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Eat Rabbit, Not Bunny
Discovering the Other, Other White Meat
The issue Americans have with eating rabbit has nothing to do with taste. This other, other white meat simply has a “Thumper” problem.
Bambi’s ice-skating sidekick with his notoriously infectious laugh is certainly one cute bunny. Disney’s own entertainment news site, Babble.com, placed him at the top of its list of the 50 most adorable cartoon characters of all time. He captured the No. 1 spot because, Babble speculates, “In a film that is absolutely wrenching in its depiction of loss, Thumper represents nothing but pure joy.”
And now you want to eat him?
It is simply historical fact that, for much of human history, he and his fast multiplying cousins, with their lean loins and flavorful back legs, have been fair game.
When the Romans invaded the Iberian Peninsula around 200 B.C., they found the land overrun with wild rabbits, promptly penned them, and established cuniculture: raising domestic rabbits for their meat and fur. In many parts of the world, this practice is alive and well. But the idea of eating rabbit in the US often provokes ire from animal rights groups and those who love bunnies as pets. And then there is our recent history, or lack thereof: we have to go back a generation or two, to leaner times like the Great Depression and World War II, to the last era when our grandparents, especially those in rural places, found rabbit a delicious and sustaining protein.
Today, professional culinary interest in rabbit is hopping along. At Emilitsa in Portland, Niko Regas regularly features lagos meh phyllo, a starter comprising braised rabbit, basil, feta, and roasted tomatoes rolled in phyllo and served with grainy mustard and beer reduction. Brian Hill at Francine Bistro in Camden will serve it this winter poached in cream with rosemary and Romanesco cauliflower. Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti plan to have it in the rotation at both Piccolo and Chaval in Portland. Ali Waks-Adams will feature rabbit as a plat du jour at The Brunswick Inn in December and James Tranchemontagne will have it on the menu from time to time at The Frog & Turtle Gastro Pub in Westbrook.
Eating rabbit out is one thing. Cooking it is another. But it doesn’t have to be a big deal, explains cookbook author Deborah Krasner, in Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat. Rabbit is versatile, says Krasner, and it can be cooked the same way as most chicken parts are—braised at the lowest possible temperature as in the Rabbit Paprika and Rabbit Tagine recipes that follow. Sometimes, it does require some additional fat – Krasner prefers butter or olive oil – to keep the very lean meet tender. She also advises having your butcher cut a whole rabbit into 6-8 pieces and suggests that, while not essential, either wet or dry brining rabbit allows the meat to take on more flavor as it braises.
Lisa Webster of North Star Sheep Farm in Windham and Sara Buckley of Sarah’s Rabbits in Brunswick raise rabbits for different reasons. Webster and her husband, Phil, rear them exclusively for eating. Eighteen-year-old Buckley is a champion breeder who shows her brood on state and national circuits.
But these women couldn’t agree more on how lean, clean and only ever so subtly gamey rabbit meat is, even if they disagree on the best way to cook it at home. Webster runs with a spatchcock prep where she severs the breastbone at the sternum so the meaty parts of the rabbit lie flat while it braises slowly in the oven in a variety of self-made sauces. Buckley throws a whole carcass in the crockpot to simmer in aromatics and water while and turns it into a slew of pulled rabbit dishes once it’s falling off its many tiny little bones.
The Websters raise many dozens of New Zealand, Silver Fox, and Red Satins at one time in roomy, stacked cages in a barn especially kitted out for them, selling them whole to chefs from Boston to Bar Harbor. They are easy to breed, grow quickly, and require only a fraction of the feed and water necessary to produce larger animals like beef cattle, pound for pound. And these growers are very particular about feed because their farm is certified organic. They also control what the rabbits listen to on the radio. Phil commands the dial. More often than not, it is set to the news because it makes human voices commonplace for the rabbits so they aren’t startled or stressed out by them at any point along the birth to butcher continuum.
Buckley has been raising show rabbits since she was 12. She’s built a breeding business that includes Chocolate Charlies, English Spots, Himalayas, Jersey Woolys, Mini Lops and the three breeds Webster raises for their meat. Many of Buckley’s brood go on to be great show rabbits and breeding does and bucks. And she is perfectly willing to sell others as pets, which she does at the Brunswick Farmers’ Market Lipovsky Farm stand.
“But then there are the culls,” said Buckley, referring the rabbits that certainly won’t show well and probably won’t be scooped up on the pet market because of a perceived flaw in their looks. These she processes for their meat. She sells whole rabbits for $6 per pound, frozen, from the cooler on a back table in the same market stall. The average size is about 4 pounds and will feed 4 people.
There are a few other sources for rabbit in Maine, like Maine-ly Poultry at the Bath Farmers’ Market—they move to the Brunswick Winter Market at Fort Andross in November. Pat’s Meat Market in Portland stocks it regularly frozen and Whole Foods in Portland offers it occasionally, though not necessarily local. The Rosemont Market butcher shops will special order local rabbit if you ask. Farmers' Gate Market in Wales and South Portland will sometimes have a few for sale. You can always order through D'Artagnan or other online sources.
Local supply will only grow to meet the demand says Webster. Between chance encounters at the restaurant table and greater availability, mindsets seem to be shifting away from Thumper. To cook and eat rabbit at home, you’ve merely got to take the bunny out of the equation.
1 whole rabbit*
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup pitted whole prunes
½ cup dried whole apricots
½ cup pitted Spanish green olives
¼ cup capers with 1 tablespoon of their brine
4 bay leaves
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup sherry vinegar
½ cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons honey
*In 7 pieces: 2 back legs, 2 front legs, 2 bone-in loin sections, carcass reserved for stock.
Arrange rabbit pieces in the bottom of a tagine or Dutch oven. Season them liberally with salt and pepper. Distribute prunes, apricots, olives, capers, bay leaves, and garlic evenly around the rabbit pieces. Sprinkle thyme leaves and oregano over the ingredients and pour oil and vinegar over them. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably 8.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk wine and honey together and pour over rabbit and other ingredients. Cook, covered for 45 minutes. Remove cover and cook for another 30 minutes, basting the meat regularly, until the sauce reduces by half and the rabbit pieces are slightly browned on top.
Serve hot with either couscous or crusty bread.
1 whole rabbit*
10 black peppercorns
6 sprigs of thyme
3 crushed garlic cloves
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup of ice cubes
10 black peppercorns
8 parsley stems
2 bay leaves
1 medium onion, unpeeled and quartered
1 medium carrot, unpeeled and roughly chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium sweet onions, peeled and thinly sliced
5 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup rabbit or chicken stock
1 cup chopped, canned tomatoes
12 small cipollini or white boiling onions, peeled and trimmed but still whole
1 green bell pepper, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
*In 7 pieces: 2 back legs, 2 front legs, 2 bone-in loin sections. Reserve carcass for stock.
To brine the rabbit, place pieces in a non-reactive bowl with peppercorns, thyme, and garlic. In a large measuring cup, combine boiling water, salt, and sugar. Stir until salt and sugar have melted. Add ice cubes and stir until they have melted. Pour brine over rabbit. Cover and refrigerate for two hours. Remove rabbit from brine, pat dry with a clean towel, and refrigerate until ready to use. Discard brine.
To make rabbit stock, place carcass, peppercorns, parsley stems, onion, and carrots in a large pot. Cover with cold water and place over medium heat. Simmer stock for 2 hours. Strain and set aside. (Leftover stock you can refrigerate or freeze for use like chicken broth.)
To make sauce, melt butter and oil in a medium Dutch oven over medium high heat. When the butter foams, add rabbit pieces and brown them on all sides. Remove the rabbit from the pan and set aside. Reduce heat to medium and add sliced onions. Cook, stirring, until they are well softened but have not browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic cloves, stir to coat them in fat, and cook for 1 minute. Stir in sweet and smoked paprika, and cook for 1 minute.
Add wine, turn the heat to medium high, and boil until the liquid is reduced by half. Add stock, tomatoes, cipollini or boiling onions, and green peppers. Nestle reserved pieces of rabbit into the sauce. Reduce heat to medium and simmer covered for 45 minutes. Uncover and simmer for 15 minutes to reduce the sauce by a third. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes before serving hot with buttered noodles, creamy polenta, spaetzle, or crusty bread.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.