Sunday, April 27, 2014

I know it’s still pretty close to Easter, but…

It’s no secret that we like food that’s a little out of the ordinary around here, and we’re also not scared to cook just about anything, but somehow when we talk about certain things certain times, friends and relatives sometimes look askance at us. Today’s recipe is one of those occasions.

Rabbit Stew with pappardelle and Brussels sprouts. Yum!
It’s part of my nature, I guess, to sometimes take the mickey with people, so I’m fond of suggesting that we have venison at Christmas or rabbit at Easter. I am slightly serious because we have some excellent recipes for cooking both. As a matter of fact, when our boys were younger we used to buy a half carcass of farmed red deer, and everyone enjoyed it mightily. There was many a Sunday dinner consisting of pan fried venison steaks (cut thin and cooked fast), mashed potatoes, hot veg, a jus made from the pan drippings and a bit of venison stock, as well as fried onions with paprika. We’d still purchase more, but our friends sold off their herd. I never did manage to talk anyone into venison at Christmas (turkey has been the main course every year for the past 44), but I don’t plan on giving up.

Then there’s the Easter bunny. I really like rabbit and will order it in a heartbeat if it’s on a restaurant menu. What’s odd here is that my family had a pet rabbit when I was younger, a huge white one named Mr. Hoppity. I don’t remember how he came to live with us, but he wasn’t a baby. I have this vague memory that he just hopped into the yard and stayed. Regardless, we had a big cage for him that would be moved around the lawn for our most efficient clipper. Along with some rabbit pellets, he also got damaged lettuce leaves from the garden, carrots and he loved apples (of which we had a lot because of two full-size apple trees on our side lawn). Problem was, he caused my mother to have rather severe asthma attacks. On the coldest days of winter he lived in the basement in a pen my dad built down there. One winter my mother had a severe attack – and that was it for Mr. Hoppity. He disappeared immediately, and I have no clear idea where he went off to. We lived in a very Italian neighborhood, so I have always harbored certain suspicions…

Marinating the rabbit
Anyway, people who don’t understand how we can eat cute little creatures like bunnies have obviously never had them around destroying their vegetable gardens. It’s amazing the amount of damage one or two rabbits can do in just a few days. Deer, too, for that matter. Vicki put in some beautiful hosta plants for her mother a few years back, nice big specimens, too. Next morning? Little green nubbins. Everything was gone. I couldn’t have done a better job with a sharp knife.

So there’s the background. I’m unrepentant about enjoying consuming Santa’s sled pullers, and those fuzzy creatures that deliver our children’s Easter eggs.

Since it’s just past Easter, I think it only appropriate to talk about a fantastic recipe we ran across for rabbit stew. If you like hoppers, then I guarantee you’ll love this recipe. If you can source wild rabbit or hare, all the better, but even farm-raised bunnies will fill the bill. If you give this a try, I know you won’t be disappointed. The source of the recipe is an old cookbook on stews written by James McNair, James McNair’s Stews & Casseroles. If you’re interested in purchasing this lovely small cookbook, click HERE.

So here’s our go-to recipe for rabbit stew. If you like rabbit or would like to try something a bit out-of-the-ordinary, I think this will fill the bill.

Rabbit Stew
Serves 4-6

½ cup dry red wine
2 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbs juniper berries, crushed
3 dried bay leaves, crumbled
1½ tsp fresh rosemary leaves
1½ tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
3½-4 lb rabbit
3 Tbs flour
4 oz double smoked bacon, diced
¼ cup shallots, chopped
½ cup celery, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
1½ cup chicken stock
1 Tbs fresh thyme
2 tsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 bay leaves, fresh or dried
½ cup port
3 Tbs red currant jelly

  1. Have your butcher cut up the rabbit for stew, usually 6 pieces unless it’s a really large rabbit (lucky you!), in which case, it should be cut into 8 pieces.
  2. Combine the wine, olive oil, sliced onion, juniper berries, bay leaves, rosemary, ½ tsp salt and a few grindings of pepper in a large bowl. Wash the rabbit with cold water, pat dry and place it in the bowl. Coat the pieces well with the marinade, cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours or 12 hours in the refrigerator. Turn the pieces occasionally.
  3. Preheat the oven to 325°. Drain the rabbit, reserving the marinade, but discarding the onions and herbs. Pat the pieces dry and coat them with flour. I shake the pieces in a plastic bag, and often find that I need a bit more flour.
  4. In a heavy pot, cook the bacon – slowly to render out the fat – until crisp and brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the rabbit to the remaining fat and brown it evenly. Add more olive oil if necessary, but be careful! You don’t want a greasy sauce. Remove the browned rabbit to a plate or bowl.
  5. Pour off all but 2 Tbs of fat. Add the shallots, celery and carrots, and cook for 5 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Pour in the reserved marinade and stock, and bring a boil over high heat, scraping any brown bits on the pan’s bottom into the liquid. Add the thyme, parsley, bay leaves, 1 tsp salt and a few grindings of pepper. Return the rabbit and bacon to the pot.
  6. Cover tightly and bake for 40 minutes. Stir in the port and currant jelly, and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Correct the seasoning.
Ready for the oven
Notes: When our kids were little, we used to tell them that this dish was made with chicken. (I know, I know. We were terrible parents.) I have my doubts whether they believed us, but they ate it anyway.

We generally serve it with radiatore (“radiators”) or orecchiette (“little ears”) so that the sauce can cling to the pasta, and usually have a salad course before, rather than a hot vegetable. The easiest way to crush juniper berries is by using the bottom of a frying pan. We use a mortar and pestle, but not everybody has one of those.

Our favorite wine to serve with this is from Ontario’s Flat Rock Cellars, a truly lovely winery in Beamsville up on what’s known as the Beamville Bench) Their “Gravity” Pinot Noir is just the perfect match for the flavors in this dish.. Sadly, unless you’re in Ontario or visit the Niagara Wine Region, you won’t be able to get it, so use a medium-body Pinot Noir – but get a good one.


Anonymous said...

I used to eat rabbit stew, until I found a hare in my food.

Rick Blechta said...