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RABBIT RENAISSANCE

<i> Times Food Editor</i>

Although it is a staple meat throughout most of Europe, rabbit has never been a big supermarket item in this country . . . much to Julia Child’s regret. She, like many other good cooks, thinks rabbit is an excellent meat item that should appear more often on American menus.

Somehow, however, Americans tend to find it easier to eat rabbit when someone else prepares it, and it’s called lapin or coniglio, French and Italian for rabbit, or even hase, the German word for hare. The thought of dining on a childhood storybook friend or the Easter bunny is more than many can face with equanimity. Thus, except in areas where hunting is still a prevalent pastime and conveniently possible, it is somewhat rare to see it served on home tables.

But, as with everything else, eating habits are changing to some degree. More and more markets are providing a variety of so-called “game foods” for their customers. Frozen meat cases feature pheasant, quail, venison on occasion and, yes, rabbit. And, if you’re willing to pay a little more and give the butcher a day or two to get it, many markets will supply you with the fresh rather than frozen product.

Don’t expect domestically farmed rabbits to have that somewhat special gamy flavor that wild ones will. They don’t, and that’s not necessarily all bad. Having dined on my share of wild rabbits, I can cheerfully say that I don’t miss the stringy toughness that seemed to dominate the wild “critters” I remember from my early days in Missouri. (Nor do I miss crunching down on a tooth-shattering buckshot pellet.)

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Farm-raised rabbits are far more tender with a texture and flavor not unlike that of the dark meat of chicken. In fact, if you have never tried cooking rabbit, almost any good chicken recipe will adapt well. The flesh is a bit more dense and needs slightly longer cooking time, but beyond that the two meats are not too dissimilar.

Good rabbit dishes abound in country cuisines everywhere. A recent trip to Italy provided some interesting recipes for serving rabbit. One in particular proved to be a favorite not only there but also here. Served as an appetizer in its original presentation, it also adapts easily to a good main dish.

Called Coniglio Con Polenta, it’s a snap to make. You simply brown rabbit parts in olive oil and then simmer them in a seasoned wine and chicken broth mixture until the meat falls off the bone. The shredded meat is then spread over polenta that has been cooked and spread in a pan to cool and become firm. Cut the mixture into small squares or rectangles and reheat to serve as appetizers, or cut it into larger pieces and serve with a sauce made from the cooking liquid as a main dish.

Another wonderful country dish, this one from the heart of Wisconsin, is the old-fashioned fricasseed rabbit with dumplings that is a longtime family favorite from Donna Deane, The Times’ Test Kitchen home economist.

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Still other good rabbit recipes often come from ardent hunters themselves. One easy and very tasty rabbit dish is from a new cookbook that makes the most of today’s interest in nostalgia cookery. Jason Shulman, the author, has collected a batch of favorite family recipes from assorted friends and strangers for the book, which is quite appropriately called “Grandma’s Kitchen” (Fireside Books: $9.95). Among the eclectic collection of nostalgic recipes is one for a rabbit stew made with red wine that stirred warm memories of wonderful meals in the heart of a man named Scott Nedrow. The recipe was a favorite of Nedrow’s Uncle Mike, who was a great hunter and found this a great way to serve rabbit.

The recipe for Rabbit Pozole in Red Chile Salsa was adapted in our test kitchen from one shared with us by the Venice-based catering firm, Sabroso, which specializes in authentic Mexican food. They prepare their pozole (hominy) from scratch and use only fresh rabbit when serving this dish to clients, however we found it worked well with canned hominy and frozen rabbit.

These and our other recipes show how versatile and delicious rabbit can be. RABBIT CACCIATORE

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

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4 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup chopped onions

2 cups sliced mushrooms

3 large tomatoes, chopped

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1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1/2 cup Burgundy

2 tablespoons minced oregano

1 teaspoon sugar

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1 cup water

Salt, pepper

1 rabbit, cut up

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

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Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in skillet. Saute garlic and onions in olive oil. Add mushrooms and saute until tender. Add tomatoes and saute. Add tomato sauce, wine, oregano, sugar and water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Brown rabbit on both sides in mixture of remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and butter. Add rabbit to sauce. Cover and simmer about 25 minutes or until rabbit is tender. Uncover and continue cooking until sauce is thickened. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve over pasta or rice, if desired. Makes 4 servings. RABBIT PAELLA

2 rabbits, cut up

Salt, pepper

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1/4 cup butter or margarine

Dash saffron

1 large onion, minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

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1/4 cup tomato sauce or puree

3 medium tomatoes, chopped

3 medium carrots, grated

Grated peel of 1 orange

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3 whole cloves

2 cardamom pods or 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

1 stick cinnamon

5 cups chicken broth or water, about

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2 cups long-grain rice

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds

Carrot curls, optional

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Season rabbits with salt and pepper to taste. Melt butter in large skillet. Add saffron and stir to dissolve. Add rabbit pieces. Saute until brown on all sides. Remove from skillet. Set aside.

Add onion and garlic to skillet. Saute until onion is tender. Add tomato sauce. Simmer 1 minute to blend flavors. Add tomatoes, grated carrots, orange peel, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon stick. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook 1 minute.

Add chicken broth. Bring to boil. Stir in rice. Add rabbit pieces. Cover and simmer 30 to 35 minutes or until rabbit is tender. Add more liquid if necessary to keep rice from sticking. Sprinkle with raisins and almonds. Garnish with carrot curls. Makes 6 to 8 servings. STEWED RABBIT WITH RED WINE (Grandma’s Kitchen Cookbook)

1 rabbit, cut into serving pieces

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1/2 cup flour, about

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Salt, pepper

1 cup sliced onions or 1/2 pound pearl onions, peeled

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1 cup peeled and sliced carrots

3/4 cup sliced mushrooms

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon sage

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1 teaspoon savory

1 teaspoon marjoram

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 cups dry red wine

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1 cup water

2 tablespoons brown sugar

Few sprigs parsley

Dust rabbit pieces with flour. Melt butter in heavy 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add rabbit pieces and brown on all sides, adding salt and pepper to taste. This should take about 10 minutes. Add onions, carrots, mushrooms, bay leaf, sage, savory, marjoram, garlic and 1 cup wine.

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Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender-crisp. Transfer contents of pan to flame-proof casserole with lid and add remaining 1 cup wine, water and brown sugar. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring as necessary, 30 to 45 minutes or until sauce is of desired thickness. Remove bay leaf and garnish with parsley sprigs. Makes 4 servings. CONIGLIO CON POLENTA (Rabbit With Polenta)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 (2-pound 3-ounce) rabbit, cut into pieces

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2 stalks celery, cut into large chunks

1 carrot, cut into large chunks

1 medium onion, quartered

2 cloves garlic, crushed

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2 sprigs rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary leaves

2 whole cloves

1 cup Chianti

1 cup chicken broth

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Salt, pepper

Polenta

Heat butter and oil in large heavy skillet. Add rabbit, turning frequently, until brown on both sides. Add celery, carrot, onion, garlic, rosemary, cloves, wine and broth. Cover and simmer over low heat until rabbit is very tender and meat pulls easily from bone, about 1 hour. Cool rabbit in liquid until cool enough to handle. Remove rabbit from pan and set aside.

Strain liquid, reserving vegetables and discarding rosemary stems and cloves (rosemary leaves may remain).

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Puree vegetables in food processor or press through food mill. Skim off any fat. Return mixture to liquid in pan. Remove rabbit meat from bones and shred. Cook over medium heat until most of liquid in pan evaporates, stirring frequently. Stir in meat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool slightly. Spread rabbit mixture over cooled Polenta in pan. Chill until ready to serve. To serve, bring mixture to room temperature or warm slightly in low-heat oven or microwave. Cut into 8x6-inch bars. Makes 48 appetizers. Polenta

7 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups yellow cornmeal

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Bring water to boil in large kettle over medium heat. Add salt. Using wooden spoon, slowly stir cornmeal into rapidly boiling water. (Water should continue to boil as cornmeal is added.) Stir constantly about 5 minutes until smooth. Continue cooking over low heat, stirring often, about 30 to 40 minutes or until mixture begins to pull away from sides of kettle. (Stirring will become more difficult as mixture thickens.)

When mixture is very thick and is beginning to set, spoon quickly into greased 17x10-inch jellyroll pan. Pat until smooth with moist hands, working quickly since Polenta will set rapidly. Cool. RABBIT POZOLE IN RED CHILE SALSA

2 rabbits, quartered

Marinade

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1/4 cup oil

Garlic Seasoning

4 to 6 cups prepared or canned hominy

Red Chile Salsa

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Steamed baby vegetables, optional

Marinate rabbit in Marinade in deep bowl in refrigerator 24 hours. Occasionally rotate rabbit from top to bottom to ensure even marinating.

In large skillet, combine oil and Garlic Seasoning. Brown rabbit well over medium heat about 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Drain rabbit on paper towels.

Mix hominy and half of Red Chile Salsa. Spoon into 2- to 3-quart heatproof casserole. Arrange rabbit on top of hominy and spoon remaining salsa over rabbit. Bake at 325 degrees 25 to 30 minutes or until rabbit is tender. Serve with steamed baby vegetables. Makes 8 servings. Marinade

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1 cup orange juice

1/2 cup pureed papaya

1/2 cup lime juice

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

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1/2 cup oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

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1/4 teaspoon chile powder

2 cloves garlic, minced

Combine orange juice, papaya, lime juice, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, cumin, chile powder and garlic in deep bowl. Mix well. Garlic Seasoning

1/4 cup olive oil

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2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground oregano

1/4 teaspoon ground marjoram

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1/4 teaspoon ground thyme

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine oil, garlic, cumin seeds, oregano, marjoram, thyme, bay leaf and salt. Red Chile Salsa

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6 dried ancho chiles

4 dried pasilla chiles

12 ripe plum tomatoes

6 cloves garlic, crushed

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2 tablespoons oil

1 red onion, chopped

Salt

Heat ancho and pasilla chiles in skillet to soften. Open flat and remove veins and seeds. Lay flat in skillet, weight with heatproof plate and cover with water. Bring to boil and cook 5 minutes over medium heat. Set aside 30 minutes.

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Broil tomatoes 15 to 20 minutes, turning occasionally, until cooked through and tender. Saute garlic in oil briefly. Add onion and saute until tender. Drain chiles, reserving liquid. Combine tomatoes, garlic, onion and chiles in food processor and puree until smooth. Thin with enough reserved chile liquid to measure 4 to 5 cups sauce. Sauce should medium thick. Transfer to saucepan and simmer 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Makes 4 to 5 cups. DONNA’S RABBIT

1 rabbit, cut up

Salt, pepper

Flour

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2 tablespoons butter or margarine

Oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 cup minced onions

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1/2 cup minced celery

1/2 cup minced carrots

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can chicken broth

1/2 cup white wine

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1 small bay leaf

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

2 eggs

1/2 cup milk

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1 teaspoon fresh thyme

Chopped parsley

Sprinkle rabbit pieces with salt and pepper to taste. Dredge in flour. Melt butter with 2 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven and saute rabbit until brown. Remove rabbit. Add garlic, onions, celery and carrots to pan and saute until tender.

Stir in chicken broth and wine. Add rabbit and bay leaf. Bring to boil, then cover, reduce heat and simmer until rabbit is tender, about 30 minutes.

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Mix together 1 1/2 cups flour and baking powder. Combine eggs, milk, 1/4 cup oil and thyme. Stir into flour mixture to form sticky dough. Drop dough by teaspoons onto rabbit and boiling liquid.

Cover and simmer 15 minutes (do not remove cover). Uncover and sprinkle parsley over dumplings. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Dumplings will absorb liquid as they cook. If additional gravy is desired, remove dumplings to a warm platter and keep warm. Combine 1 1/2 teaspoons flour with 1 cup water or chicken broth and add to Dutch oven. Bring mixture back to boil, reduce heat and cook about 5 minutes. Return dumplings to pan and heat briefly before serving.


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