I had an unforgettable wild game dinner this week. While it didnt approach the perfection of the rare Arctic char or buttery Ora king salmon I recently reveled in at the Sole Proprietor, the pan-fried woodchuck was profoundly satisfying.
Woodchuck, despite being the very favorite food of our local coyotes, is probably not on your menu. But trust me, any animal that eats down to the ground all of your wifes garden lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, beans, peas and squash has to be nutritious, tender, sweet, juicy and deserving to die.
Yes, for the second year in a row, my wifes garden was a woodchucks dining room. I shared her frustrated emotions because I had helped plant that garden and was looking forward to many special meals from our mutual effort.
Woodchucks are problems everywhere in Massachusetts except on Marthas Vineyard or Nantucket. Since these big rodents are poor swimmers, they never colonized those fortunate islands. But everywhere else, they can be a pest, and sometimes a nightmare.
The havoc they inflict on property can be extensive, too. Woodchuck tunnels are normally deep just below frost line and about 40 feet long, complexly dug with several amenities: chambers analogous to a baby room, a bathroom and a bedroom. They even build an observation mound at their entry hole. With several escape holes, their home is difficult to eliminate.
If you can find and block all exit holes but one and put carbon dioxide in that remaining hole, you might be able to kill them all inside. Remember its illegal to use any poisons on wildlife. Unintentional secondary killings can result. Predators like foxes, coyotes, and owls that pick up poisoned rodents can later die as a result.
Trapping them can be a problem, too. If you live-trap them, as I did, remember its illegal to transfer wild animals from one area to another. That can spread diseases, like rabies. Sometimes youre just transferring your problem to someone else. Killing them is often the only reasonable alternative unless you can effectively fence your garden.
I needed a sure, simple, quick resolution and revenge. So, I immediately set out a live-capture cage trap baited with the woodchucks favorite food. These insatiable vegetarians cant resist the aroma and flavor of broccoli and cantaloupe.
I put a well-broken and highly fragrant head of it in the rear end of the trap and little fragments to linearly set a trail right into it. I finished the fatal attraction by smearing the cage with the juicy melon and putting a mashed, fragrant chunk of it at the far end of the trap, too.
I took note of our prevailing westerly winds and placed the trap where its alluring scent would carry a long distance over the stone wall and into my neighbors field from which it would surely come.
The next morning, I found the fat robber in my trap and felt the primitive joy of sweet revenge. I quickly dispatched it but couldnt bring myself to just waste it. I then went forth with the spirit, if not the skill of Julia Child, to prepare a gourmet delicacy out of a woodchuck.
I field-dressed it immediately to insure freshness. During the skinning, I made sure to remove the copious rump and thigh fat, and the seven scent glands on its back and front arms. I then proceeded to store it in my cellar refrigerator for four days to let it age and tenderize. Listening to advice that was then coming from all culinary directions, I soaked the meat one night more in a 50/50 solution of water and vinegar with a sliced onion, then drained and parboiled it in fresh water for an hour.
While most woodchuck chefs advise cutting up the meat into chunks for a slow-cook, low-heat, crock-pot stew, I wanted to experience the real, unembellished flavor of the meat. Since there was no significant back-strap, I coated just the hindquarters with egg, then Panko, pan frying them on low heat in coconut oil about 5 minutes on each side. Panko burns too quickly in hot oil.
I wanted to celebrate both the saving of our garden and the deliciousness of the animal, serving it with an appropriately elegant presentation reflecting all the complexities of bringing it to the table. I asked my much more qualified wife to arrange the presentation. Having a profoundly comedic sense of humor, she even designed a Woodchuck Wine label to place on our preferred Riesling and set our table in view of the garden from which our dinner had been richly nourished.
Our verdict was mixed. While the woodchuck was sweet, mild, and surprisingly tasty on its own without any sauces, its dark leg meat was just a bit stringy, much as what one might expect from any squirrel species.
If a second woodchuck raids our garden again, I plan to make a stew, creating a bed of onions, carrots, celery and green peppers in a crock pot, cooking it on low for about 10 hours. I would expect its sweet, tender meat to flake off the bones and take on the added flavor of herbs and spices.
Its a shame woodchucks are so destructive because otherwise theyre quite charming and even comically entertaining. Incidentally, woodchucks dont chuck any wood. Their name is a corruption of the Cree Indian word wuchak, meaning big squirrel. They are in fact our biggest squirrel and like their arboreal cousins can readily climb trees and short fences but with much less quickness and style.
Woodchucks definitely arent all bad, even though theyre costly to farmers, and occasionally their burrows result in leg injuries to cows and horses. They surprisingly can help agriculture, too. New York biologists estimate that these compulsive diggers annually aerate and excavate 1.5 million tons of subsoil, which they bring up to the surface and convert into valuable topsoil.
But you can be sure that if woodchucks move into my neighborhood again next year, Ill put out a live trap before we plant our garden and have another woodchuck recipe ready to try.
(Those who choose to shoot woodchucks must follow all hunting laws. You must be licensed and refrain from shooting without permission within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling or within 150 feet of a road.)
Contact Mark Blazis at email@example.com.
Read more here:
Mark Blazis: Save the garden, then dine well – Worcester Telegram