Mister North and I have long had a slightly competitive game where we try to buy each other the oddest and most interesting presents possible. This is why I own ice tongs and he once had his own jellyfish at London Zoo. So the bar was quite high last Christmas. I needed something for the foodie who has everything and the answer came to me when I found a company who can supply wild meat and I realised Mister North would very much be the person to appreciate a brace of squirrel in his stocking…
Sense prevailed and I decided not to send him the beasts over the festive period in case they went a-wandering and sat in a depot somewhere if the weather was bad, but promised them at a time of his choosing. When he announced he was coming down to London last week for a bit of culture, we agreed this was the perfect time for Tufty to visit. We decided to try and do the squirrels different ways to get the maximum impact from what is a fairly small animal. Mister North suggested squirrel satay as soon as the present was mentioned and I then took a notion to do squirrel sliders and see if I could convince myself they are more than mini-burgers.
Although the satay was Mister North’s idea, I volunteered myself to make it so I could show off the satay skills I got after attending a Brunei Malay cooking class with Siti Merrett at Books For Cooks last summer. If, like me, you know little of this cuisine, I recommend Siti’s book Coconuts and Kelupis as both the beef in soya sauce and the satay are amazing. The following recipe is my version of her satay. The Malay version does not contain the coconut of Thai versions, so don’t be surprised not to see it. If you really like the creaminess of coconut, I guess you could add it. Try not to be scared by the list of ingredients, the recipe is actually very simple!
Squirrel Satay (this is what I used for one squirrel, but would easily serve two squirrels)
For the marinade:
- 3 stalks lemongrass
- 6 small shallots (or 3 large)
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1.5 cm galangal, peeled
- 1.5 cm fresh ginger, peeled
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- salt to your taste
Using either pestle and mortar or a hand blender, mix the marinade, adding the sugar and salt in last and adding a touch of neutral oil if seems too chunky. Rub over the jointed squirrel. We had the four legs individually and the torso split into two, making six pieces. It then marinaded overnight in the fridge in a ziplock bag while you turn your attention to the satay sauce. This can be made in advance and reheated.
For the satay sauce:
- 1.5 tsp coriander seeds, toasted
- 1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted
- 2 dried chillies, soaked (or one fresh chilli)
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 1 cm galangal, peeled
- 1 cm fresh ginger, peeled
- 300g raw peanuts (not dry roasted or salted. Try the Asian supermarket for vacpacs)
- 250 ml water
- 1 tbsp tamarind concentrate and 1 tbsp extra of water
- 50g palm sugar (if you can’t get it, use regular sugar)
- 50g sugar (I used golden caster. Darker is tastier here)
- Salt to your desire
- Vegetable oil as required to make a thick paste
Toast your spices in a dry pan. Do not let them burn. Grind in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder. Set aside.
Using the pestle and mortar or a hand blender, chop the lemongrass, galangal, ginger and chillies to a chunky paste, adding a touch of oil if it looks too thick and as if it might burn, and fry it gently in the same pan til soft and fragrant but not coloured. Chop or pound the peanuts while this is cooking. They are much softer than the ones we are used to, so don’t pulverise them to peanut butter, but keep some texture.
Add the peanuts, water, tamarind, sugar, salt and spices to the cooked lemongrass paste and simmer gently. The peanuts will soften slightly and combine with everything else, thickening up beautifully. Cook for about 20-30 minutes, adding a dash or so of water if it starts to look dry. You can take it off the heat at this point and reheat as needed, or simply keep it warm while you grill the meat.
Because the squirrel is on the bone, I didn’t bother doing it on skewers as nature provided them itself and the meat was easy to turn. It took about five minutes each side to cook through and get a seared crust that really enhanced the flavour and texture. We served it with some steamed rice and dipped it in the satay. The soft sweetness of the fresh peanuts really worked well with the squirrel which is like a sweeter and slightly more gamey version of rabbit to me and revelled in the big flavours of this dish.
Intrigued by the flavour of the squirrel, we moved onto trying the sliders. As I said, I thought these were just mini burgers, but some research on the utterly amazing A Hamburger Today on Serious Eats, taught me that they should actually be steamed meat patties served in a steamed bun rather than grilled like a burger. I haven’t been won over by sliders up until now as every single one I’ve had has been cold and unpleasant in the middle as if they’ve tried to go for a medium rare burger and just not cooked it enough because of the size. Steaming the meat sounded like that would get round the chilly slimy middles I’ve been encountering.
I started the procedure off by turning to the wise words and expertise of Dan Lepard and using his recipe for soft slider buns. I like a slightly sweet bun with my burgers (and the shortrib sandwiches at Hawksmoor!) but didn’t feel confident enough in my baking to do full on brioche. This recipe uses custard powder as a base and provides that smooth glossy top and sweetness that I was after. Like everything else Dan Lepard writes, it’s very easy to follow and works well, although I’d recommend covering the dough with clingfilm while it is rising after kneading as mine developed a bit of a crust with just a teatowel over it and this made it harder to get a nice smooth top as the dough cracked a bit. Other than that, they were super easy and straightfoward.
Buns dealt with, Mister North kindly took the squirrel off the bone which was a bit fiddly and quite time consuming. I turned my attentions to finely dicing the onions upon which the squirrel patties would steam and grating an onion to provide the juice to create the steam. Eyes streaming, I ended up with about 200ml of onion juice after wringing the grated onion out in a muslin cloth. I left it to one side and dealt with the meat. I don’t have a mincer, so we just blitzed in the handblender til it was a coarse texture, but not mush. Squirrel is fairly lean so we added a chunk of the bacon fat I had from my last batch to moisten it all and then seasoned well before patting out into 8 patties each weighing about 30 grams each.
The onions started cooking at a low heat, so they softened well, but didn’t colour. I added in half the onion juice and put the slightly chilled patties on top to steam. The now glistening and golden buns went on top about two minutes later. The meat tightened up while it was cooking and it was impossible to balance the buns without using some wooden skewers to perch them on which slowed things a bit as it meant having the lid off while we faffed. But about 4 minutes later we had perfectly cooked and piping hot squirrel sliders on soft tender buns with very little effort. We had chosen to do them without cheese, preferring just ketchup, mustard and pickles. The meat rested when we were dressing the buns and getting everything ready and was suprisingly tender when sat down to eat them.
These were great. Still warm, not at all slimy in the middle and perfect with the sweet and sour ketchup and pickles, we wolfed them down. The buns were particularly good, firm enough to tackle the meat but didn’t need chewed forever. Another recipe by Dan Lepard that can’t be faulted! Four of these later and I was a total convert to sliders and to squirrel! It’s delicious and surprisingly versatile. If it was easier for me to get I’d be eating it often. As it is I used the carcasses and turned the onions from the slider steaming into a terrific onion soup as well and got every scrap of squirrelly goodness I could from them. If you fancy something a bit different, either for dinner or a present anyone will remember, treat yourself to Tufty. It’s one way to get your own back when they’ve been digging up your garden for months….