Vermin's like venison with the right recipe

Rats: Chefs suggest ways to make `Survivor' dish more ... survivable.

June 14, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

If another night of reheated leftovers sounds unappetizing, consider the menu on Pulau Tiga.

The cast members of "Survivor," the part soap, part adventure game show shot on the Borneo island, dined on live larvae last week. The dish du jour for tonight's episode - airing at 8 p.m. on CBS - is rumored to be rat.

The ick factor may be high, but so are the stakes. "Survivor" contestants vote weekly on which castaways get the boot, and the eventual winner pockets $1 million. Refusing a rat repast could be a factor. So with the view of making tonight's "Survivor" mealtime more palatable, two Baltimore chefs were asked for suggestions on transforming the rodent into a bearable, dare we say tasty, meal.

Chris Monahan, executive chef at Spike & Charlie's Restaurant and Wine Bar on Cathedral Street, hasn't tried rat himself, but says his brother did during a Navy stint in Guam. "He had bat and rat and whatever's indigenous," Monahan said. "Everybody's so Americanized, but whatever's available is what you eat. You really have to get into survival mode."

Chef Monahan's suggested preparation: Skin and clean the rat, then quarter it into bite-sized pieces. Wrap the meat in banana leaves for flavor and to prevent drying, and add coconut milk and pieces of mango, papaya and any other available fruit. Cook for about 20 minutes over smoldering embers.

The result? "You're almost making a rat stew, a braised rat," Monahan explained.

While CBS' castaways probably won't have access to the fine cabernet Monahan suggest as an accompaniment, he believes they couldn't distinguish well-cooked rat from, say, beef or pork.

"All meat kind of tastes the same if you close your eyes, depending on how you cook it," he said, adding a postscript that could alarm his customers: "I'm sure I could disguise it and nobody would know what it is."

Jason Horwitz, executive chef at Joy America Cafe in the American Visionary Art Museum, suggested cleaning the rat, then immersing it in boiling water to remove the hair. Horwitz said he'd go for a Latin American flavor, using chili peppers, wild mushrooms, sun-dried sea salt and any available herbs to stuff the rat with and rub on its skin before cooking.

His approach: Roast the rat over a medium fire on a skewer fashioned from a stick. When cooked (about 20 minutes), slice into pieces. Arrange it on a bed of wild greens and make a citrus drizzle out of fresh-squeezed lemon, lime and oranges, and see if Martha Stewart's free for dinner."Grilled rat with wild canyon greens - how's that sound?" he said.

Horwitz predicted the rodent would likely be somewhat gristly, with a texture somewhere between alligator and rabbit and a gamy flavor similar to wild boar. "The meat probably wouldn't taste that flavorful because of the diet he has, because he's a scavenger," Horwitz said.

Sound unappealing? Perhaps, but Jack Smith, a professor and chair of the nutrition and dietetics department at the University of Delaware, said the lowly rodent is a perfectly acceptable form of animal protein, containing B-12, zinc, iron and other nutrients. Rat cuisine is nothing new - rats are eaten routinely in some Asian countries and have been a source of sustenance during times of famine and war.

Still, rats, particularly urban ones, can transmit a variety of diseases Rats in remote areas may have less exposure to human waste than those scurrying around city dumpsters, but they come into contact with bacteria by eating decaying animals. Thus, rat sushi would open the door to gastrointestinal problems, Smith said, but cooking one thoroughly would make it safe to eat.

Such assurances do little for James M. Felter, a filmmaker from Washington whose 1999 documentary, "RATS," weaves together homelessness and rat infestation in the nation's capital. Felter, a strict vegetarian, said he's more repulsed by rats than ever since making the film.

"There's a huge difference between city rats and the rats you'd find on an island," Felter said. "If you're in the city eating rats, I'd be pretty damn scared of that."

Contrary to tales of 20-pound rodents lurking in sewers, Felter said urban rats typically belong to the Norway family, a small species weighing 1.2 pounds or less. For the sake of the "Survivor" cast, Felter said he hopes the rats of Pulau Tiga are a heartier breed.

"If they're not, they're going to have to kill a lot to feed people," Felter said. Otherwise, he added with a laugh, "You're just going to get one big Rat McNugget."

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