Rabbits “are helping win the war,” proclaimed a Los Angeles Times article from 1943. Touted as a patriotic food during World War II, rabbits were raised by thousands of Americans in their backyards. Along with victory gardens, rabbits helped put food on the table when much of the nation’s supply was shipped to soldiers overseas and ration stamps provided less at home. But even though rabbit consumption spiked during the war, it all but disappeared afterward.
Think rabbit today and your thoughts probably veer to cartoon characters, cereal mascots, Easter and adorable pets. Perhaps the only “bunny” you’ve ever eaten was of the milk chocolate breed. For years, it seems the only place you could find “the real deal” was occasionally on the menu at French or Italian restaurants.
But rabbit appears to be going through a renaissance of sorts.
“I think it’s gaining in popularity,” says Mark Pasternak, co-owner, along with wife Myriam, of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin County. Their farm supplies rabbit to a number of butcher shops and restaurants in and around Northern California, including the French Laundry and Chez Panisse.
And in an era when game meats and nose-to-tail eating are redefining fine dining as food sport, rabbit is both familiar and exotic enough to appeal.
“It almost has a prohibitiony quality to it, like it was something your grandfather ate. It’s a great ‘old-fashioned’ meat,” says chef Ken Addington, who, with restaurant partner Jud Mongell, owns LA Chapter in downtown’s Ace Hotel as well as Five Leaves and Nights and Weekends in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We’ve always had rabbit on the menus in Brooklyn. It’s a fun, versatile meat.”
And though Mongell was hesitant to feature rabbit at first, he’s come around to the idea. “In these times when we’re trying to be so conscious of what, and how, we’re consuming, it’s something to consider.”
At a time when buzzwords like “organic,” “local” and “sustainable” are driving the market, rabbit is ripe for resurgence. According to Slow Food USA, rabbit can produce 6 pounds of meat using the same amount of food and water it takes for a cow to produce only 1 pound. Not to mention the health benefits. Rabbit is a lean meat that is higher in protein but lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than many other meats, including chicken, beef and pork.
But how does it taste?
Domestic rabbit’s all-white meat is fine-grained and has a mild flavor compared with other game meats.
“Rabbit is one of my favorite subjects because it is so versatile, like veal or chicken,” says chef Evan Funke of Bucato. A favorite dish of his for those new to rabbit is ragù. “Anytime I get the opportunity to introduce people to rabbit, [I do]. Ragù is easy.”
Addington likes to pair bright flavorings, such as citrus, with rabbit; he currently has a lemon grass rabbit ragù on the menu at LA Chapter.
Though rabbit is mostly available through butcher shops such as Belcampo Meat Co. and Puritan Poultry and online, it is turning up more frequently in upscale markets, including select Gelson’s markets. It is usually sold whole, though you can have your butcher break the animal down into parts. (But if you’ve ever wanted to learn how to break down any four-legged animal, rabbit is a great place to start because it’s so small. Do be careful with the bones, however; rabbit bones are even more delicate than those of a chicken.)
And despite its reputation as an inexpensive option during frugal times, store-bought rabbit is not cheap; prices in Los Angeles range from about $10 to $13 a pound for a 2- to 3-pound rabbit.
Preserved pears with ginger
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a medium saucepan, combine the ginger, sugar and wine. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer until the syrup is reduced to 3 tablespoons. Add the broth and bring to a boil, stirring.
Meanwhile, peel, halve and core the pears. Arrange, cut sides down, in a single layer in a large buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the lemon juice. Pour the syrup over the pears.
Bake, uncovered, until golden brown and glazed, about 45 minutes. Baste often with the syrupy juices. Sprinkle with the remaining lemon juice. If not used at once, set aside at room temperature for up to 8 hours and reheat gently before serving; do not refrigerate.
In a large glass or non-reactive bowl, combine the shallots, garlic, olive oil and half of the wine. Add the rabbit pieces and turn them over until well coated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days, turning the rabbit pieces once or twice a day. If the rabbit is frozen, defrost it directly in the marinade.
About 3 hours before serving, remove the rabbit pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade, reserving the garlic and shallots separately from the liquid.
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. In a large skillet, heat the fat. Sauté the salt pork, transferring the pieces to a 4-quart casserole as they are browned. In the same skillet, brown the rabbit pieces a few at a time, on both sides, transferring them to the casserole as they are browned. Sprinkle the rabbit and the pork cubes with the herbs, salt and pepper to taste.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the skillet. Add the onions to the skillet along with the reserved garlic and shallots. Sauté over moderately high heat, stirring to avoid burning, until soft and golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in one-third cup of the mustard with the juices in the bottom of the casserole until well blended.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the onions, shallots and garlic to the casserole. Deglaze the skillet with the strained marinade liquid and bring to a boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups wine and return to a boil. Skim again and pour the boiling liquid over the rabbit and onions. Cover with crumpled wet parchment or waxed paper and a tight-fighting lid.
Set the casserole in the oven and cook until the rabbit is meltingly tender, about 2 hours. (To avoid stringy rabbit, do not rush the cooking time; if the rabbit is not tender, let it slowly finish cooking in the oven.) Remove the rabbit pieces to a warm bowl; cover and keep moist. (The recipe can be done up to this point in advance. Leave the rabbit pieces in the sauce. Gently reheat, then remove the pieces to a warm bowl and continue with the recipe.)
Strain the cooking liquid, pushing down on the vegetables to extract all their juices. Quickly cool the liquid and remove any fat that surfaces. Place the juices in a heavy saucepan over moderately high heat and bring to a boil. Shift the pan so that only half of it is over the heat. Slowly boil down to 1 cup, skimming often.
About 5 minutes before serving, whisk together the egg yolks, nutmeg, remaining mustard and cream in a small bowl until well-blended. Whisk a few tablespoons of the hot reduced cooking juices into the egg yolk mixture, then whisk the mixture back into the saucepan. Heat gently, whisking until the sauce thickens. Do not allow the sauce to boil. Add the lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the chives. Spoon the sauce over the rabbit and serve hot with the preserved pears with ginger.
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