I love cast iron cookware. I collect it, fawn over it, obsessively season it, and cook with it whenever I can. I like the idea that a single pan can so comfortably migrate from stove top to oven, grill to campfire, and many of mine often do. I love how these heavy behemoths hold heat and caramelize meat and vegetables. They can coast along, nurturing a slow, burbling simmer, and just as easily, withstand a raging charcoal forge to get that pinging, almost glowing hot needed for true blackening. Many pans last generations, and I like to think about the feasts and culinary debacles that inevitably took place in their presence. They are a joy to cook with.
Everything from bouillabaisse to cowboy beans are at home in a cast iron pan. My three quart chicken fryer has a finish on it you can almost see your reflection in after years of use and care. It's one of my prized possessions in the kitchen, and would make a pretty formidable home defense weapon in a pinch.
So when Brian was looking to add a new dutch oven to his repertoire a couple weeks ago, the phone calls and texts began pouring in. He's no slouch in the kitchen, and he's also a cast iron aficionado, but a purchase of such import must be analyzed, researched, and gabbed into the ground between the two of us.
He ended up buying a great seven quart dutch oven from Lodge, the one without the bail handle or legs. The factory seasoning they come with now is unbelievable. Straight out of the box, the pan looked liked it had spent a couple decades in the loving hands of grandma. It arrived on Thursday, and I drove down Saturday morning. Not solely to cook for the boys in that pan, but I'm not going to lie, I was really looking forward to taking her out on her maiden voyage.
We'd decided I would make venison and stout pie for dinner Saturday night before the big pan purchase came up. I love this Irish classic, normally made with lamb, I believe. It's hearty and satisfying without being overbearing. And you get to drink Guinness while you make it. But I wanted to get my mitts on that enticing new pan. Being in an Irish state of mid already, my mind drifted over to a near cousin of the stout pie, shepherd's pie. It's a very similar thing, with some more vegetables invited to the party, and the addition of the mashed potato crust. Easy to pull off after a day in the woods, and I would get to use the gorgeous new dutch oven.
I combined the two, morphing two recipes into one, and when in doubt, adding more Guinness. Murph, Brian, and I sat in the kitchen, rehashing the day's hunt and many before it as that venison pie filling slowly simmered. The smell was intoxicating, and I don't mind admitting I giggled upon my final taste test, an hour or more in. I vow to you now, gentle reader, I will not go back to the more traditional preparation anytime soon when cooking for myself. The combination of the potatoes with the Guinness pie filling was simply out of this world. (Who'da thunk it, I know.) Sweet and meaty, thick and gooey, we smiled as a hush fell over the table, unable to speak with mouths full.
The maiden voyage of Black Beauty and Venison Guinness Shepherd's Pie
Despite our unseasonably warm weather this year, I'm fully in the winter food mindset now. Simple soups and hearty stews, good bread, dark beer. A fire to warm the toes, and good company to share it all. There's no need to mash up trendy ingredients this time of year. At least not for me. Give me a few root vegetables, some stock, a couple aromatics, and maybe some protein. We're on the the bullet train to Comfort Town, baby.
Coq au Vin. A hearty and satisfying classic peasant treasure, despite my near-maniacal obsession with grill marks. And so simple if you have the time.
Before we tucked into the glorious venison and Guinness concoction last Saturday night, we'd been squirrel hunting, another endeavor marked by it's utter simplicity. Like the willing panfish that guided almost all of us through the early trials and successes of our fishing careers, squirrel hunting is stripped down to the bare essentials of gathering meat in the woods.
The hunter need not concern himself too much with the minutiae of more complex hunting while chasing ol' fluffy tail. Wind direction and scent control are easily ignored. You should probably cover your face and hands to help prevent getting busted while moving, but head-to-toe camouflage isn't necessary. And the tools are as simple as they get. You won't find a multitude of calls around the squirrel hunter's neck. He carries no GPS, most likely, and may not even have a scope on his weapon of choice. The only concession to specialized gear a squirrel hunter might chose to make is subsonic ammunition or an air rifle. Quiet is king in the squirrel woods.
Well worn boots, and a trusty boyhood .22. It can't get more pared down than that.
There is plenty of action to keep the young and old interested, and they will forgive you a mistake or two. But that is not to say that Squirrels are easy prey. These aren't the city-fied tree rats you see in the yard or on the bird feeder, immune to human presence. They're just as wild as any animal out there, and if they see or hear hear you, they will be just as gone. So you learn (or remember) to stalk quietly, sit still, and be patient. Eyes and ears just as wary as when in a tree stand, movements held to a bare minimum. All things that apply to hunting much larger game, but that most of us learned from the wily squirrel.
And they're small. I love that .22 rifle, and shoot it well more consistently than any other gun I own, having grown up with it, but I still have to concentrate and remember my fundamentals to hit a tiny gray target well down range. The stalking, the marksmanship, the patience and concentration required will all make you a better big game hunter, no doubt about it.
Still, it harkens back to the happy hunts of childhood. There is no pressure to fill a tag or bag a trophy. It's an exercise in comfort, but it only lends results if done with some care.
As far as taste, I think squirrels are a knockout. Sweet and nutty, they lend themselves well to any number of winter stews. Young ones are particularly delicious simply fried up with with some butter and onions. Add mushrooms and some minced acorns, gathered on the hunt, and you're laughing. I think classically trained chef and author (and the girl I'm going to marry someday), Georgia Pellegrini, sums them up very well. “They’re delicious. I think it’s one of my favorite game meats right now. Think about it: You are what you eat, and they eat acorns. People spend a fortune for acorn-fed pigs. Squirrels are buttery and a little bit sweet because when animals eat nuts it makes their flesh sweet and nutty, and it creates an inherent fattiness in the meat.” And just check out her new cookbook and memoir, "Girl Hunter" She's holding a shotgun and a cast iron pan! I've never swooned before, but I think I'm working up to it.
This Saturday night: Squirrel Brunswick Stew