Braised Squirrel in Catalan Sofregit Reduction
"You eat squirrels?" The experienced small game hunter has heard this refrain dozens of times. Next time someone gives you that incredulous look with mouth agape like they were catching flies invite them over and show 'em what squirrels are about.
This recipe is based in the old-world traditions of northeast Spain. Catalan cooking is often done in a round terra cotta casserole dish called a cazuela, and many dishes feature a sofregit, or sofrito, traditionally made of tomatoes, onions, garlic and sometimes bell peppers.
Rather than use flour to thicken the braise, the recipe is thickened with a "picada." Picada is a paste made from almonds or hazelnuts, garlic and parsley. Traditionally, it is ground together with a mortar and pestle, but picada is easily prepared in a food processor.
This dish also can be prepared with rabbits, grouse, quail or even chicken. Since cazuelas are somewhat uncommon outside of Spain, we’ve adapted by using cast iron. If you don’t have cast-iron cookware on hand, a traditional kitchen pan will suffice, but you may want to use a heat diffuser or even a sturdy pie plate over your burner to help distribute heat evenly under your pan.
What you'll need:
For the brine
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 2 small bay leaves
- 2 cups water
For the braise
- 3-4 cleaned & brined squirrels with belly and ribs trimmed and cut into 5 pieces
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3-4 squirrel livers (optional)
- 3 Tbs. olive oil; more as needed
- 3 - 4 medium cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 plum tomatoes, halved, seeded, and grated
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 1/2 cups carrots, roughly chopped or cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
- 1 cup chicken broth; more as needed
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/3 cup toasted almond slivers
- 1 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley; more for garnish (optional)
- Crusty bread, for serving
- How to make it happen:
Place the squirrel portions In a Ziploc bag, then in a non-reactive bowl combine the brine ingredients. Pour the brine over the squirrel portions, seal the bag and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.
Remove the squirrels from the brine, pat them dry with paper towels and generously season with Kosher salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a large cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, brown the squirrel pieces (and liver, if using) on all sides, adding more oil as needed.
Transfer each batch to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small dish and set aside.
Due to the brown sugar used in the brine you may want to clean your pan before using it to make a sofregit. The burned sugar had a tendency to impart a bitter taste.
To make a sofregit, melt the butter and add the onion to the pan, stirring frequently, until it becomes translucent, 3 to 4 minutes (add a bit more oil if it seems dry).
Next add the tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly, uncovered, stirring frequently and tapping down the sofregit with the back of a spoon until the mixture thickens and darkens (about 10 to 15 minutes) adding a little broth as required to keep things from drying out and sticking.
Return the hind quarters to the pan, turning to coat then slowly drizzle in the wine, gently stir, and heat for 1 minute before adding the carrots, broth, and thyme.
Increase the heat to medium high, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.
Add the remaining squirrel pieces and continue to cook until the squirrel is tender, about 30 minutes more, adding more broth if needed to keep the sofregit sauce moist.
Using short pulses in a food processor grind the liver (if using), garlic, almonds, and parsley into a fine paste then loosen with 1 to 2 Tbs. water.
Stir the garlic mixture into the sauce until well blended and continue to cook about for 10 more minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, garnish with parsley (if using), and serve from the pan with the bread.