In the spirit of estival amnesty, we chose not to publish an Easter post about rabbit, but now that our kitchen has been picked clean of of brightly colored eggs, it’s back to the
cutting drawing board. Herewith, Mustard-Braised Rabbit with Leeks, Peas and Radishes. In other words, rabbit for grown-ups.
My first dining experience with things that go hippity-hop was in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, a double whammy; first for the rabbit, and second, for the chasseur or hunter sauce (tomato, chanterelles, cream). Europeans love to serve rabbit sautéed, braised (my favorite) and roasted (a bit tricky; some parts cook faster than others). In France, Italy and Germany rabbit is considered just another choice among a range of staple meat. But in the US, where My Little Bunny, Goodnight Moon and Peter Rabbit impinge on the culinary imagination, we have a more ambiguous relationship with rabbit. Common when most of America was still an agricultural economy, or later when domestic husbandry was encouraged as matter of public policy (World War II), rabbit has always been a little too controversial to make it into the supermarket. It’s pet, a stuffed animal icon or the last resource for the rural poor, only a step up from squirrel. Try putting any of those on the meat counter down at your local Safeway.
I understand some people who find the naked corpses of chickens unobjectionable are disconcerted by rabbit. If you’re one of them, then come back in a couple of weeks when we’re not eating bunnies. For more omnivorous types, read on. Rabbit has a higher protein to fat ratio than chicken, but it also has a higher bone to meat ratio. But for those of us concerned with compassionate animal husbandry, this is more than offset that rabbit is raised on small farms. There are no giant rabbit combines, unlike those that produce pork, poultry or beef. In fact, the difficulty with rabbit is simply finding it. Most rabbit is supplied by individual farmers, who can’t keep up with supply. The best place to start is a good butcher, who can order it for you if they don’t regularly carry it. The next place is online, but be forewarned, it can be pricey.
Farmed rabbit tastes like chicken only if you’re not paying attention. The meat is denser, less fatty, with a richer flavor. The Easter Bunny taboo is a bigger obstacle to the consumption of rabbit than anything to do with the taste itself. Just about anything you’d pair with chicken can also serve for rabbit, but since rabbit will almost alway be a special occasion dish here, it’s worth troubling yourself for ingredients that transcend the ordinary. Wild mushrooms (morels!) are good, so are the first arrivals of spring–new peas, leeks, artichokes, and asparagus. On blog day our local Whole Foods was suffering from a temporary dearth of spring peas (“Sorry. All sold out. They’ll be back in a couple of days.”), so we substituted frozen. You should have better luck now. Any of these green things can be good simply sautéed and served alongside or over a rabbit sauced with no more than the braising juices, but if you’d like to pull everything together with a dollop of crème fraîche and mustard, as we are wont to do, don’t hold back. Who couldn’t use need a rich jolt out of culinary hibernation right now? One rabbit will serve 2 to 4, depending on what else rides along. Rabbit bones are quite light and fracture easily, so when eating one of the saddle (torso) pieces be alert for bones, particularly in the ribs. The photo of the rabbit carcass also shows lobes of rabbit liver, the heart and kidneys, in the interests of including what typically arrives inside a whole rabbit. The liver, in particular, is delicious. We did not use these in the recipe; instead we sautéed them with a bit of rosemary, salt, pepper and (in the case of the livers) a splash of balsamic vinegar. The livers were incredible as crostini; we diced the kidneys and heart and added them to a tomato sauce for pasta. Enjoy. Ken
P.S. See Jody’s Notes about cutting up a rabbit, if you want to do it yourself. I’ve also included a collage with representative photos. Roll over the photos with your mouse for instructions (a few of the photos have no captions).
Mustard-Braised Rabbit with Leeks, Peas and Radishes
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1 3-pound rabbit, cut into 8 pieces: 2 hind legs, 2 forelegs, and the loin portion cut into 4 pieces. (Ask the butcher to do this for you or you can do it yourself – see Jody’s Notes and the photos.)
- Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 large leeks, white part thinly sliced and washed
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- ¼ cup + 2 teaspoons champagne vinegar
- 1½ cups chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
- ½ cup creme fraîche
- 1 cup fresh or frozen peas, blanched
- 5 ounces radishes, cut into quarters + leaves, rinsed
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Combine vegetable oil, thyme, and Dijon mustard in a large bowl and mix together. Season the rabbit with salt and pepper and toss in the marinade, cover and refrigerate 4 hours or overnight.
- Remove the rabbit from the marinade. Reserve the marinade.
- Heat 1 tablespoon butter in large, deep-sided sauté pan over medium heat. Add the leeks and garlic season with salt and pepper and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan.
- Add a tablespoon of butter, and brown the rabbit pieces on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Deglaze the pan with the champagne vinegar. Add the chicken stock and the residual marinade in the bowl. Cover with a piece of parchment paper and then a lid. Cook over the lowest heat , about 20 minutes. Flip the rabbit over. Cover with parchment and lid and continue cooking 10 minutes. Add the leeks. Then cook until the meat is done, about 20 minutes. Remove the rabbit from the pan and cover to keep warm.
- Reduce the sauce until it coats the back of a spoon. Stir in half the tarragon and creme fraîche. If the sauce seems too watery, put the pan back on the heat and reduce it until it is thick. .
- While the sauce is reducing, heat the remaining tablespoon of butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the radishes and brown all over. Season with salt and pepper. Add the radish leaves, toss and then add the peas, honey, the remaining teaspoons of vinegar and remaining tarragon and toss to coat.
- Arrange the rabbit on serving plates. Spoon lots of sauce over the rabbit, then add the peas and radishes.
- You need some good crusty bread to soak up the extra sauce.
I believe in cutting up animals oneself, if possible. It brings you closer to origins of food – you can’t escape the knowledge that you’re cutting up what was once a living creature – while imparting a fundamental awareness of the structural differences between the different animals we eat. Whether you choose to take this approach or not, here are a few bits of advice.
You can buy rabbit already cut into pieces. Any place that sells whole rabbit will almost certainly cut it up for you, if you ask. I believe that the belly flap and ribs contribute to the flavor of the dish – and I like chewing on them. If you want to give them a try, instruct your butcher to leave them on (the default is to clip them off). In the recipe above I cut the loin into 4 pieces; 3 is often the default, so mention you prefer 4, if that’s what you want.
Breaking down a rabbit for the first time can be daunting, but if you’re comfortable with a knife, go ahead and try. It goes by fairly quickly, even if you’re unpracticed. You may make wonky cuts, but the dish will still be delicious. You do need a sharp knife–without that, you’re lost. A cleaver is ideal for chopping the saddle into pieces, but a heavy chef’s knife will work too (that’s what we used). You need to slice the silver skin and sinew off the carcass, an easy task with the sharp knife. I tend to be pretty fastidious about trimming extra fat, skin, sinew or veins. Check out the fabulous detailed instructions, with photos, on how to cut break down a rabbit on Hank Shaw’s Honest-Food blog. He takes a more refined approach than I do (belly flaps and ribs – gone). Because I have a restaurant kitchen and want to minimize the possibility of any problems I instruct my cooks to take an extra step. In the photo of the rabbit skeleton below, find #33, the suprahumate process – it’s in the expanded picture of the shoulder joint. There’s a thin blade of bone that projects out from joint just above the shoulder joint. I instruct my cooks to clip this off – you may choose to skip this step. I have never had a problem with anyone biting into this, but at Rialto we sometime grind the meat of the forelegs and use it for meatballs or mix it into stuffing for sausage, and I don’t want pieces of bone in my meatballs.
Guide to Breaking Down a Rabbit
(Roll your cursor over the photos to read the instruction; some photos have no captions.)