Duck hunting has been my passion for nearly three decades, and throughout those years, I’ve had the pleasure of shooting and savoring a variety of ducks. While everyone has a personal favorite, mine happens to be the wood duck. The wood duck’s diet of acorns gives its meat a sweet and mild flavor that I find absolutely irresistible. However, the milder-flavored mallard and the highly-regarded canvasback are also popular choices among duck enthusiasts. These three ducks are often favored for their more delicate taste compared to their wild counterparts.
It’s important to note that wild ducks possess a much stronger flavor than domesticated ones. Many people who claim to enjoy eating duck find the taste of wild ducks unappealing. This is primarily due to their varied diet, which includes small fish and bugs that can contribute to a liver-like flavor. If you’ve never had the chance to directly compare the taste of wild and domestic duck, the difference is truly remarkable.
There are certain ducks, like the spoonbill and the merganser, that have gained a reputation for being inedible due to their fish-based diet. However, even these ducks are more respected than the humble coot. Often mistaken for a duck, the coot is actually a small swamp bird that shares a closer relation to sandhill cranes. Coots can be found all over the US, frequently mingling with ducks, much to the annoyance of hunters. Although many hunters claim that coots taste terrible, I believe that most naysayers have never even tried them, merely echoing the ill-informed opinions of others.
I, too, was guilty of anti-coot prejudice until recently. My grandfather had always told me that coots were not worth eating, and I had no reason to question his word. However, my perspective changed when I attended a sausage making class conducted by Hank Shaw, the renowned author of “Duck Duck, Goose: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Waterfowl, Both Farmed and Wild.” Hank mentioned that most of the undesirable flavor in wild game comes from the fat. Specifically, he stated that by meticulously removing all the fat from a coot, one can fully appreciate its true flavor. This intrigued me, awakening a curiosity to experiment with coots in my own cooking.
Determined to put this newfound knowledge to the test, I contacted my duck hunting mentor, Eric Passe, who informed me that the swamp was teeming with coots. Although they were not abundant in number like the ducks, coots provided an excellent opportunity for my brother-in-law, Matt Murphy, to gain shooting experience. We set out one foggy morning, patiently awaiting our chance to hunt both ducks and coots.
After several hours, we decided to head to the other side of the lake to try our luck with coots. The thick wild rice in the lake served as ideal cover for these small birds. We positioned our boat at the edge of the rice, anticipating the arrival of the coots. To our delight, a flock of hundreds of coots materialized, and the shooting began. The flurry of action continued, and by the end of the day, we had bagged 21 coots and one widgeon. Elated but weary, I knew the real work awaited me – plucking and cleaning each bird.
Coots may not yield an abundance of meat, with their breasts weighing a mere 2 ounces each and their legs offering just enough meat to scrape off. However, I had a clear goal in mind: converting the coots into sausage. After meticulously cleaning and removing all the fat, I had approximately 4 pounds of meat. Curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to cook a couple of breasts to sample their flavor. Seasoned with salt and pepper, sautéed in butter until medium-rare, they were simply divine. I was taken aback by the mildness of the coot meat, with a clean taste and a subtle hint of liver at the end. In comparison, I prepared the widgeon in the same manner, and it tasted remarkably similar to a well-cooked piece of beef. The prospect of making coot sausage excited me, and I couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out.
Upon returning home, I faced the dilemma of deciding what type of sausage to create. I sought a recipe that would complement the coot’s flavor profile while compensating for the absence of fat, as I had diligently trimmed away all the fatty tissue. My search led me to “In the Charcuterie” by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller, where I discovered the recipe for cotechino, a traditional northern Italian sausage made with pork and pork skin. The spices included in the cotechino – allspice, cinnamon, and juniper – seemed to harmonize perfectly with the coot’s taste. Excited by the possibilities, I embarked on the process of making coot sausage.
The end result exceeded my expectations. The “coot”-echino, as I playfully named it, boasted incredible flavor and a delightful fattiness that made it an ideal accompaniment to a warm bowl of lentils on a cold winter day. Although preparing cotechino is a time-consuming endeavor, the final product is certainly worth the effort. I genuinely hope that more people will be inspired to give coot a chance. When cooked properly, it is truly a delectable feast.
Recipe: “Coot”-echino with Lentils
Makes five one-pound sausages
Adapted from “In the Charcuterie” by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller
- 3 lbs. Coot breasts, all fat removed
- 1 lb. pork skin, cut into one-inch strips
- 1 lb. pork fat (such as pork belly)
- 2 tsp. coriander
- 6 allspice berries
- 4 juniper berries
- 2 tsp. black peppercorns
- 1 tsp. white peppercorns
- 40 grams kosher salt
- 5 grams curing salt #1
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Boil the pork skin for 10 minutes, then remove and let it cool.
- Cut the coot and pork fat into small chunks suitable for your grinder. Mix them with the cooled pork skin.
- Toast the coriander seeds and grind them in a spice grinder together with the allspice, juniper berries, and black and white peppercorns.
- Combine the salts and remaining spices with the ground coriander and pepper mixture, then sprinkle it over the meat. Refrigerate the mixture for 24 hours.
- After 24 hours, grind the meat and spices using a medium grinding plate, ensuring that the meat remains cold throughout the process. Once ground, add the white wine and stuff the mixture into sausage casings. I recommend using 2-inch by 12-inch fibrous middles.
- After stuffing the casings, hang the sausages in a dry, cool place for three days to dry and allow the curing salt to work.
- At this stage, you can either freeze the cotechino or cook it. To cook, bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer (approximately 165 degrees Fahrenheit) and cook the sausages until they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. I prefer using a Dutch oven, heating the water and then submerging the sausages before placing the whole Dutch oven in an oven preheated to 190 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately one and a half hours. Finally, test the sausages to ensure they’ve reached the desired internal temperature.
- Once cooked, you can slice the cotechino and enjoy it as is or incorporate it into various dishes. I personally love adding it to lentils, adding it about ten minutes before the lentils are fully cooked.
Join me in embracing the culinary adventure of coots. With the right preparation, these often-overlooked birds can surprise and delight your taste buds. Remember, each new discovery begins with an open mind and a willingness to explore the unexpected flavors of nature’s bounty.
For more delicious recipes and insightful content, visit Ekilove.