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Snowshoe chef prepares squirrelly menu for TV show host

SNOWSHOE, W.Va. -- It's not every day a food show host comes to town. When that host is Andrew Zimmern, host of "Bizarre Foods" on Travel Channel TV, the chef's food not only has to taste great, it has to be pretty darned weird, too.

View a Travel Channel description of the program  

In search of Appalachian cuisine, Zimmern was not likely to be satisfied with pinto beans and cornbread, or even ramps. This is the guy who's eaten niache (seasoned lamb's blood) in Chile, hakari (8-week-old putrefied shark) in Iceland and chafaina (cow vein stew) in Bolivia.

He's known for eating some funky stuff, but it better be tasty, too. What's gourmet in one culture is disgusting in another.

That's the challenge Brian Ball, executive chef of Snowshoe Mountain Resort's Ember Restaurant, faced last October when Zimmern and his crew filmed a segment at his restaurant and at the Hutte Restaurant in Helvetia. The show airs at 10 p.m. May 5 on the Travel Channel.

Ball pondered serving bear or squirrel, but Zimmern had already eaten it. However, he hadn't had squirrel brains.

After an unsuccessful squirrel-hunting outing, Zimmern and the crew returned to the restaurant to work with Ball, who had the foresight to enlist local hunters to supply the squirrel meat.

"It was fabulous. Squirrel brains are an acquired taste. They're velvety and smooth. It reminds me of fois gras," said Ball, who cooked up a batch for a trial run before the show's taping. He learned to cook them from his mother, an Elkins resident.

The meal started with roasted quail in a molasses vinaigrette, followed by cottage cheese soup. He simmered squirrel skulls, with brains intact, in a rich stock. The guests cracked them open to pull the brains out.

He used the squirrel meat to make squirrel au vin, a dish similar to coq au vin made with squirrel instead of chicken, chicken-fried squirrel and skewered squirrel ham hocks seared on Tahitian sea salt flats.

"The sea salt imparted the flavor of the sea floor to the squirrel," said Ball, whose plan was to do three versions of squirrel: classic, Appalachian and fusion.

Ball also whipped up mashed turnips in squirrel gravy, roasted ramps with pepper-cured bacon, poke greens with tasso ham, pickled corn, ramps and tomato dumplings. For dessert, he poached pears, wrapped them in pastry, baked and served them with a moonshine glaze.

As is his tradition on the show, Zimmern, who is a chef, worked in the kitchen with Ball preparing the meal.

"He has such a dynamic personality. He just rolled up his sleeves and jumped in," Ball said. "It's not often that you get the opportunity to work with a world class chef like him."

Zimmern spent two days with Ball. Before their unsuccessful squirrel-hunting trip in the backwoods of Cass, they headed to Helvetia. Eleanor Mailloux, owner of the Hutte Restaurant, which features Swiss/German cuisine, oversaw the preparation of fire-baked, stuffed venison. They gutted a deer and stuffed it with vegetables, wrapped it in foil and roasted overnight in a firepot.

They sampled local cheese, and went yodeling in the wee hours, said Ball, who planned the outing. "I wanted to focus on the great traditions we have here in West Virginia," Ball said. "I think Helvetia is just a gem."

Ball hasn't seen the segment and plans to watch it Tuesday at Ember with the same friends he invited to share the meal during Zimmern's visit. Brains will not be on the menu. Turns out they weren't a big hit with Ball's friends, who didn't agree with the foie gras analogy.

The show airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the Travel Channel. Other Appalachian features were filmed in Asheville, where a man eats only meats that are not cooked or cured. "We should compare well," Ball said.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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