purveyor of hot sauces and jellies (Two Mile Creek Specialty Foods), and resident of Colorado. He says, “I visited with my mom and pop…they ate lots of rabbit as kids during the Depression. In fact, my pop says that he ate so much rabbit as a kid, every time a dog barks, he JUMPS!!”

The trick, in a beach town, is getting hold of a rabbit. The only guns we fire around here are Nerf Super Soakers, and I’m happy to challenge the local status quo about lots of things, but not about this.

I called a local specialty butcher, who ordered a rabbit for me from upstate. It was a fattened, pen-raised rabbit which cost as much as a semester at Cornell, so if you’re a hunter or know an obliging one and can get your hands on a wild rabbit, go that route. It will likely be even more flavorful and less fatty (read: less tender), but no worries. It should still work with this recipe, since it calls for baking in a sauce in a covered dish. This will help to hold in juices in this very simple, home-style meal.

Stuff I did:

-Bought my supermarket’s best candidate for a ‘bold beer mustard’: Inglehofer Stone Ground Mustard, with ‘FULL STRENGTH’ wrapped helpfully around the lid three times.

-Used carrots as my root vegetable. Seemed a natural with rabbit 🙂 And used thyme for the poultry seasoning.

-Didn’t use any booze, just chicken stock. Don’t let me stop you, though.

As good as this was after it came out of the oven, I must admit I liked it even better cold and sliced for lunch. Scrumptious.

I was surprised, even after the liberal dousing of habanero jelly and mustard, that the dish wasn’t ablaze; it was very flavorful, but mellow (at least to my taste). If it’s not enough heat for you, slap on more of the jelly or mustard as you eat. Scroll down for the habanero jelly website.

TMC (Two Mile Creek) Baked Rabbit with Mustard and Habanero Glaze

1 whole rabbit, cut up
A breath or two of white wine (like 4-6 oz.) or a nice light beer (like half a bottle), plus a tbsp or two of chicken broth to deglaze
1/3 c butter, softened
1/3 c TMC habanero hot pepper jelly with whiskey-infused apricots
3 tbsp mustard (a good call here would be a bold beer mustard)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
½ c all-purpose flour
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1 tsp sweet paprika
Shortening, vegetable oil, bacon grease or duck fat for frying
Root vegetables like onions, leeks, carrots, baby red potatoes, etc. cut into chunks

Mix the butter, the jelly and the mustard together in a bowl. Set aside. In another bowl, stir together the dry ingredients.

Heat enough oil in a frying pan (or better yet, an oven-friendly frying pan!) to brown the rabbit pieces.

Dredge the rabbit pieces in the flour mixture and brown in the hot oil. Cook on each side for 1-2 minutes—less time for less crisp pieces and longer for a nice crisp piece of rabbit. Set the browned pieces aside.

Deglaze the frying pan with the wine, beer or chicken broth, or a combo. Scrape all of the bits up with the extra deglazing liquid. Set aside.

In the bottom of a casserole dish or Dutch oven, arrange your vegetables. Salt and pepper lightly. Take the deglazed bits you saved and pour this over the vegetables. Now place the rabbit pieces on top of the vegetables. Spoon or brush the butter/jelly mixture over it.

Cover the dish and place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove the lid from the dish. You can flip the rabbit pieces at this time, if desired, and continue cooking for another 15-20 minutes or until the rabbit is tender and around 160-165 degrees.

When you plate the rabbit and the vegetables, pour the bottom juices and drippings in a gravy bowl or such style container for extra sauce.

Serves 3-4 city folks or 1-2 hungry Logan County farmers. You can substitute chicken or pheasant or even farm-raised goose for the rabbit. Squirrel is good too…cooking time will be less, though.

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Johnnie Walker
Logan County, CO
USA

twomilecreekspecialtyfoods.com

Thanks, Johnnie!

*Like I have such a track record for plausibility. Now isn’t the time to start making guarantees.

**Here in New Jersey people won’t eat rabbit but they’ll eat pork roll***.

***To non-residents of NJ: Pork roll is a very popular breakfast and sandwich meat of questionable origins. Then the manufacturers add salt and nitrates.

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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