I have been duck hunting for almost 30 years, and in that time I have shot a lot of ducks. I have also eaten a lot of ducks. Everybody has a favorite kind of duck to eat; mine is the wood duck. To me, there is nothing tastier than a nice, fat wood duck. Wood Ducks have a tendency to eat acorns, and that diet gives their meat a sweeter milder flavor. Most people prefer to eat the mallard because they are a milder flavored duck as well, and many people claim that the canvasback is the finest duck to eat. As far as eating ducks go these three are probably the most revered because of their milder flavor. Wild ducks are much more powerful in flavor than domestic ducks and many people who claim to love eating duck don’t enjoy the taste of wild ducks. Most of this has to do with what they eat. Although many ducks do like to eat wild rice and other water plants they also eat small fish and bugs, which can give them a powerful livery flavor. If you have never eaten wild duck and domestic duck side by side, the difference in flavor is huge.
There are also many ducks that people say are inedible, like the spoon bill and the merganser, mostly because of they are fish eating ducks but even those are more revered than the lowly coot. The coot is a small swamp bird that is actually more closely related to sand hill cranes than it is to ducks. Coots are all over the US and can be found almost anywhere there are ducks. It is not uncommon to see entire flocks of coots swimming all around your decoys and boat while you’re out duck hunting. Most people consider coots annoying because when they are around you they are always in your decoys and can make a lot of noise and almost everyone who know what a coot is will tell you they taste terrible so there is no point in shooting them. But I contend that the majority of the people who say that coots taste bad have never even tried one – they are simply basing their negative opinion on the coot’s reputation.
I am guilty of anti-coot prejudice myself; I had never eaten a coot and only knew that they supposedly tasted terrible because my grandfather told me so. Every few years, I would hear from somebody that they tried coot and it tasted like muck; occasionally, I would hear that coots aren’t bad, you just have to drench them in Italian dressing and then grill them. I had remained skeptical until this October when I attended a sausage making class put on by Hank Shaw, the author of a new cookbook called Duck Duck, Goose: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Waterfowl, Both Farmed and Wild. During the class, Hank talked about fat and how most of the bad flavor you get when eating wild game comes from their fat. He specifically mentioned coots and stated that if you trim away all the fat on a coot, you will get the real flavor of the bird. This got me thinking about all the coots I had seen out duck hunting and if it would be worth my time to try to get some coots to cook.
I called my duck hunting guru Eric Passe down in Wabasha, and he told me the swamp was full of coots – not many ducks, but plenty of coots – so I set up a day when I would be able to head down to go coot hunting. My brother-in-law Matt Murphy came along for the day. Matt had never duck hunted before and had asked me if he could come along the next time I went out; I figured if he wanted to get some shooting practice in, coot hunting might be a good start for him.
The three of us hit the swamp around 5:30 in the morning and got set up in an area we thought might hold some duck as well. It was an extremely foggy morning and the fog didn’t clear out until about nine. We saw a few ducks flying around, but nothing came into gun range. We had one widgeon circle around several times, and when it got close enough to take a shot Eric told Matt to take it. Unfortunately for Matt, his gun jammed and Eric ended up shooting that duck. Eric’s dog Maverick went out to retrieve the duck and ended up getting lost. We had to go out looking for him and didn’t find him until another group of hunters brought him back to us; Maverick had the duck he just got turned around in the swamp. After a pleasant encounter with a DNR conservation officer, we decided it was time to pack it in for the day. But before we left, we decided to head over to the other side of the lake and see if we could shoot a few coots.
The wild rice on the lake was very thick this year and provided great cover for the coots to hang out in, so we parked the boat on the edge of the rice and waited for the coots to come by. When they did there must have been a couple hundred of them, and once the shooting began they just kept coming. In the end we shot 21 coots and one widgeon for the day and then the real work began. I had to pick and clean all those birds.
Coots aren’t very big, and there isn’t a whole lot of meat on them. The breasts only weigh about 2 ounces a piece, and the legs barely have enough meat on them to scrape off. My intentions from the get-go were to get enough meat to turn the coots into sausage. After cleaning them and trimming all the fat off the birds I had about 4 pounds of meat. I was eager to try the meat to see what it tasted like, so I took a couple of breasts and seasoned them with salt and pepper and sautéed them in a little butter for a couple minutes on each side. The breasts were medium rare with just enough pink in the middle to keep them moist, and Matt and I dove in. I was shocked; I expected the coot meat to have a powerful flavor and was surprised at how mild it actually was. It was very pleasant, with a very clean taste and only a slight livery flavor at the end. As a comparison, I cooked the widgeon the exact same way; the widgeon had almost no livery flavor and really tasted like a nice piece of beef. I couldn’t wait to make the coot sausage and see how it would turn out.
Once I got home, my dilemma was figuring out what kind of sausage to make. I wanted something that might complement the flavors of the coot but also needed something with a good amount of fat because I had trimmed all the fat off the birds. I read a recipe for cotechino in one of my new cookbooks called In the Charcuterie by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller. Cotechino is a northern Italian sausage traditionally made with pork and uses the pork skin, as well. The spices of the cotechino – allspice and cinnamon – seemed to be a perfect match for the coot; I added juniper as well, because I feel juniper goes well with all wild game.
The end result was better than I could have imagined. The “coot”echino was perfectly seasoned and had a wonderful fattiness that made the sausage perfect for a bowl of lentils on a cold winter day. The process of making the cotechino is a little time consuming but totally worth it in the end. I hope more people give coot a try. It was delicious; you just have to cook it right.
Makes five one pound sausages
Adapted from In the Charcuterie by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller
- 3 lbs. Coot breasts, all fat removed
- 1 lbs. pork skin cut into one inch strips
- 1 lbs. pork fat (I use pork belly)
- 2 tsp. coriander
- 6 allspice berries
- 4 juniper berries
- 2 tsp. black pepper corns
- 1tsp white pepper corns
- 40 grams kosher salt
- 5 grams curing salt #1
- ¼ tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- Bring a large pot with salted water to a rolling boil. Boil the pork skin for 10 minutes, then remove and let cool.
- Cut the coot and pork fat into small chunks that will fit into your grinder. Mix with the cooled pork skin.
- Toast the coriander seeds and then grind them in a spice grinder along with the allspice, juniper, and peppercorns.
- Combine the salts and remaining spices with the coriander and the pepper, then sprinkle mixture over the meat and refrigerate for 24 hours
- After 24 hours, grind the meat and spices through a medium grinding plate. Make sure your meat stays nice and cold. After grinding, add the white wine and then stuff mixture into sausage casings. I used fibrous middles 2inch by 12 inch.
- After stuffing the casings, you need to hang the cotechino in a dry cool place for 3 days to dry and allow the curing salt to work.
- After three days you can freeze the cotechino or cook it.
- To cook the cotechino, you need to bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer (about 165 degrees) and cook the sausage until it reaches a temp of 165 degrees. I used a Dutch oven and heated the water, then put the sausage in the water and put the whole Dutch oven in the oven at 190 degrees for about an hour and a half, and then tested the sausage and it was 165 degrees.
- At this point you can slice the cotechino and eat it plain or use it in any way you would like. I made lentils and added the cooked cotechino about ten minutes before the lentils were done.