While I interviewed a young farmer around here recently, she held her breeding rabbit, a glossy black buck (the moms are called does) that sat calmly in her lap as we talked. When I toured her rabbit barn, with its tidy hutches and nose-twitching residents, I asked to take a picture for my article. But the farmer refused. “I don’t want people to get freaked out. I need to introduce the idea of eating bunnies slowly to my customers.” Despite the fact that her rabbits produce meat efficiently and quickly without the methane production of ruminants, she had to be cagey about her rabbits. We just aren’t used to eating Flopsie, Mopsie and Cottontail around here.
All cultures have their food taboos and delicacies, of course, whether it’s eschewing pork or shellfish, gnawing on tiny songbirds, stir-frying monkey or tucking into a filet of horse. We’re just a little funny about cute, fuzzy rabbits that populate our cartoons, Easter baskets and nurseries. Of course chicks do, too, and they grow up to be KFC sometimes.
If I cook rabbit, many of my guests may never have eaten it before, despite their travels and urban sophistication. The fact is I can get rabbit right here at the big supermarket (I call to be sure it’s available) but from an anonymous, distant supplier, where the rabbits are fed who knows what and slaughtered who knows how. I was thrilled that I might have humanely raised, local rabbit for my pot this fall. Rabbits can get close to being a sustainable and renewable meat source.
Rabbit is absolutely normal and routine in most European cuisines: stewed in tomato (cacciatore) in Italy, braised with wine and mustard (a la moutarde) in France and roasted saddle of rabbit in Germany. The meat is lean, white and flavorful. No, it doesn’t taste like chicken; it has enough character to hold up to sauces and many seasonings: sage, tarragon, savory and borage.
Here’s how I do the French-style dish. First, cut the rabbit up into serving pieces. Sprinkle it with a little flour, salt and pepper. Brown it in 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy casserole. Add a sliced medium-sized onion, a sliced leek and a few garlic cloves to the pot. Move the rabbit pieces around so the onion, et cetera, will soften in the fat, too. Some people add a good splash of brandy at this point.
Pour about a cup of chicken or vegetable stock and a cup of white wine over, depending on how big the rabbit is. The liquid shouldn’t cover the rabbit. Add, also, a large bay leaf and a branch of rosemary, if you have it. Simmer it all gently until the meat is tender, an hour or more. You’ll have to taste it to be sure.
Chop some herbs, such as parsley, sage or tarragon, and add those in the last 10 minutes of cooking. Scoop out a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid into a bowl and mix that juice with a generous dollop of Dijon and/or whole-grain mustard. Add that combination back into the pot juices. Taste and add more if you like. You can add some cream to the sauce now, too, but be sure not to let it boil if you do so.
A good-sized rabbit will serve about 4 people. Polenta, buttered noodles or a gratin of potatoes with cream but no cheese all go well with it, as does braised endive or radicchio. Or serve just a simple green salad with dressing on the acid side, maybe classic vinaigrette made with sherry vinegar.
You may have a personal line drawn that won’t allow you to braise Bugs. That’s fine but if you just never thought of it before, push your envelope and give rabbit a try.
As a long-time freelance food writer, Judith Hausman has written about every aspect of food, but local producers and artisanal traditions remain closest to her heart. Eating close to home takes this seasonal eater through a journey of delights and dilemmas, one tiny deck garden, farmers’ market discovery and easy-as-pie recipe at a time. She writes from a still-bucolic but ever-more-suburban town in the New York City ‘burbs.