Of Rabbits and Roller Coasters - Dread, Thrills, and Calm for a new Butcher

First there's the attraction, you're so intrigued, you can't resist. Then there's the dread and fear when you are face-to-face with your choice. Then when you actually are doing it, you find exhiliration. As well as Zen-like calm. Respect. Focus. Butchering my first rabbit made me think of my experience with riding roller coasters. I'm excited at the idea of riding one. Then I get in line and begin to panic, "What was I THINKING?" "I must be insane." "I can't get on this thing." Then you get locked in and it's out of your control. And it is thrilling. Each time I go back, it's the same sequence. Attraction, dread, panic, exhiliration.

Butchering my first rabbit, I thought: it's nearly the same sequence. Except for the Zen-like calm part. There's more screaming than calm. On the roller coaster, I mean, butchering is something else entirely. It's quiet. It's the only thing I can think of where you experience thrill and calm simultaneously. I've become really enamored with. It's not at all what I expected.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole

I've had the opportunity to watch some masters at work, and yes Dominique Chapolard, I'm talking about you. (Separate post soon on that wonderful IACP Workshop.) The combination of strength and grace in Chapolard's work was incredible, I think sort of like ballet. I've also watched pig butchery demos from two local experts, both of which taught me new things.

Michael Ruhlman, taking notes Dominique cutting, Kate Hill, Adam Sappington (Country Cat Restaurant chef/owner).

 

And I've tried my hand at replicating their results at home. Ah, but the difference between watching and doing becomes clear...so clear.

My very first major butchering job was my Allan Benton ham. I really gave new meaning to the term "Butchering".

There are, of course, numeours birds - chickens, turkeys, the occasional capon. Those I can do quite well. But those somehow, don't count.

 

The New Backyard Birds - Rabbit?

My recent research into sustainable meats got me thinking about rabbit. I've had it only a couple of times - the conejo at Dali is wonderful. The recent inaugural visit to Bergamot included a rabbit dish that was sublime. And, my visit with Jennifer Hashley of Pete & Jen's Backyard Birds included an introduction to her rabbits. I had to try it at home.

As you know, dear reader, I'm nothing if not honest. So let me tell you, when I looked at this little guy, I felt a little guilty.

No question, he's a cutie. But I think pigs are pretty cute, too. I love them. On the farm and on my plate. I recognize it's a bit jarring to think of food this way, but that's only because we've de-coupled our food farming from our food eating. As we became lulled into thinking that food was something that comes in a box, in store, we kind of forgot where it all starts.

Since I don't plan on giving up my omnivorous ways anytime soon, I take the position that I want food that is unprocessed, organic when it can be, natural when that means something. I want to be able to meet the person who grew it or raised it. Or at least know that a person exists behind it (not a factory). If it's meat we're talking about, I do not find it comforting to buy an anonymous plastic-bound slab of meat with unknown origins and dubious geneology. It makes me more uncomfortable to eat a porkchop or a steak that might've been raised in horrifying death-camp factory farms, than it does to look li'l fluffy in the eye and say "Itadakimasu."

These rabbits have a pretty good life, very healthy food, clean surroundings and soon, pasture, too. They're being raised by two farmers who share my values about how you treat animals, what you do or don't do to the land and the water table.

So, there are many reasons why rabbit should be on your table. First is, it tastes wonderful. I would never bother with all of this if I weren't first driven by the love of good food. My friend Meg calls it "sensual sustainability" - I like that and told her I'd steal it soon. But the point is some of us fierce advocates seem to have forgotten that food should first be about joy. Feeding the senses as well as the body.

Second, rabbit is highly sustainable source of protein: in terms of resources they require, the meat they produce, how often they reproduce, and they produce odorless manure which can be used as fertilizer.

As a food source, rabbit is widely eaten in other cultures and seems to be making a comeback here. (See, Old World Meats Make Comeback as Sustainable Choice.)

 

Butchering my Bunny

The bunny, whole bunny, nothing but the bunny.

Eight pieces, did the extra step of boning the loin and saddle of the spine.

 

 Rabbit in Marinade

 

Mustard coated pieces searing

Platter of Lapin à la Moutard, LDG style

 

 

 

Riffing on Saveur's Lapin à la Moutarde

The classic recipe does not begin with a marinade. I did so because this rabbit was a bit older* and worried it might be tougher or gamier than younger rabbit. What do I know about rabbit though? This may have been completely unnecessary. Feel free to forego it.

Marinade:

  • 1 TBSP garlic (1 large clove, or two smaller cloves, minced)
  • 1/3 C Quady Dry Vermouth
  • 1 TBSP Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 Meyer Lemon, juiced
  • Tarragon healthy three-finger pinch
  • Rosemary - large sprig, stripped and minced
  • Thyme - fresh sprigs to make 1-2 TBSP minced

Combine all ingredients well. Place rabbit pieces in marinade for 1-2 hours. Remove from marinade, pat dry with paper towel, smear with Dijon. Reserve marinade for sauce.

  • 1 large rabbit (ours was 3.5 lbs)
  • 1/3 C Dijon Mustard
  • 6 TBSP butter
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1/2 C dry white wine
  • 1/4 C chicken broth
  • 3 bay leaves, sprig of rosemary, sprigs of thyme

for finishing sauce:

  • 1/3 C crème fraîche (I think this would work with simply whisking in cold butter too, but the crème fraîche really ups the elegance of the dish. It also balances the mustard.)
  • 2-3 TBSP minced parsley

Melt ~ 4 TBSP butter in large pan (do not use non-stick). Fry rabbit pieces, coated with mustard in butter, until crispy and dark golden brown. They'll stick at first then release as they crisp. Mustard will darken, don't worry. Remove rabbit pieces to platter as they are done searing (you're not cooking them all the way at this point, just browning.

Add onions to pan as rabbit is finishing. When onions are soft, pour wine into marinade container and add all to pan to de-glaze. Scrape up browned bits (the fond, most important component of pan sauces) and let liquid reduce slightly. Add herbs, then return rabbit to pan and cover. Braise over medium heat about 25 minutes. Remove rabbit to rinsed, dried platter - finish sauce by whisking in crème fraîche and parsley. When flavors have combined, pour over rabbit and serve.

 

And a lovely lunch of leftovers

 

Resources

 

* Ed. Note: A point of clarification: I got the description of the rabbit's age a bit off: Jen clarifies: "The rabbit wasn't older - it was actually 13 weeks old and we normally process them at 12 weeks, so it was just a week older than we normally process them, so they inched up above the 3lb range.  Our goal is usually to have them "dress out" between 2.8-3.3 lbs to keep them within a price range that works for most folks' budget, otherwise, people get serious sticker shock!  We do occasionally process "older" rabbits that would definitely be much tougher and need a good marinade - these are usually our breeding stock when they are ready to be "retired" and they can weigh upwards of 6-7.5 lbs when they are dressed out (they weigh in at 10-13 lbs live), so we generally don't sell those since it would be cost-prohibitive (unless someone requests it).  We keep them ourselves to make yummy rabbit sausage or terrines!  Delicious."