I really really like rabbit, eating rabbit that is. I have been feasting away since I arrived in Rome where Coniglio alla cacciatora (hunters style rabbit) graces almost every trattoria, osteria and restaurant menu. To my mind, it is a massively underrated meat which is not nearly as popular as it should be – but then I have absolutely no bunny sentiments whatsoever, Yes, they are cute, but no more than say, little lambs, which I also really like eating. When a good rabbit, preferably wild, is well cooked, the meat is simply superb. I shouldn’t damn it with faint praise by saying it is ‘a bit like chicken,’ but there is undoubtedly a similarity in the lean, white, tasty meat, only rabbit has a more pronounced depth of flavour and a subtle but distinct gameyness.
I am horribly squeamish about intensively, cruelly reared meat and get nauseous just thinking about it, rabbit are no exception. Fortunately, I have my butcher who regularly obtains a few wild rabbits, he promises me they are from a trusted and honest source, I am not squeamish about hunting for food.
The wild rabbits I have been pertaining are generally between 6 months and a year old with short necks and legs. Despite their youth the flesh can be firm and tough in a ‘I ran around alot‘ kind of way, so I find braising and stewing brings out the tender quality in the meat. This is actually a excuse, because I have had only marginal success roasting and making the famous Coniglio alla cacciatora (hunters style rabbit)…..I am still trying, I will post as soon as I have real success.
This is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe from his brilliant River cottage meat book. I met him once, he was really mean to me, however, that is by the by and I forgive him because I like his books as much as I like rabbit. This is the kind of recipe I like to make, its makes me feel hardy and hearty in the kitchen. Pancetta or bacon is fried and then the jointed rabbit browned in the glorious bacon fat. The rabbit and crispy nuggets of bacon are transferred to your big, heaviest, heart warming casserole pan. The frying pan is deglazed with cider, at once filling the kitchen with the most intoxicating smells before being poured over the meat. Onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves and a teaspoon of honey (if you are using very dry cider) are added. Everything is simmered away very very gently for about and hour and a half.
The resulting stew is stunningly simple and delicious, a blob of creamy mashed potato makes a good side kick, soaking up some of the thin but rich tasting sauce.
Rabbit is fiddly and if you like your meat chicken breast simple you may well get a little frustrated at the work and picking required to capture all the little gems of meat hidden amongst the tiny ribs. I have no problem fiddling and am happy to use my hands and get stuck in.
I have not mastered the art of gutting or skinning a rabbit yet, although I fully intend to. For now my butcher does that and joints it into 8 pieces while he is at it.
Rabbit braised in cider
2 wild rabbits skinned and each jointed into 8 pieces, 200g piece of pancetta or bacon cut into chunky cubes, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 large onion sliced thickly, 3 stalks of celery and 3 large carrots cut into chunky strips and then 4cm lenghs, 500ml cider, 150ml water, 2 bay leaves, sprig of rosemary, I tsp honey if your cider is very dry, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
In a large frying pan warm the olive oil, add the chunks of bacon or pancetta. Gently fry the chunks until they are golden and the fat is running free,
Using a slotted spoon transfer the bacon or pancetta chunks to the large casserole pan. Back in the frying pan brown the pieces of rabbit in batches and transfer them to the casserole when they are done.
Still in the frying pan sweat the onion until it is soft and translucent, but not brown. Tip the soft onion on top of the rabbit in the casserole.
Tuck the carrots, celery, bay leaves and rosemary amongst the rabbit pieces.Push everything around, the pan should be fairly tightly packed.
Back with the frying pan, pour in the cider and over a low flame using a wooden spoon deglaze- scrape away the little peices of bacon, rabbit and onion stuck to the pan.
Pour the cider and 150ml of water over the contents of the casserole pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, add the honey if you are using it.
Over a modest flame bring the pan to a lively simmer and then turn down the heat and leave it gently simmering for 1 and a half hours.
Serve with mashed potato and plenty of the juice spooned over.