In most of the world, lamb is to Easter what turkey is to Thanksgiving. But locally, it just never caught on. It is rare in these parts to see an Easter table boasting a leg of lamb or a crown roast.
Perhaps another cute, cuddly animal might fill in that gap. An animal with an equally strong connection to Easter; the rabbit would make for an Easter dinner both twisted and delicious. And certainly a conversation starter.
In France, rabbits are considered more “delicieux” than cute and it hasn’t been that many years since rabbits were occasionally found on tables in this part of the world.
Joy Billings, a Wilkes County resident, remembers with great fondness the rabbit meals cooked by her late mother. Mrs. Billings dredged the rabbit pieces in flour, salted and peppered, and then fried them. She then made gravy with the drippings and served the fried rabbit with homemade biscuits. “Have mercy, I would love some now,” said Billings of the memory.
On the question of wild versus raised rabbits, Joy Billings was horrified, “We had wild rabbits. We never ate the Easter Bunny.” This sort of thinking does pose a problem for the Easter bunny dinner.
However, not everyone shares Billings’ distaste for farm-raised rabbits. Kittie Deemer of Wake Forest, says “Wild rabbit isn’t nearly as nice as a meat rabbit.” Rabbits raised for meat are less “gamy” than wild rabbits, the meat is pink instead of red and like most specialty meats, “tastes like chicken,” albeit a chicken that is somewhat firmer to the touch.
Another upside to rabbits as food is that rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. Mother Earth News, a publication geared to self-sufficient living, explains that keeping three rabbits, one buck and two does, can produce 180 pounds of meat in a year.
There are challenges to an Easter dinner of rabbit. As far as wild rabbits, the season ended on Feb. 29. While many people are convinced that shooting rabbits on their own property is always appropriate, it may not be actually legal. Use your own discretion. The Mount Airy News lifestyle page never advocates lawlessness.
Farmed rabbits can be equally hard to access if you don’t have a hutch and some busy bunnies in your shed. Whole Foods Market tested a program but it has been discontinued.
A canvas of your social network will likely provide some resources. Research for this article yielded the information that Amanda Everhart, of People’s Creek Equestrian in Advance, also raises some rabbits on her horse farm.
Everhart mainly raises rabbits for household use but can be convinced to part with one, in this case an eight-pound New Zealand / Flemish Giant cross who dressed out to about five pounds. Everhart will butcher the rabbit for you, skin it, eviscerate it, soak it in salt brine and vacuum seal it for you. She will also cut to order. Newbies to rabbit cookery who aren’t sure what they want can email their recipe and she will cut appropriately.
The four leg quarters (two hind legs with hip attached and two front legs with shoulder attached) made enough Lapin à la Chasseur for four carnivores. If the legs had been separated from the hips and shoulders, it would have been enough food for eight omnivores with the addition of some side dishes. The two tenderloins, or back straps, and the two small tenderloins are left to fry up with some gravy and biscuits and the two belly flaps are best suited for jerky, according to Everhart.
From one bunny, you get a fancy dinner with wine sauce, a down home breakfast with biscuits, and some jerky to snack on later. At this rate, 180 pounds of meat would go a very long way indeed.
Lapin à la Chasseur (Rabbit hunter)
French cooks often remove the germ, or sprouty thingie at the center of garlic cloves to prevent a vulgar taste and this recipe, translated into English from a French cook, recommends doing so. Decide for yourself how you feel about vulgar garlic.
4 rabbit legs, with thighs and shoulders
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup flour
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
8 slices of thick, smoked bacon
4-5 shallots, peeled
8 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed (the germ removed)
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 – 2 cups chicken bouillon (or any other “aromatique” cube diluted in water)
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
2 cups dry white wine (Sauvignon Blanc is recommended.)
1 tbsp. sweet butter
¼ cup minced fresh chives or parsley for garnish
Preheat oven to 400°F. Season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper and roll in flour. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large ovenproof Dutch oven and saute the bacon and shallots for about 10 minutes. Remove from pan. Add rest of olive oil and rabbit pieces (do not crowd the pan) and turn the heat to high. When the rabbit begins to brown, turn heat down to medium and add garlic and thyme. When it’s nicely browned, add the bouillon, and heat to a boil. Stir in the bacon and shallots, then add mushrooms and place in the oven covered and cook for about 30 minutes, until meat is tender. Add wine, stir and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Remove meat and set aside on platter and keep warm. Cook sauce uncovered until it reduces. Add butter to sauce in the pot and stir until butter melts. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired. Spoon sauce over the rabbit and serve, garnished with chives or parsley. Serve with steamed new potatoes or pasta.
Rabbit with Mustard (Lapin à la moutarde)
While most Americans prefer the milder, less gamy taste of tame rabbits, the French generally feel a wild rabbit has a finer flavor. When preparing rabbit for the pot, remember to remove the clear membrane that covers the saddle and hind legs or the meat will never be really tender however long you cook it. Use a sharp knife—you have to be brutal and waste a bit of flesh.
2 wild or 1 tame rabbit, cut into neat pieces
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour, seasoned
4-5 tbsp. oil or melted butter
2 onions, finely chopped
1-2 thyme sprigs
1 glass white wine
2 1/2 cups stock or water
salt and freshly milled pepper
1 tbsp. mild Dijon mustard :
1 tbsp. wholegrain mustard (Meaux)
4 tbsp. créme fraiche or heavy cream
buttered noodles or white rice to serve
Pick over the rabbit portions, removing any fluff or sharp splinters of bone. Toss the portions in the flour. Heat the oil or butter in a roomy pan and fry the portions until they seize and brown a little. Remove and reserve.
Add the onions to the hot pan juices and fry gently until they soften and gild but do not let them brown further. Return the rabbit to the pan and add the thyme, wine, and water or stock. Bubble up, scraping in any sticky bits from the pan, turn down the heat, season and cover loosely.
Leave to simmer gently for as long as it takes for the rabbit to be so tender it can be eaten with a fork. A young animal will be ready in 30-40 minutes, an older rabbit may take over 1 hour.
When the rabbit is perfectly tender, stir in the mustard and cream, bubble up again and serve with buttered noodles or plain white rice to soak up the juices.
Slow-cooked Hare in Red Wine (Civet de lièvre)
A civet can be made with venison, rabbit, game birds, or a mixture. Game is lean, dry meat which needs extra fat—petit sale (salt-cured belly pork, or fatty bacon). To prepare your own petit salé, buy a thick slice of fatty belly pork, sprinkle with rough salt, cracked pepper, and bay leaf, and leave overnight.
2 bay leaves
1 thyme sprig
1 rosemary sprig
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 bottle robust red wine
1 well—grown hare, trimmed and cut into small joints
about 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
4 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. shallots or pickling onions, skinned
2-3 carrots, cut into chunks
1 thick slice petit sale or belly pork, salted overnight, diced
1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
salt and freshly milled pepper
the hare’s blood or 2 squares bitter dark chocolate, chopped
Mix the bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, oregano, garlic and wine in a roomy bowl. Add the hare and turn pieces in the marinade. Cover and leave the meat to absorb the flavors – overnight is best.
Drain the hare, reserving the marinade, pat dry and dust with flour. Heat the oil in a large casserole and add the onions, carrots, and petit sale or belly pork. Fry until they caramelize a little and remove. Set aside on a plate.
Fry the pieces of hare until lightly browned. Add the reserved marinade and a cupful of water and bubble up. Replace the pork mixture. Turn down the heat, cover tightly, and leave to simmer quietly for 1 1/2 -2 hours, until the meat is falling off the bone and the sauce is thick, rich, and dark. Alternatively, the casserole can be transferred to the oven to cook very gently at 275°F. Check occasionally and add a splash of boiling water if the casserole is drying out.
Stir in the blood or chocolate and cook gently for 1-2 minutes, stirring until the sauce has accepted the addition. Do not boil or the sauce will curdle.
It’s good today, even better tomorrow.
Amanda Everhart is proprietor of People’s Creek Equestrian and can be reached at 631-680-0414.