Coots or mudhens as they are also called, along with their cousins the European coot, common moorhen and purple gallinule are members of the rail family and have long been a dependable food source for humans, first for "primitive people" in both the old and new worlds, and eventually epicureans on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nonetheless, the mere thought of anyone eating coot is quick to bring a look of disbelief, complete with a slack jaw to the face of the average modern day American duck hunter, a fair number of whom know little about the culinary history or even how to properly care for and prepare the game they pursue.
If you doubt me, try this the next time you are among a gathering of waterfowlers: "Hey, do any of you guys have a good recipe for coots."
A majority will sneer or pull out a hackneyed line aimed to embarrass you. "Sure, cook them on a plank at 350 degrees for an hour, throw away the coot and eat the plank." Asking about a recipe for a spoonie typically brings the same response. As old and mistaken as it is, this line will be followed by howls of laughter and a doubtful future of acceptance for you.
The real joke however is on them. Like most game, or for that matter any food item, coots must be cared for and prepared properly, something the best chefs of the world have done with coot for over 100 years. During that time, coot has been served at family dinner tables and fine restaurants to rave reviews that are now all but forgotten, as is the recipe developed in the late 1800's by the chef at the world famous Hotel del Coronado where coot became a most popular menu selection.
But enough about a history forgotten and unappreciated by most.
Although I had the benefit of eating more than my fair share of wild game by the time I was 40, I'd never eaten coot and held the same ignorant and uninformed opinions as my peers until about 25 years ago when I met a man who was to become a dear friend and hunting companion.
At the time, Jerome Lipetzky was a teacher at El Capitan High School and founding partner of a duck club near the Salton Sea I was invited to join. It was there on a Friday night that I sampled for the first time a concoction of his making - Tacootos. Simply described, these are tacos that feature coot in a complex mixture that constitutes the meat filling. As Jerry told the story, he earlier had been a member of the Pickett Road Duck Club and an absence of pintail scuttled plans for a duck dinner. An inventive and creative type, Jerome conjured up a recipe that stands to this day for many of us, and I am happy to share it with you.
TACOOTOS FOR TWO FROM CHEF JEROME OF NILAND
4 skinless coot breasts
1 small yellow onion diced
1 small green bell pepper diced
3 tomatoes diced
2 avocados diced
iceberg lettuce sliced
1/4 pound Monterrey jack cheese shredded
1 package slivered almonds
1 small can chopped black olives
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
La Victoria Salsa Ranchera (hot)
La Victoria Salsa Brava
Boil coot breasts until cooked through. Rinse, cool, remove from bone and shred by hand. Chop in blender to a finely shredded consistency. Add a small amount of oil to heavy pan and saute onion until translucent. Add coot and stir in for a few minutes. Add bell pepper and half of the diced tomatoes and stir for several more minutes before adding 1/2 cup of Ranchera sauce, slivered almonds and continue to stir for several minutes more. Add 1 tsp each of oregano and thyme along with garlic powder and black pepper to taste. Set aside covered to keep warm.
Fry corn tortillas in oil and fold, providing both stiffos (crispy) and limpos (soft). Spoon meat filling into tortilla shells and garnish with remaining tomatoes, diced black olives, lettuce, shredded jack cheese and Salsa Brava.
Upon filling of our taco shells, it is our custom to reach across the table to touch our tacootos together, stomp our feet and yell "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" in a high pitched yodel as our toast and salute to the almighty coot.
I've yet to meet anyone, including the biggest of skeptics who did not proclaim that tacootos were not as good if not better than the best tacos they have ever had.
Again, credit for this recipe goes solely to our friend Jerome Lipetzky who we lost to pulmonary fibrosis in 2010 and is greatly missed, so our "Tacooto Salute" is to him as well.
While Tacootos were a creation inspired by the desperation of hunger, Sicilian Coot is an old established recipe shared by another departed and dearly missed friend, Sal DiMercurio of Pittsburg, California. Sal grew up on and around the San Francisco Bay and the Delta, fishing and hunting with great passion and success for over 50 years until succumbing to cancer in 2011. Here is Sal's favorite coot recipe:
Clean the coot by separating and saving only the breasts, thighs and legs with all skin and fat removed. Rinse, place in a bowl and cover with milk to which a shot of brandy and a shot glass full of fresh chopped garlic have been added. Cover and allow to soak overnight in the refrigerator. Remove from refrigerator, drain and allow to come to room temperature. Roll in seasoned flour and fry until lightly browned. Place pieces in baking dish and sprinkle with fresh chopped garlic and rosemary bake covered for 1.5 hours and serve.
These are just two of many great recipes for coot, thanks to the generosity of a couple of great friends. More can be found with a little research and experimentation.