I have little patience for those among us who eat meat but refuse to acknowledge that meat was once an animal. Those among us who want to eat bacon on everything but cannot bear the have the word slaughter uttered in front of our farm’s hogs. Bacon does not make everything better, especially from where the pig is standing. In my opinion if you eat meat, get over it or don’t eat it. And if you choose to abstain, I will make you the most thoughtful and delicious meal I can because I respect your choice. I have even less patience for chefs who bemoan cooking for vegetarians.
I believe that eating meat should be a treat. It involves taking a life no matter how you slice it. I am ok with taking that life when I know that it has been an unnaturally good life—free from food scarcity, abuse or getting pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. That is what we provide for our animals so that we can then be provided for by their bodies. I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with that. But I do believe, that as a society, we need to acknowledge that eating meat is a choice, one that should be made deliberately. We then need to own up to that choice and celebrate its deliciousness, not be squeamish about its visceral implications.
I have found that rabbit exemplifies people’s discomfort with eating an animal they can picture. Maybe it is because it is more common for a rabbit to be a pet than it is for a pig. Maybe it is because Peter Cottontail decorated more than one of the walls of our childhood. Maybe it is because rabbit is not considered noble game, like venison, nor is it common enough to seem ordinary like chicken.
And all of this is a shame because rabbit is delightful. All tired jokes aside, farmed rabbit is akin to chicken in flavor and texture. Wild rabbit is more interesting a flavor but tends to be tougher and require a bit more time on the heat to render tender. And like chicken it is the perfect sized protein for my two-person household. Not too big or too expensive to be prohibitive, but rare enough to be the focus of a celebratory Saturday night dinner at home.
Whole rabbits are for sale at Burritt’s Market on Front Street, my favorite food shop in town. We are a lucky lot to have such good, local groceries as Burritt’s, Hansen’s and Oryana. You can also source them directly from Bunny Hope Ranch near Glen Arbor.
Having learned from Judy Rodgers and the Zuni Cafe Book, I break a rabbit down into four sections: the loins, the legs, the bellies and the bones. Using a sharp boning knife, run your fingers along the backbone and slice to the left or right of that bone to remove the loin that runs along the back length of the rabbit. This feels similar to removing the breasts from a chicken. Then like taking the drumsticks off a bird, flip the rabbit onto its belly press the backbone to splay the hind and front legs. Cut through the fascia to remove the legs at the ball joints. The larger hind limbs will take a bit longer to cook than the smaller front ones, but not so much so that they need to be cooked separately. Then cut the belly flap from the base of the ribs.
The following recipes use the legs and the loins, where the bulk of the meat resides. But do not waste the bones or belly. The bones should be roasted and used to make stock. The bellies can be cured with the same marinade as the loin recipe and then pan fried until brown and crisp. Using all the parts of an animal is another way to be respectful to the life that graces our table.
Tomato Braised Rabbits with Smashed Potatoes
This is a great fall transition dish because good, local tomatoes and potatoes from the summer are still available. But the dish is hearty and filling and will warm your house as it slowly cooks in the oven. Like all braises and stews, allowing it time to sit in its braising liquid overnight will only improve the flavor. The next day simply reheat and serve as described.
8 rabbit legs
2 C white wine or hard cider
1 head garlic
2 med onions
¼ C tomato paste
4 C diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
1 bu thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
1 qt or 1-½ lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
½ C olive oil
1 bu parsley, roughly chopped
- Heat the oven to 300F
- Blot the legs dry and then season generously with salt and pepper
- In a large Dutch oven, heat a glug of neutral oil and sear the rabbit legs until deeply brown. Be sure to brown them in one layer and not overload the pan. If the pan isn’t large enough, brown the legs in batches
- While the legs are browning, slice the onions thinly
- Cut the garlic in half around its equator
- Tie the herbs together as a bundle with butchers twine or a tender stem of the thyme
- Remove the legs from the pan and set aside
- Add the alcohol and deglaze the pan, scraping up all the brown bits and reducing the liquid until syrupy
- Add the tomato paste and fry for a couple of minutes in the syrup
- Add the onions and toss to combine with the tomato paste
- Add the garlic and herb bundle and pour the diced tomatoes over the whole lot
- Lay the rabbit legs over the tomato onion mixture with the larger legs around the outside of the pan and the smaller front legs in the center
- Cover with a tight fitting lid and braise until the rabbit meat is tender enough to be pulled easily with a fork (about 2 hours)
- Remove the herb bundle and the garlic. Squeeze the cooked garlic cloves out of the skin and into the sauce if you like.
- Meanwhile boil the potatoes in heavily salted water until tender then drain
- Place the potatoes on a cookie sheet, top with another sheet and then press the potatoes until they smash
- Just before serving heat the olive oil until just below smoking fry the potatoes in the olive oil seasoning liberally with salt and pepper
- Toss the crispy potatoes with the parsley and serve topped with a front and hind leg to each person and a big ladle of the sauce over the top
Grilled Rabbit Loin with Peas, Mushrooms and Farro
4 rabbit loins
¼ C maple syrup
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp herbs de provence
1 C farro
½ C white wine or hard cider
1 C shelling peas
4 oz fresh mushrooms: oyster, morel, shitake etc.
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
1 bu parsley, roughly chopped
½ bu chives, roughly chopped
- In a zipper storage bag, marinate the rabbit with the first four ingredients overnight
- In a medium sized pot, heat a good glug of olive oil until just below the smoke point
- Add the farro and a good pinch of salt and fry in the oil until it smells toasty and nutty
- Add the wine and cook down until almost dry
- Add 3 C water and bring to a boil
- Reduce to a simmer and cook until the farro is tender
- The liquid should all cook out, but if it doesn’t drain any extra water from the farro
- Immediately toss the farro and the peas together allowing the heat from the farro to take the raw edge off the peas, but not cook them entirely
- Meanwhile, tear or cut the mushrooms into bite-sized pieces
- In a large frying pan, heat a glug of oil and then fry the mushrooms in batches until cooked through and crispy
- Add the mushrooms and the herbs to the farro pea mixture
- Taste and add some olive oil, salt, pepper until you think it is delicious
- Then grill the rabbit loins over a hot fire until the are just cooked through
- Allow them to rest in a warm but not hot place for 10 minutes and then slice into medallions
- Serve the rabbits with the warm farro salad and maybe a green salad on the side