Sometimes folks understand a concept without thinking about it, and then they hear (or read) such a perfectly succinct explanation of the idea that it solidifies their thoughts – an ah-ha moment. Later that evolves into a more complex and original conclusion.
This happened to me after a recent Chris Kimball monologue on the “America’s Test Kitchen” TV show. This host talked about meat cuts from large animals, leading me to solid ideas about cooking small-game animals.
Kimball used a handheld meat-cutting graph of a steer, and he emphasized the tender but costly choices were along the backbone, including rib roasts, tenderloins, T-bones, porterhouses, chops, etc.
This born teacher continued with the visual aid, saying cuts from hindquarters and shoulders are tougher, sometimes much tougher. Bottom-round or top-round steaks and roasts from hindquarters as well as blade steaks on forward shoulders offered good examples.
According to Kimball, locomotion muscles work much harder than ones along the backbone, so they require different slicing and cooking methods to make them tender and edible, so edible that many recipes for poorer cuts have earned gourmet status.
Kimball provided me with a revelation that I always knew but never pondered deeply until watching the show. With wild small game, cooks like me are always dealing with tough, chewy cuts, so turning these muscle fibers into a scrumptious meal demands cooking knowledge and skills.
Chefs must avoid frying or broiling small game over high heats, which toughens meat. Cooking methods like fricasseeing, jugging, braising and simple parboiling tenderize locomotion muscles with slow simmering. Most quality cookbooks and Net sites have good recipes for these methods.
Unlike with large animals, small game have scant muscles along the backbone so we won’t find chops, T-bones or so forth on a squirrel or hare. This relegates backbones into an ingredient for soup broths.
My revelation from Kimball’s monologue came later after a circuitous route, typical of such moments. After all, he was talking about big critters.
Differing ages of small game complicate this discussion:
So many harvested squirrels, rabbits and grouse haven’t reached a year old yet, and though the meat may not be as tender as veal, it’s succulent after a shorter simmering time – around an hour .
Few grouse survive to the second year, but enough varying hares and gray squirrels reach their second year and beyond. Two- to 3-year-old hare or squirrel benefits from longer slow simmering – maybe as much as two hours or more. During cooking, check tenderness by piercing with a sharp fork.
All of which reminds me of an appropriate anecdote from 25 years ago:
Back then, Nate Mitchell hosted a Maine television show. Mitchell had invited me as a guest to make a wild pheasant pie from a bird that he had shot on Matinicus Island, where warmer temperatures far off the coast allowed pheasant to survive winters.
Nate somehow surmised the pheasant was 4 years old, ancient for a wild game bird. The thigh muscle felt like semi-hard rubber, and it rattled me to think I’d be cooking an old boot in front of a TV audience.
The taping to get a 30-minute show took a much longer time, beginning with 45 minutes just to dress the pheasant, cut it into serving pieces and brown, before simmering slowly for three more hours. While it slowly bubbled, I made pie crust.
After the pheasant had cooked, it took 30 more minutes to cool, bone and make gravy. Before the pie turned into a delicious meal, it required 45 minutes more to bake – about five hours in all from start to finish.
If folks want one of Rachel Ray’s 30-minute meals that this perky personality loves to highlight, then they should choose fish or young, domestic meats. For tougher, small-game muscles, though, it takes skills and slow simmering in a liquid or sauce to create a pleasing meal.
Also, even when a small-game dish occasionally falls short of expectations, a home chef can turn the repast into a dinner winner with the addition of a fancy potato, pasta or rice dish, green veggie, brandied carrots, crusty French bread and appropriate wine.
I LOVE A RABBIT DISH called jugged hare. “Jug” means slow cooking in a covered, earthenware pot, and most jugged-hare recipes include browning the pieces, sauteing mushrooms and glazing pearl onions. Then, stick eight cloves into the meat, layer the pieces and veggies in a bean pot, season to taste and cover with 1/2 to 1 cup of dry red wine and chicken broth. Then cover and jug in a 280-degree oven. With older hares, reduce the oven to 250 for at least the last hour or two. Slow simmering works.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: