Category Archives: small game

Next Steps

I called the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife the other day. Squirrels, I said to the guy, I want me some squirrels.

Seattle is overrun by thuggish non-native Eastern gray squirrels that strut about as if they own the place—and they’re making life tough on the threatened Western gray squirrel. At a party before Christmas I talked to a friend who knew a bit about blowguns of all things. The gears started turning. My boy is crazy for poison dart frogs, which we check out at the zoo whenever we’re there. I would get some poison dart frogs (from where I hadn’t yet figured out) and…and make an extract from said amphibians! Then tag a few of our oh-so-cocky grays. But after a while that idea somehow lost steam and I was onto the notion of a slingshot. Yeah, knock ’em right off our fence as they prance about.

So I called WDFW. The game warden was understanding. He’d like to see a few of those fat Eastern grays in a nice gumbo too. But city laws trump anything WDFW has to say, and virtually every city of any size in Puget Sound—which is where the Eastern grays gangbang—has ordinances that prohibit projectiles of any sort. “You can’t even throw a rock at them according to the law,” he said to me sadly.

What’s a squirrel gumbo fancier to do?

After that I started looking at Hav-a-Hart traps. But squirrels are notoriously hard to kill and the thought of trying to drown one—the humane option as sanctioned by WDFW—seemed like too much of an ordeal. The upshot is I plan to hunt squirrels the old-fashioned way—with guns—when I visit my brother-in-law in Arkansas.

In the meantime I’ve hooked up with the bass player of The Tallboys, a local old-timey music outfit, who’s a couple years ahead of me on the hunting learning curve. For small game John uses a Savage Model 24, a combo .22 rifle and 20-gauge shotgun that collapses into a packable size. The other day we got an early start (see the sunrise over Lake Washington above) to scout some possible rabbitat near North Bend. The rabbits weren’t a-hoppin’, though we did flush a couple ruffed grouse and noted those locations for fall when the bird season opens. In a few weeks I take a Hunter Education class, four evenings of instruction capped by a visit to a shooting range.

The odyssey has begun.

B.C.: It’s not just a comic strip

We made our annual pilgrimage to a friend’s cabin on Thetis Island recently. Thetis is two ferries away from Seattle, in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia off the east coast of Vancouver Island. It’s pretty much an all-day affair to get there, but once you’re there, oh boy is the effort worth it.

We lucked out this year with low tides in the mornings, making clam digging the first order of the day. The butter clams, which apparently hold the toxins of red tide longer than other species, are off limits—even though there hasn’t been a red tide in recent memory—but littlenecks are plentiful and as big as I’ve seen them anywhere.

Bottom fishing is another regular distraction. Flounder, greenling, rockfish, and lingcod all haunt the lower depths. One of the kids even caught a dogfish. In the ensuing melee of trying to land and release it without losing a digit, the little shark thrilled its antagonists by snapping the rod in two with its jaws. Down, Fido!

Besides the usual chowder and oyster po ‘boys, we made a cioppino one night, cooking the catch of the day (flounder, littleneck clams, mussels) in a tomato-wine broth gussied up with chopped fennel bulb and saffron. The other key ingredient wasn’t a food item—it was the camp stove that made the cioppino seem all the more authentic (if I can use a term that normally curdles my appetite).

The kids, or some of them at any rate, experimented with their taste buds and their courage. Steamed sea lettuce drizzled with soy sauce over a bed of couscous wasn’t so bad after all, a few admitted. And a small gill-hooked flounder didn’t even require utensils.

There was one big difference between this year and previous: our young charges eventually tired of clamming and fishing, announcing their desire to go after bigger game. In keeping with the practical tenants of The Three-Martini Playdate, we parents heartily encouraged them during one evening’s cocktail hour, suggesting they cease running around underfoot and fully investigate the woods out back. Next thing we know, a small mob has armed itself with sticks and is in pursuit of the rather tame local squirrels and robins.

The next few days saw steep technological changes—not unlike those occurring over the course of millennia—as the little primates used their enhanced cranial capacity to invent a variety of tools/weapons, including bow-and-arrow and spears with honest-to-god spearpoints. Though the rodents and birds escaped harm this year, we shudder to think what future trips will hold for the hapless critters of Thetis Island.

What’s up, Doc?

I cooked my first wabbit last night. No, not a wild one. I don’t own a gun…yet, but soon, my pretties, soon—which is a story for another time. This one was store-bought and cooked with porcini mushrooms from two of my stashes (frozen and dried), hence the foraging connection.

Rabbit cookery has been on my mind a while now, ever since I started ordering them at restaurants in the last few years. Like a lot of folks, I was kinda squeamish about summoning Bugs to the table on a platter, but when I finally got up the gumption at the Palace Kitchen a while back, what greeted me was not a carrot-chomping wascal but a tender and delicious meal that registered high on the comfort-o-meter. Mr. Fudd would have been in heaven.

Maybe that was the problem. My Palace rabbit and equally yummy ones that followed were the products of professionals. Truth be told, I was a little disappointed with what emerged from my own amateur-but-trying-hard oven last night, although I’ve learned a few lessons. For one thing, I need to try to refrain from my usual headlong dive into new waters; you know, do a tad more research on the literature and expertise so abundant online. For another, expectations should be set accordingly. Who did I think I was? Daniel Boulud?

In retrospect it occurs to me that all my restau-rabbits have been boneless—and here is a key to quality rabbit-eating: they’re bony critters, with meat similar to chicken but bonier bodies, including a bunch of sneaky little bones to boot. Even though the finished product turned out to be quite flavorful, next time I plan to de-bone the bunny first, or see if my butcher offers alternatives to the whole rabbit. The other tricky issue is that rabbit meat is very lean and subject to drying out. You would think that de-boning would raise the risk of a too-dry rodent. Obviously there’s a skill to be learned about cooking rabbit so that it is both tender and moist.

At 7 clams per pound, as Bugs would say, this experiment wasn’t cheap either. I present the recipe below (in French, no less) in any event because the sauce was so good and it’s a simple preparation that would work just as well with fowl. And to all you Bunny Experts out there: Please weigh in with your own tips and travails.

Le Lapin avec Cèpes Deux Fois

Cèpes are porcini in French, aka boletus mushrooms. I used two types of boletes: frozen “spring king” buttons, of which the exact species name is up for grabs although some call them Boletus pinophilus, others Boletus rex-veris, and still others believe them to be part of the Boletus edulis complex. These are a spring and early summer variety found on the east slope of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains, and they’re known to be less pungent than their fall cousins though still firm and delectable. The second variety was a handful of dried Leccinum mushrooms from this fall’s harvest, probably Leccinum aurantiacum. Also from the Bolete family, Leccinums are generally better dried and pulverized to extract their earthy flavor.

1 3 1/2 lb rabbit, cut up
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups beef stock
1/2 pound fresh (or thawed) boletus mushrooms, sliced
1-3 oz dried boletus mushrooms, pulverized
1 large can whole tomatoes, chopped, minus extra liquid in can
1/2 tsp dried tarragon
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
parsley for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add warm water to dried pulverized mushrooms to cover.
2. Melt butter in large pan and brown rabbit pieces; set aside. Saute onions and garlic in same pan. If using fresh mushrooms, add to saute and cook 5 minutes; if using previously frozen mushrooms, saute in smaller pan with an extra tbsp of butter until slightly browned, then add to larger pan.
3. Deglaze with wine, stirring until mostly evaporated. Add tomatoes, stock, reconstituted mushrooms with their water, and herbs, stirring. Cook over moderate heat until reduced and thickened, several minutes.
4. Arrange rabbit pieces in buttered casserole dish, then cover with sauce. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Serve over polenta with a garnish of chopped parsley.

This recipe was inspired by James Villas’s Braised Rabbit, Mushrooms, and Tomatoes, from Crazy for Casseroles. Bugs Bunny photo by Gabrielle.