The winter months in much of the north country is the season of the hound. The crunching of the snow beneath your feet, and the bay of a pack in hot pursuit are sounds perfectly suited to the winter whites clinging to the trees, and covering the brush piles. Shotguns, snowshoes, wool coats, and beagles mean that many tasty rabbit meals are on the horizon. After a day of baying hounds and frenetic chases nothing is better than fork tender rabbit or hare to make one appreciate the chase, and accompanying tradition.
Rabbit is one of my favorite game meats. It’s subtle, sweet flavor is far better than all domestic meats, and more suiting to the traditional Thanksgiving trimmings that any turkey ever will be. Handled correctly, rabbit is the game with which to initiate the uninitiated. Here is a handling tip I came across recently, and a pairing based on traditional Italian cooking that puts rabbit in bed, or on the plate, with ingredients it deserves.
Handling game can be tricky, and rabbit and hare especially so. Their tender flesh readily absorbs, and holds blood after they’ve been shot. As with any game, blood in the meat can change the flavor profile, and rabbit having such a light flavor can easily take on the iodine profile of the blood. A trick I learned recently is to fully submerge the skinned and cleaned rabbit in a pot of cold water. You then want to place this pot in the sink, allowing it to soak overnight in cold water, while you allow a small trickle of cold water to run from the tap into the pot. This will do two things; it’ll allow a fresh supply of cold water to keep the rabbit cool, while flushing the blood to run out of the pot and down the drain as the pot over flows. True, this isn’t the best method if you’re concerned about water conservation, but the water really only need be run at a trickle. In the morning your rabbit should be a clean pink/white color, and ready to be cooked.
Boiling a rabbit can further remove any remaining blood from the meat. Rabbit being as lightly flavored as it is, can be boiled, and later added to any dish you chose to use it in. This will prevent it from being over powered by spices later, and retain its natural sweetness. To do this I quarter the rabbit, and boil it. As the rabbit boils the water may change colors, or remaining blood may rise to the surface. Skim the foam created by the blood off the surface, and if you think the water has become too dark, change the water. The goal is to boil the rabbit until the meat can be easily pulled from the bones. How long this takes depends on the size of the rabbit, but 2-3 hours at a light boil should do the trick. Depending on the recipe you’ll be making you may want to boil until the meat just comes off, especially if you’ll be stewing the meat and want it to take in some of the flavors around it.
Some things naturally go together better than others, and the classic Italian dish Fagiolo All’Uccelletto is the perfect back drop for rabbit prepared as I’ve outlined. I call this dish Fagiolo Con Coniglio, Beans with rabbit. I hope you enjoy it.
1 can of cannellini beans
2 cloves of garlic
1 Sprig of sage, or basil
4-5 Tomatoes, peeled, and chopped
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar.
1 rabbit, prepared as outlined above
Drain the beans, and begin to heat at a simmer with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Simmer until well heated, about 1 hour.
In another sauce pan add the garlic and sage to about 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil. Over low heat allow the flavors to infuse into the oil. After the flavors have infused, add the tomato and rabbit, and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the sage and garlic.
Next, add the beans to the tomato and rabbit, and allow to simmer for another 10 minutes so the flavors come together. Finish by adding the balsamic vinegar. Serve with ravioli, pasta, or polenta.
Customize the recipe as you feel is necessary. If you’d like the dish as a side, use less tomato, and allow the liquids to evaporate before you serve. If you’d like this to be more like a sauce, use more tomato, or more olive oil. I prefer to skip the sage, and add basil at the end. The choice is yours, and I present this to you as a starting point, rather than a finish line. The important thing is enjoying your rabbit, and honoring it by cooking it as best you can.