Turning wild game and birds into culinary masterpieces to the delight
of family and friends is a strong aspect of hunting. It is, indeed, the
culmination of the hunt. But the success of such kitchen capers is largely
dependent upon the skills of the hunter in dressing--or should that be
undressing--and “cleaning” the game.
There is nothing better on the table than a beautiful piece of rabbit,
quail, or pheasant that has been both properly dressed and cooked. Contrariwise,
there is nothing that gives wild game a worse taste than sinking one’s
incisors into a mass of feathers or hair.
Thus, a gourmet wild game dish on the table starts with cleaning the
game the hunter brings in, and it should be done with dispatch when the
hunter returns from the field.
Oh, I know, there are folks who will spout theories that game should
be hung and aged European style for a day or two to reap the best flavors.
To this I always say if I have some spoiled meat I will leave it for critters
that have a stronger constitution than I.
The time to clean game--and that goes for fish--is as soon as you can
after ending the hunt or fishing trip.
Although the most popular method of cleaning small game animals like
rabbits and squirrel is to remove the skin while exposing the muscle tissue
(meat) to hair as little as possible, I am convinced--having consumed my
share of home-butchered pork--that all game animals and birds (not to mention
fish) will taste better if the skin is left on and the bones in the meat.
This, of course, is time consuming and we will not tolerate that. So
we remove the skin of squirrels and rabbits--even many of the game birds
and waterfowl, not to mention deer.
The procedure for skinning squirrels has been well covered in the August
5, 2002 column that will be found on this website. The procedure for
skinning a rabbit follows, and procedures for “cleaning” game birds and
waterfowl (including geese) will be explained in next week’s column.
To skin a rabbit:
Step 1--When rabbits have been dead for a while they tend to stiffen
into strange shapes. Thus, the first step in skinning a rabbit is to grasp
the two front legs with one hand, the two back legs with the other hand,
and to stretch the animal until it is reasonably straight.
Step 2--Remove the head. How this is done is a decision for the skinner,
but the method used by most rabbit hunters is to step firmly on the rabbit’s
head, grasp the rabbit with both hands firmly in front of the back legs,
and detach the head with a strong pull. Pull off cotton tail.
Step 3--Grasp one (or both) back feet of the rabbit, hold it at eye
level or below with one hand, and pinch and pull the skin downward from
the legs until both back legs are free of the skin. At this point the skin
can be pulled slowly down and worked slowly over the front legs until the
entire body is free of skin. Freeing the front legs may take some special
effort, but rabbit skin comes off surprisingly easy.
Step 4--Removal of the entrails can be accomplished by having someone
hold the back legs of the rabbit with belly up. The skinner then slits
the belly from stem to stern and pulls out the entrails. This operation
will require bending the rabbit backward at the hips to expose and remove
the anal intestine and the urinary tube. Extreme caution is urged in removing
the entrails, the urinary tube and sex organs to avoid exposing the meat
to urine in the bladder. I save the liver of rabbits and allow the kidneys
(usually surrounded by fat) to remain attached.
If there is not a second person available to hold the rabbit for removal
of internal organs, two three-inch nails (preferably with heads) can be
pounded into a solid wood object (a tree is ideal), and left protruding
an inch or so. The nails should be six to eight inches apart. The back
legs of the rabbit are pushed onto the nails to suspend the rabbit (back
to the tree) for removal of the internal organs. The nail heads break the
skin between the bones of the back leg just above the feet.
Step 5--Cut off feet with pruning shears and rinse the body cavity lightly
with cold tap water
Step 6--If the rabbit is to be stuffed and baked, leave it whole. For
other methods of cooking, the rabbit should be cut into six or seven pieces:
Two front legs, two back legs and two back pieces. One back piece will
include the rib cage and part of the backstrap (the elongate flesh that
runs along both sides of the backbone), the other the larger section of
the backstrap. The second (backstrap) part of the back may be cut crosswise
into two pieces, if desired.
Wild game can be frozen in numerous ways. It is best to use the meat
in a few weeks or months to avoid freezer burn.