Eastern gray squirrels are obnoxious little bastards.

It’s bad enough that they go after all your birdseed and lawn seed and whatever else they can get their greedy little paws on, but while they’re helping themselves to all the food, they’re actually killing off a lot of native squirrel populations, like the British red squirrel. They’re like locusts, and they don’t even belong in this country, they’re native to the northeastern United States, so they’re essentially wiping out their hosts, and that’s just poor etiquette.

In an attempt to curb this ecological curb-stomping, the powers that be have set out to encourage us to eat more squirrel over here. Celebrity chefs have chowed down on the little buggers on their TV shows, and they’ve started showing up in farmers’ markets (including ours, in Stockbridge). Perhaps ironically, food that would be considered backwoods redneck dinner by most people in the U.S. is total yuppie food over here.

And it’s delicious.

The wild game and fish stall at the market first had squirrel a few weeks back, and I decided to look into some recipes and get it when it showed up again. This past Thursday, it was back, so I picked one up for 3.95, figuring that if I screwed this up, I’d only have lost 4 pounds. I did not screw it up, happily. Since it’s a pretty lean meat (as you would expect) I thought it would be good for stewing, served up with some nice crusty multigrain bread from the baker at the market. Yesterday turned out to be cold and rainy, so I pulled out my squirrel, picked up a couple of extra ingredients and started experimenting. Here’s what I came up with.

Mediterranean Squirrel Stew

Serves 2

1 gray squirrel, jointed
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
A few T stock (whatever you have on hand), white wine, or water
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 bay leaf
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes with juice (or whole peeled tomatoes, crushed up with your hands)
1 tsp dried oregano or 1T fresh, chopped
1 small, whole hot pepper, like a fingerling
1 potato, sliced fairly thinly
10-20 pitted green olives (optional)

Warm some olive or flavored rapeseed oil (I used the Supernature jalapeno flavor) in a skillet over medium heat. While it’s warming, mix some salt and pepper with about 1/4 cup of flour and dredge the squirrel pieces in it, shaking off any excess.

Add the onion and garlic to the pan and saute just until they begin to color. Remove to a soup pot, crock pot, or large saucepan. Add more oil to the pan and brown the squirrel pieces on all sides. Add them to the pot with the onion and deglaze the pan with stock, wine, or water, scraping up any brown bits. Add that to the pot with the squirrel.

Add all remaining ingredients except for the potato and olives. If you’re using a pot on the stove, bring the mixture to a boil, cover, lower the heat, and simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half, until the meat’s done and coming off the bone easily. If you’re using a slow cooker, put all the ingredients in the cooker and cook on high for 4-5 hours or low for 6-8.

Remove the meat and the hot pepper from the stew and set aside to cool a bit. When it’s handleable, pull the meat from the bones, taking care to check that any small bits of bone have been removed (squirrel has a lot of little bone bits, so be careful). Return the meat to the pot with the remaining ingredients. Set the hot pepper on a cutting board, cut off the stem end, and run the blunt edge of a kitchen knife up the length of the pepper to squeeze out the seeds and guts. Return these to the pot (Note: if you don’t like your food spicy, leave this step out) and discard the pepper skin.

Add the potatoes and olives to the pot, cover, and return to medium heat. Cook until the potatoes are done, about 10-20 minutes, depending on how thick they are. If the stew’s rather watery, uncover and cook down for a few minutes over medium heat. Test for seasoning and adjust as necessary (I found I didn’t even need to add salt, thanks to the olives). Serve with thick slices of toasted bread for sopping up juices.

Cliche though it sounds, I found that squirrel tastes a lot like chicken, but sweeter. It’s quite a lovely meat that could be adapted to just about any chicken recipe, or you could just mess around and make up your own, like I did. If you’re in the States, it might be hard to come across squirrel, unless you or someone you know is a really good hunter, but if you have the chance, give it a try, you might be surprised by how much you like it!

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