Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rabbit-Don't Worry, It Isn't Peter

I've developed a fool proof rabbit recipe that never fails to be delicious. Lucky for me, rabbit is almost always available in the market here at chicken prices, so I make it once every couple weeks. I know it is rarer and more expensive in the States, and I wonder how much that scarcity owes to American squeamishness rather than any lack of supply. Regardless, I love rabbit-its flavor is more complex than that of chicken without being gamey, and it takes all kinds of spices and cooking methods perfectly.

My recipe pairs rabbit with intensely aromatic herbs, crisp white wine, and a few hours over the fire to let the flavors develop. Here are the dirty details:

1 whole rabbit, cut in pieces (get your butcher to do it, and tell her you need neither head or innards)
1 bottle white wine (1 1/2 cup for rabbit, the rest for dinner)
1/2 large white onion, in chunks
1 large clove garlic, smashed but whole
1 sprig of rosemary
2 sprigs of thyme
4-5 dried juniper berries, slightly (gently!) smashed 
A generous sprinkle of whole or freshly cracked black pepper
A generous pinch of your favorite cooking salt, or to taste

On to the method:

In a pot or deep pan, heat up a generous drizzle of olive oil over medium high heat. Rinse and dry the rabbit pieces and then pop them in the hot pan to brown. Add the onion chunks after a couple minutes and let sizzle. When the browning side of the rabbit is nice and golden, flip the pieces over and add the garlic clove. Check your email, dance around the kitchen to some Al Green, sip on a glass of that white wine you opened for the rabbit. Browning takes longer than you think.
When everything is golden (I'd say give it ten minutes a side), add all the herbs, salt and pepper, then pour in a cup and a half of wine and a half cup of water.
Lower the heat to a simmer, stir, put the lid on the pot, and go read a book or snuggle with your partner.  Occasionally remember that there is something on the stove and stir it a bit. If the liquid has reduced too much, add a little more water or a little more wine. This phase will continue for approximately an hour and a half, until the meat has gone from being over cooked to falling off the little bones.
Serve with fresh bread, or saffron rice, or sauteed greens.

If you want to do a rag├╣, you have two options. The first is to ladle some of the rabbit sauce over pasta and toss them together. This is a perfect, light primo piatto to precede the main course. The second is to take the rabbit off the flame when it has reached the fork-tender stage and let it cool. Once cool, put all the pieces in a bowl and take all the meat off the bones, inevitably shredding it. Add the meat back to the pot and reheat gently, simmering for a few minutes to let it reintegrate with the sauce. Serve hot over pasta for a satisfying main dish.

Regardless of what you do with it, don't forget to bring the rest of the wine to table.

Speaking of the wine, I tend to use an Arneis from Roero, a crisp and mineral Piemontese white, but an aromatic white like a Gewurtztraminer, Muller-Thurgau or Sylvaner would work just as well to add to unctuousness to the rabbit rather than freshness like the Arneis. The key is to pick a bottle you want to drink with the meal, because you only use a cup or so in cooking!

I want to clarify what I intend with respect to the herbs. I have a rosemary bush, and therefore use fresh rosemary. If you don't have one, dried rosemary works just fine. Same with the thyme. I don't grow thyme, but I buy it fresh and then dry it at home in a cookie tray on top of my toaster oven. Just spread the fresh herbs out evenly and leave them. When you turn the toaster oven on it speeds the drying process, but they do well enough on their own as long as you don't live in tropical humidity. Here in Italy, fresh herbs are cheaper and easier to come by if you know where to go. I don't have a fancy garden or budget, so I buy herbs at the open market near Piazza Vittorio, where a big bunch of anything costs a euro (80 cents if I know the vendor). That way I avoid paying for the packaging of super market products and I get much more potent and fresh dried herbs. I dry sage, thyme, mint (though I just got a mint plant), bay leaves and oregano. You really can tell the difference.

As for the juniper, if you can't get it or can't afford it, don't use it. I did a little dance of happiness when I realized juniper is widely available here. A jar from the supermarket costs 2 euro, and it costs about 15 euro/kilo at the open market. You only need a couple berries to infuse a whole pot with flavor, so it lasts forever. However, I know how expensive it is in the US, so like I said, don't worry about it. I like the flavor it gives, but I am also a loving gin drinker. If you don't or can't use it, rosemary and thyme will definitely be enough. If you're stressed by leaving out an ingredient, substitute oregano for an extra mentholated kick, or smoky paprika to make it a darker dish (but in that case go with the Gewurtz)
The bottom line when it comes to the herbs is that you should use what you want and can, in any amount that you see fit. Think of this recipe as a guideline, not a commandment. It'll be tasty regardless.