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Rabbit: (Almost) Too Cute to Eat

by Kris Wetherbee

A love affair is brewing with an incredibly tender and delicate white meat that weighs in with less fat, cholesterol, and calories per ounce, yet has more calcium and protein than chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb and even certain fish. Gourmet chefs and connoisseurs alike are reintroducing the culinary appeal of rabbit to the American palate.

Actually, rabbit only recently fell out of favor during the 20th century baby boomer era of the early 60's to the late 80's. With the exception of that short stint in time, its popularity has spanned the generations, with its use as a meat source dating as far back as 1500 BC.

Though it's long been held in high regard for its nutritional value, today's domesticated rabbit is considered as far superior to any wild rabbit of yesteryear (they're milder and plumper than their wild counterparts). Now its fine-grained, tender white meat is highly favored for its versatility, feed efficiency and productivity.

Rabbits can produce 6 pounds of meat on the same feed and water that it takes for a cow to produce 1 pound of meat.

Native to Morocco and the Iberian peninsula, Romans began importing live rabbits to Italy around the 3rd century. The early Romans are also credited with the first recorded rabbit farming, having kept rabbits in walled gardens or warrens known as leporaria. Their habitat was further broadened as sailing vessels relocated breeding pairs on islands within sea lanes to provide food for sailors. (Remember the 1859 release in Victoria, Australia, of a single breeding pair of rabbits? That population quickly bounced to an estimated 20 million rabbits in just 30 years).

The arrival of the 20th century brought an explosion in rabbit popularity and production. Rabbits became a constant presence on nearly every farm in European countries as well as the U.S. During the war years of the 1940s, domestic rabbit was quite prevalent in meat markets and rural homes, bringing rabbit production in the United States to an all-time high.

Curried Rabbit

While Americans are indeed rediscovering their love affair with rabbit meat, France remains the world's largest producer and consumer. Yet rabbit is once again turning up in upscale restaurants and chain supermarkets as well as specialty meat markets throughout America (one can even order fresh rabbit meat on the World Wide Web), making it a convenient luxury for the finest in home dining.

Rabbit lends itself to braising in wine or stock, and associates wonderfully well with mustard, mushrooms, prunes and olives. I like young rabbit best when it is cooked slowly over the barbecue, then basted with a spicy marinade of blackberry jam, pineapple juice and ketchup, or enticingly baked in a Thai peanut sauce. Rabbit marries equally well with fresh ginger or garlic and particularly rosemary. Completely bone a young, tender rabbit and stuff it with a cheese filling heightened with fresh herbs, or bake it into a comforting pot pie. Others prepare it wrapped in bacon, sautéed with prosciutto and roasted red peppers, braised with fennel and balsamic vinegar, even presented as a Creole dish or served fricassee style.

When procuring dressed rabbit, your options are many. Packaged selections include frozen or fresh left whole or cut into pieces as well as boned or even ground into a tantalizing sausage. For superior meat at its tender best, select a fresh young rabbit or one that has been frozen less than 2 months. Young rabbits are ready for the table from 8 to 12 weeks of age, and usually dress out between 2 to 3 pounds. These can be prepared in any method or recipe suited to a young chicken, such as frying, grilling, barbecuing, roasting, or stuffed and baked whole in a moderate 350°F oven. An older, more mature rabbit excels when cooked slowly in a stew or from other moist-heat cooking including braising. Older rabbit is also excellent turned into a ground meat, with which you can create numerous recipes; it's quite distinctive when made into a breakfast or Italian sausage. Artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes or even apples bestow a gourmet touch for the ultimate rabbit sausage.

Appreciated by connoisseurs, approaching the versatility of chicken with all the appeal of a delicate veal, rabbit can easily become an affair of the heart. Now with its wide availability, it no longer remains the elusive extravagance it was just 20 years ago.

Rabbit Recipes

2 T. butter, melted
2 T. canola oil
1/4 c. honey
1/4 c. pineapple juice
2 T Dijon style or Stone-ground mustard
1 t. "Camelot Curry Powder" (recipe follows)
2 to 3 lb. young rabbit, cut into serving pieces
salt and pepper to taste

In a small bowl, make sauce by mixing together butter, canola oil, honey, pineapple juice, mustard and curry powder. Set aside.

Place rabbit in a large, shallow oven-proof baking pan; season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour sauce over rabbit and bake, uncovered, in a 350°F oven, occasionally basting pieces with sauce. Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes or until meat from thigh pulls apart easily with a fork.

Remove rabbit pieces from pan and arrange on a serving platter. Pour remaining sauce from pan over rabbit and serve immediately. (This sauce is excellent with new red potatoes.) Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Camelot Curry Powder:
1 t. ground turmeric
1 t. chile powder
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground coriander
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. cinnamon

In a small bowl, combine all seasonings together. Store in an airtight jar or container away from heat and light.

2 to 3 lb. young rabbit, cut into serving pieces
3 T. olive oil
1/3 c. plus 1 c. dry white such as Chardonnay
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
1/2 t. sugar
1 T. unbleached flour
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. fresh rosemary, minced
1 c. chicken broth
2 T. balsamic vinegar

In a large heavy bottomed sauté pan, brown rabbit in hot olive oil until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes on each side. Reduce heat to medium, remove pieces to a large plate and set aside, leaving drippings in the pan.

To pan add 1/3 cup wine, onions, mushrooms and sugar, sautéing for 5 minutes until onions are softened. Stir in flour, garlic and rosemary, sautéing for 2 minutes more. Mix in remaining 1 cup wine, chicken broth and vinegar, bringing to a slow boil. Place rabbit pieces back in pan and simmer 50 to 60 minutes uncovered until done.

Remove cooked rabbit pieces from sauce and arrange on serving platter. Drizzle 1/4 the sauce from pan over rabbit, serving remaining sauce on the side. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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