Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rabbit Tales and Other Farmers' Market Goodies

It was a couple of days into my first and only trip to Venice about thirty years ago. I had a friend with a boat and we'd gone off to spend the morning walking the beach at the Lido and visiting the glass factories in Murano. Afterwards, we went to this little family trattoria where my friend was well known. There was no ordering, dishes just appeared at the table. The first course was aragosta,  kind of local lobster, if I remember correctly. The second was coniglio. The taste was rich and wonderful. Thus I became a fan of eating rabbit.

Here in the States, rabbit is the last frontier. You'd never think of serving it to guests without checking with them first, "You do eat rabbit, don't you?" Sadly, the answer is frequently "no", which is too bad, because Barbara Hutchinson of Jocose Farm in Chester, NH raises absolutely wonderful rabbits from French stock. (Barbara shows a flintly, New England disdain for those who are too timid to try rabbit. The bumper sticker on her truck says it all. "Save an endangered species. Eat it." ) Farm-raised rabbits are very tender, quite lean, and high in protein. And their all-vegetable diet makes them healthy to eat.

Last Saturday was the kind of cold winter day that makes you want to stay inside and cook. And so we did, making a baked mustard rabbit for that night's meal and a lamb osso buco for Sunday night dinner  -- both recipes from David Tanis' excellent book, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. Tanis, who spends six months a year as executive chef at Chez Panisse, has written this delightful book of simple, yet magnificent seasonal recipes especially for home cooks. 

He serves his rabbit with parsnips epiphany-style, showcasing yet another unfortunately underused ingredient. As fresh parsnips had arrived as part of our Heron Pond winter CSA that afternoon, we made those, too, halving both recipes.

Dave prefers to cut up a rabbit using the technique described by Judy Rodgers in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. This gives you four different cuts of meat: 2 plump hind legs, 2 smooth, tapered loins, two belly flaps, 2 bony forelegs. He decided to make us a first-course composed salad using sauteed rabbit loins, plus fresh radish greens, radishes, and carrots from our CSA, drizzled with a sherry viniagrette.

For the faint-hearted, the mustard rabbit could be made with chicken. But I suggest you try one of Barbara's rabbits, if available. She can be reached at  603-887-4863 or at

Mustard Rabbit in the Oven
Serves 8
2 rabbits, about 2 1/2  pounds each
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup strong Dijon mustard (Tanis suggest adding a little dry mustard powder as French mustard imported to the U.S. is not as pungent as that sold there.)
2 teaspoons mustard seeds, crushed (optional)
1 3/4 cups heavy cream (Tanis uses homemade Creme Fraiche and includes a recipe in his book, but we just use the heavy cream.)
8 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 pound thick-sliced bacon or pancetta, cut crosswise into 1/4" lardons
4 bay leaves
thyme branches
sage branches
A little dry white wine or chicken broth, if needed

1. Ask the butcher to cut the rabbit into six pieces (or do it yourself with a small cleaver -- if you get your rabbit from Barbara, you'll have to do it yourself, but it's actually quite easy, like cutting up a chicken,only with four legs) as follows: cut the saddle into 2 pieces. Divide the hind legs. Cut the foresection in half through the backbone, leaving the forelegs attached to the ribs.  (Or you can use the Judy Rodgers method, like we do. Essentially, you remove the legs and forelegs at the joint. Carefully bone the chest cavity. You will have four legs, two boneless rabbit loins, and two loin "flaps.)
2. Season the rabbit pieces generously with salt and freshly ground pepper and put them in a large bowl. Add the mustard, mustard seeds, cream, garlic, bacon, and bay leaves. Strip the leaves from the thyme and sage branches, chop them roughly (you'll want about 2 tablespoons of each, and add to bowl. With your hands, smear the ingredients all over the rabbit pieces to coat evenly. Cover and let the flavors meld for an hour or two, or overnight in the fridge.
3. Bring the rabbit to room temperature, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the rabbit pieces, along with every drop of their juicy seasoning, in two shallow oval earthenware baking dishes, just large enough to hold them. (if you're halving the recipe, you only need one dish.)
4. Bake on the middle oven shelf for about 1 hour, turning the pieces as they brown. (You may remove the saddle pieces (the loin) a little earlier, though, if they seem done to keep them from overcooking. Then return at the last minute to heat through.) The rabbit should be nicely browned and the juices quite reduced. If it seems to be browning too rapidly, lay a piece of foil on top, then uncover for the last ten minutes of cooking. If the sauce seems too reduced, splash a little white wine or chicken broth into the bottom of the baking dish and cook for a few mintes longer.
5. Bring the serving vessel to the table and serve each person according to their preference: foreleg, saddle, or hindquarters. Spoon a little sauce over each serving. Accompany with roasted parsnips.

Parsnips, Epiphany-Style
Serves 8
4 to 5 pounds parsnips
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Peel parsnips and quarter them lengthwise. With a paring knife, remove the central core (even small parsnips have a hard core.) If the parsnips are smallish, just trim the ends. If larger, cut them into 3" lengths.
3. Season well with salt and pepper and toss with the olive oil, then install the parsnips in an earthenware dish or roasting pan. Bake for 45 minutes or so, until they are fork tender and lightly browned. They can be cooked in advance and reheated.

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