Roast Squirrel with Orange Blackberry Cranberry Sauce
What do you do when you've got a package of dressed and quartered squirrel in the freezer, a bowl of still-pretty-fresh cranberries hanging out in the fridge, a pile of leaves and stems from a just-pruned thyme plant, and fresh blackberries on sale at the grocer...and you're hungry? You get creative, that's what.
Here's a dish that's simple, is most excellent and has some real nice visual appeal. Blackberries have always been a good match for squirrel in my book, and when I bought them the other day pairing the two was exactly what I had in mind. I ate an orange this morning just to get something in my stomach right away, and that gave me the idea to make an orange blackberry sauce for the squirrel.
As an aside, I rarely immediately dispose of things that smell good, and I like to keep a bowl of aromatic bits and pieces on the bathroom counter. Orange peels, herb clippings, twigs from the Christmas tree, discarded soap wrappers...anything dry and "pretty" smelling. The peels of my just eaten orange went into the bowl. Our thyme and rosemary plants are also doing very well since we brought them inside for the winter, with plenty of new bright green growth bending towards the windows. I've cut them back at least twice already since late November. Today I trimmed the thyme and ended up with a cup or two of great smelling twigs and leaves. I separated the good from the bad, tossed the leafy hard twigs into the potpouri bowl, and set the soft stuff on the kitchen counter for use in this roast squirrel dish.
As I was prepping everything I recalled that we had a bowl full of fresh cranberries in the fridge that had been waiting patiently for a couple weeks. There were a few undesirables in the bunch but most of them were still in fine fettle. Why not add those as well?
Here's the recipe. It's really just a normal orange sauce such as you might use with duck, but with the berries added. Duck and squirrel are similar in some ways and I think this sauce would make a great compliment to either one.
a couple of squirrels, cleaned and quartered (I had a package of thighs and forequarters from three or four squirrels, so that's what I used here)
stick of butter
1 or 2 yellow onions, thickly sliced
half-dozen or so whole garlic cloves, smashed with the side of your knife
about a ¼ cup fresh thyme
1 orange, skin-on, sliced into ¼" circles
1 or 2 cups of fresh cranberries
about 1 cup orange juice
orange peel from one orange
about ¼ cup light molasses
½ cup light brown sugar (you could use honey too, but cut back on the amount)
piece of fresh ginger about half the size of your thumb, grated or diced
½ cup Grand Marnier orange liqueur
at least a cup of fresh blackberries
1. Heat oven to 350°.
2. Gently melt about ¾ of the stick of butter in a large cast iron skillet (I'm using cast iron for just about everything these days). Line the bottom of the skillet with a single layer of onion slices and all but one or two of the smashed garlic cloves. Toss in a handful of the cranberries.
3. Lay the squirrel on top of the onion/garlic/cranberry bed, in a single layer and evenly spaced. Salt and pepper the squirrel. Sprinkle the thyme leaves evenly over the squirrel. Lay the orange slices on top (you don't need to completely cover with the orange slices, a few should do the job).
4. Into the oven with the skillet. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
Now for the sauce.
1. Combine the orange juice, orange peel, molasses, brown sugar, ginger, a couple cloves of smashed garlic, orange liqueur, and a big handful of cranberries in a sauce pot. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Once it hits boil turn the heat down and let it simmer, stirring regularly. Salt and pepper to taste, about a teaspoon each.
2. After simmering for 10-12 minutes, strain the liquid from the chunky stuff through a strainer, pressing the juice through the strainer with a rubber spatula. It doesn't have to be completely clear of the little bits, at least not for me. Return liquid to sauce pan and put on a low simmer. Add most of the blackberries and loosely smash them to break them up a bit (save a few to add to the final plating). Reduce until you get the thickness you're looking for. You could add that last ¼ stick of butter here if you wish, to give it a little more richness. I chose not to.
Back to the squirrel.
5. After 30 minutes, remove skillet from oven and with tongs turn each piece of meat. There should be a good amount of liquid in the bottom of the skillet, but the meat should not be completely submerged. Cook for another 30 minutes.
6. After 30 minutes, turn the pieces of meat one more time and set the oven on broil. Broil for only 5 minutes or so, just enough to give a nice browning to the surface of the meat.
7. Plate it up, pour the sauce, eat it up. A couple of wine recommendations for this dish: Von Stiehl Winery in Algoma, WI makes a Cherry Bounce that is to die for, and Door Peninsula Winery in Sturgeon Bay makes a wonderful Blackberry Merlot. Both do nicely here.