A Taste of Rabbit
I have always been partial to rabbit. It’s cheap, flavoursome and versatile, and makes an excellent change from ubiquitous chicken. As the somewhat pompous Major Hugh Pollard wrote in The Sportsman’s Cookery Book, “Properly cooked – and admittedly English cooks do not cook with marked originality or enterprise (he was writing in 1926) – a dish of young rabbits is really a delicacy.”
I suppose the rabbit has always been the poor relative of the hare, the latter classified as posh game and the rabbit as vermin. While it is true that rabbits breed prolifically and help themselves to anything that’s growing, their meat is wonderfully sweet and nutty, though all that scampering to escape the farmer’s gun can make wild rabbit tough.
I find it hard to understand why rabbit isn’t more popular in the UK, whereas in mainland Europe it is easily found in butchers and supermarkets. While on holiday in France this summer I found bumper packs of rabbit legs on offer in Leclerc, as well as whole rabbits – with the head disconcertingly left in place. Since various parts of the rabbit need different cooking times, the legs-only packs were a real bonus. I snapped them up to use in my favourite rabbit recipe: Rabbit with Potatoes, Peppers and Lemon. It’s an easy-to-cook Italian-style braise that makes the rabbit beautifully moist and flavoursome. If you want to give it a try, your local butcher should be happy to sell you legs minus the other parts.
Provided they come from a young rabbit, the hind legs are wonderful barbecued, even at this time of year. This is real campfire stuff, and so much better than chicken drumsticks. Just slash the thickest part, rub with olive oil, lemon juice, herbs and black pepper, and cook for 6–8 minutes a side. The front legs are not very meaty but are fine to add to a casserole or use in soups and stock.
Meatiest and most tender is the saddle or loin, which can be pan-fried or quickly roasted. Set the oven temperature to 200°C/gas 6, and toss the meat in plenty of oil and seasonings. Roast for 7–8 minutes then leave to rest for 10 minutes before serving. It’s as simple as that.
A good way of using up a whole rabbit, particularly a wild one, is in a confit that can then be used for a pasta sauce or risotto, or made into a tasty terrine. Start off by soaking the rabbit in salted water for several hours to remove any bitterness (there is no need to do this if your rabbit is farmed). Drain and simmer in fresh water for an hour or until the meat is practically falling from the bone. Remove from the pan and leave to cool. Strip the meat, put in a bowl, season and cover with olive oil. As long as it is completely covered with oil to exclude air, the meat can be left in the fridge for up to two weeks.
To make pasta sauce, heat a large knob of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a roomy pan. Gently fry a finely chopped carrot, celery stick, small onion and 2 garlic cloves with 4 slices of chopped streaky bacon, a sprig of marjoram or thyme and 2 bay leaves. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Once soft, pour in half a glass of dry white wine and let it evaporate for a few minutes. Add 200g finely chopped mushrooms, and 350g picked rabbit meat and cook for another 10 minutes. Serve with broad ribbon pasta such as tagliatelle or pappardelle, and plenty of freshly grated Parmesan.
Wild rabbits are at their best now – young, plump and tender – so make the most of them while you can. You’ll find them mainly in traditional butchers or farm shops. In a few weeks they won’t be so good, and farmed rabbit will be the better option.
© Christine McFadden, November 2014