Brown gravy just doesn't sound at all appealing, does it? The first thing the words used to bring to my mind was the unfortunate time I once signed up for a "tasting panel" at McCormick Spice Company. McCormick is headquartered near where I live and you can sign up to do focus groups and taste testings at about $50 a pop. So I go in and taste literally ten different kinds of brown gravy, the kind you mix out of the foil packet with some water. Yes, as good as it sounds.
But then a trip to Louisiana last year, to hang out with the very last Cajuns who do crawfishing for a living, introduced me to a very different kind of brown gravy. We got in late the night we arrived, but our incredibly sweet and accommodating hosts, Mike and Alice Bienvenu, were waiting up for us. They fed us leftovers from their own dinner, apologizing profusely the whole time for not cooking us a brand new meal from scratch at 1 a.m. And it was only the best thing I'd ever eaten - wild duck in this incredibly rich and complex sauce. I was sure I tasted all kinds of things - wild mushrooms, complexly carmelized dark sugars, exotic spice. What on earth is this ambrosia called? Brown gravy, said Mike. It's how we cook just about everything, said Alice.
Last week I called Mike and asked exactly how to make that dish, transcribing his every word. So when I cooked my very first squirrels two nights ago, brown gravy was on my mind - I've had squirrel before, but always in something like Brunswick Stew and never on its own, treated like a legitimate entree. This is what he said to do (using duck) and I tried my best to replicate:
“First of all you gotta take the feathers off, and then you take the guts out.” (Laughs). “You can cut it in pieces or cook it whole, it’s easier to brown if it’s in pieces. Season it good with red pepper (cayenne) and salt -- make it red all over with the pepper. Then you take the point of your knife and you stab it all over the breast and on the legs, because you want that seasoning to get in there good. Get a black iron pot and put little bit of grease in, not a lot a lot of grease but enough to cover the inside where the duck won’t stick too much. And then you just put it on medium high heat, about 6 or 7 on an electric stove. Throw him in there and get him good and brown all over, keep turning him til he’s nice dark brown. And then you put a little water in there, not much, just enough to keep from sticking, and you put a lid on. And you let it keep on til the duck gets nice and tender. Once he’s tender you cut you some onions and bell pepper, and throw that in there with a little bit more water. Then you cover it up again and cook it til it surrenders. The main thing is to season it, and you want to brown it good. And if you got a black iron pot then you shouldn’t have a problem.
“It’s kind of trial and error. You do it a few times, you start to pick up a few tricks. You get the feel of it, how to add some little bit of water just to keep it from sticking. Not too much.
“A duck to me takes, from the time you start until you finish, about three hours. You want to cook it long because you don’t want to fight it when you eat it, you know? You put the cover on it, that’s going to smother it and help tenderize. When you cover it, the pot is going to get hotter. And the duck is going to keep browning in the pot till the very end when you add the bell peppers and the onion. I don’t know how you all like that, but the reason we put the bell peppers and all in at the end is so they don’t cook down to nothing. So when you put the gravy on your rice that you’re going to eat it with, you still have some onions and peppers in there. But that’s it. And basically that is how we cook everything. Everything we eat, we cook like that. The key to it is to season it and brown it, and then you got it.”
So I tried to do exactly as Mike said, only I quailed at the making the meat literally red with the cayenne pepper. As I was shaking it on I thought, no way will this be edible with so much cayenne, and stopped while the squirrel pieces were more of a dusty dark pink with pepper. Two hours later, though, the heat from the capsaicin had faded, leaving behind a rich and complex flavor. But not as much as I remembered from eating Mike's master class version. So at that point, when I added the peppers and onions, I put in some more cayenne, but it was really too late. Next time I'm going deep, dark red.
Still, it was crazy delicious. The squirrels were meltingly tender, and the flavor rich and smoky with a back-of-the-throat memory of heat. We ate them over fluffy white rice and mopped every last drop out of the skillet.