THURSDAY, MARCH 19, 2009
THE EPISTLE OF THOMAS… KELLER
“One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then to the cooking.”
Keller goes on to explain the relatively “terrible”, imprinting experience he had slaughtering eleven bunnies. And like all difficult situations in life, it taught him an imperative lesson that he was generous enough to share; it is an example my mind and spirit conjure each time I prepare to cook a piece of meat.
“Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful. It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away…Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself? No. Should a cook squander anything, ever?”
My personal, synonymous epiphany didn’t come until I spent many enriching, supremely edifying moments on organic farms throughout the world, during which my perspective on food and cooking made a significant shift – I realized,?the ingredients are paramount. While watching an heirloom tomato grown from seed and cradled to market, partaking in the back-breaking (yet oddly gratifying) work of weeding organic soil, and gazing into the sweet, astonishingly soulful eyes of a Berkshire hog I came to know by name, I developed a new understanding of my passion for food and the brilliant cycle of which I was playing a part.
Holding a knife or getting behind a stove is not about?Us, self-indulgence, feeling accomplished or putting on a show – those are acts of exploitation. Rather, the essence of the creative process known as cooking lies in careful consideration of the jewels with which we are working – whether it be the saddle of a bunny, a filet of salmon, or a pound of rutabaga – and of the diner. This process begins when we become in tune with our perspicuous seasonal hunger and respond intuitively; it continues when, with discriminating senses, we select the most pristine ingredients we can find that will sate our yearnings; we then approach the kitchen, not with the intention to?transform?the product, but with an aim to gently?coax, highlight, articulate?and?punctuate; and lastly, all previous deeds will prove in vain if, when we surround the table, we eat in haste or are distracted by one of the numerous electronic instruments that dominate most lives. With these words and Keller’s stark illustration in mind, I hope you will venture outside your comfort zone and everyday-cooking repertoire to explore the realm of the rabbit, always maintaining the scrupulous attention and reverence this precious animal commands. Oh – and ALWAYS, above all else,?have fun!
Native to Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula, RABBIT is widely and passionately consumed across the world, yet is just beginning to regain a foothold on American tables. Though still hunted in the wild, this mammal is now domesticated, and farming has become popular as demand has risen (a good thing, since they are fantastically sustainable due to their legendary mating habits). The flavor of this small, burrowing animal is, admittedly, quite reminiscent of chicken; it redeems its unique identity with the unusual, lingering nuttiness it bestows upon the palate. Like chicken, the lean white meat of rabbit has an affinity for bacon (surprise,?surprise!), white wine, beer (!), mustard, garlic, onions, mushrooms, tarragon, parsley, and chocolate (yes, I said chocolate) – though preferably not all at once. Moreover, the liver makes excellent p?t?s, commonly served alongside prunes or apples, with the obligatory French delivery vehicle, toasted baguette. Rabbits are sold like chickens – as “Fryers” (a.k.a. “Broilers”) or “Roasters”. Fryers are relatively small, generally between 1 ½ and 3 ½ pounds, and boast tender, fine-grained meat; techniques such as pan-frying, deep-frying or grilling can be used when cooking rabbits of this size. Roasters, on the other hand, are larger animals, ranging from over 3 ½ and up to 5 pounds; Roasters, despite their nom de plume, are best marinated overnight and?braised?in an flavorful, slightly acidic medium, like a mixture of wine or beer and chicken stock, for several hours.
The recipe I’ve provided yields a pretty large batch of braised bunny. However, for long, involved recipes such as this, I find it a better use of time to prepare a hefty portion on which to graze for several days – its flavor only improves on the second and third reheating. Moreover, you can pull apart the meat (well, it?should?practically fall off the bone), toss it with remaining sauce and freeze for up to six months; after a long, exhausting day, you can simply defrost the rag?, toss it with pasta and, say, some snipped chive or fried sage –?viola(!) a fancy-pants dinner in less time than it takes you to sing “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. A final note: please don’t skimp on the term required for proper browning of the meat – it is what gives this dish its beauty and depth of flavor, making it worth the time and effort at all – and we all know?the importance of rabbits.
APPROXIMATELY 8 SERVINGS
2 3-pound rabbits, each cut into 8 pieces (see a great demo on butchering rabbit?here)
3 cups white wine (in this case, a good Italian Pinot Grigio would fit the bill)
2 tablespoons chopped thyme
2 bay leaves, crumbled
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, smashed
½ cup all-purpose flour?(optional),?spread in a shallow baking dish
4 ounces smoked bacon, cut into 3-inch strips
2 tablespoons unsalted cultured butter
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 large carrots, scrubbed and cut roughly into 3-inch chunks
1 quart of homemade?chicken?or?rabbit?stock?(if you must go store-bought, try and seek out the best stock you can find)
¼ cup Dijon mustard, or more to taste
1/3 cup whole-grain Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons cr?me fraiche or heavy cream
Chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
NOTES?It is best to start this recipe at least 1 and up to 2 days (including marinating time) before you intend to serve. Rabbit can be made 1 day ahead and cooled completely, uncovered, then chilled, covered. Reheat in a preheated 300?F oven, covered, 20 to 30 minutes.
Wash and dry the rabbit and place in a large cast-iron or earthenware pot (it should be at least 4-quart capacity and relatively wide). Season with freshly ground pepper, a couple tablespoons of thyme, crumbled bay leaves, 1 thinly sliced yellow onion, and 5 cloves of crushed garlic; pour over wine to cover. Refrigerate rabbit in the marinade overnight, or for at least 6 hours.
45 minutes before cooking begins, remove the rabbit from the refrigerator. Strain and reserve the marinade; drain and dry the meat (it is important the rabbit be completely dry for it to brown properly). Salt the rabbit thoroughly with sea salt. Rinse and dry the pot.
Set the pot over low heat. Add the bacon in one even layer and cook, without disturbing, until the bacon releases its fat and begins to sizzle. Turn the heat up to medium-high and allow the bacon to fry, turning occasionally until it is browned, but not burned. Meanwhile, line a sheet pan with parchment and a medium plate with paper towels; set aside. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel lined plate, leaving the fat in the pan.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 290 degrees.
After removing the bacon, keep the heat on medium-high; it is wise to wear an apron or old shirt, turn on the oven fan, and open a nearby window. If using, dredge dried rabbit pieces in flour, and shaking off any excess as you go. To the bacon fat, carefully (please use long tongs to avoid nasty oil burns) add the floured rabbit pieces in one layer, making sure that no two pieces touch (this will have to be done in batches). This is a very IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not disturb the meat after you set it in the pan, i.e., no shaking, no turning, no pushing or prodding. Foster patience. Allow it to brown; this can take up to 7 minutes per side. * To see if the rabbit is ready to flip (after you have ignored it for at least 6 minutes), gently nudge a piece with the end of the tongs. If the meat moves easily, with no signs of sticking to the bottom of the pot, it is ready to be turned. Turn each piece that passes this Nudge Test. Continue this method until all sides of the rabbit are well browned. Remove with the tongs (leaving the fat in the pot), and spread out on the parchment-lined sheet pan. Continue this process until all the meat is browned.
When all of the meat has been browned and set aside, there should be copious amounts of gloriously crispy bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the butter, remaining sliced onions, and a pinch of salt; using a wooden spoon, stir the onions in the hot fat – the caramelized “frond”, as it is called in restaurant kitchens, should start to loosen. Add the chopped carrot; allow to cook for 2 minutes more. Add the reserved wine marinade (including its aromatics), chicken or rabbit stock, and reserved bacon to the pot; stir to combine. Bring the braise to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover (preferably with the cast-iron lid made to tightly fit the pot), and place in the oven for 2 to 2 ½ hours…yes, 2 ½ hours. Check on braise after 30 minutes – there should be the occasional bubble rising to the top, but never a boil; adjust your oven temperature as needed.
Remove from the oven, and allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate overnight or immediately move on to the next step.
The next day, there should be a layer of fat on the top of the stew. While still very cold, remove all of the fat with a spoon and discard. Carefully remove each piece of rabbit and place in a bowl; set aside. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh strainer or chinois and reserve; discard onion, carrot, garlic, and bacon (though some like to add the bacon to the finished stew, I quite like the relative simplicity of the dish without it). Rinse and dry the pot, add the strained sauce, and return to high heat. Boil the braising liquid until reduced by half.
Remove a ¼ cup of the braising liquid and place in a small bowl. Whisk in Dijon mustard, whole grain mustard, and cr?me fraiche (or heavy cream); add mustard mixture to reduced sauce. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary – perhaps a pinch of salt or a grinding of pepper, or even a pinch of sugar may help to round out the flavors. Turn the heat to medium-low and add the reserved rabbit to reheat – again, sparse bubbles are the goal.
Serve braised rabbit hot atop long-grain, fluffy rice, buttered noodles, boiled potatoes, or large hunks of good sourdough bread; pass extra sauce at the table. Scatter chopped parsley on top and serve at once.?(A simple salad of wild greens with a lemon vinaigrette would round out the meal nicely.)