Considered a patriotic food during World War II, rabbit later went out of fashion. But as game meat regains popularity, so has rabbit.
Rabbits are helping win the war, proclaimed a Los Angeles Times article from 1943. Touted as a patriotic food during World War II, rabbits were raised by thousands of Americans in their backyards.
Along with victory gardens, rabbits helped put food on the table when much of the nations supply was shipped to soldiers overseas and ration stamps provided little at home. But even though rabbit consumption spiked during the war, it all but disappeared afterward.
Think rabbit today and your thoughts probably veer to cartoon characters, cereal mascots, Easter and adorable pets. Perhaps the only bunny youve ever eaten was of the milk chocolate breed. For years, it seems the only place you could find the real deal was occasionally on the menu at French or Italian restaurants.
But rabbit appears to be going through a renaissance of sorts.
I think its gaining in popularity, says Mark Pasternak, co-owner, along with wife Myriam, of Devils Gulch Ranch in Marin County. Their farm supplies rabbit to a number of butcher shops and restaurants.
And in an era when game meats and nose-to-tail eating are redefining fine dining as food sport, rabbit is both familiar and exotic enough to appeal.
It almost has a prohibitiony quality to it, like it was something your grandfather ate. Its a great old-fashioned meat, says chef Ken Addington, who, with restaurant partner Jud Mongell, owns LA Chapter in downtowns Ace Hotel as well as Five Leaves and Nights and Weekends in Brooklyn, N.Y. Weve always had rabbit on the menus in Brooklyn. Its a fun, versatile meat.
And though Mongell was hesitant to feature rabbit at first, hes come around to the idea. In these times when were trying to be so conscious of what, and how, were consuming, its something to consider.
At a time when buzzwords like organic, local and sustainable are driving the market, rabbit is ripe for resurgence. The animals require few resources to raise and have a well-known reputation for quick breeding.
According to Slow Food USA, rabbit can produce 6 pounds of meat using the same amount of food and water it takes for a cow to produce only 1 pound. Not to mention the health benefits. Rabbit is a lean meat that is higher in protein but lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than many other meats, including chicken, beef and pork.
But how does it taste?
Domestic rabbits all-white meat is fine-grained and has a mild flavor compared with other game meats.
Rabbit is one of my favorite subjects because it is so versatile, like veal or chicken, says chef Evan Funke of Bucato. A favorite dish of his for those new to rabbit is ragu. Any time I get the opportunity to introduce people to rabbit, (I do). Ragu is easy.
Addington likes to pair bright flavorings, such as citrus, with rabbit; he currently has a lemon grass rabbit ragu on the menu at LA Chapter.
Though rabbit is mostly available through butcher shops and online, it is turning up more frequently in upscale markets.
It is usually sold whole, though you can have your butcher break the animal down into parts. (But if youve ever wanted to learn how to break down any four-legged animal, rabbit is a great place to start because its so small. Do be careful with the bones, however; rabbit bones are even more delicate than those of a chicken.)
And despite its reputation as an inexpensive option during frugal times, store-bought rabbit is not cheap; prices range from about $10 to $13 a pound for a 2- to 3-pound rabbit.
Of course, you could always do the patriotic thing and raise your own.
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons minced thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 rabbit, cut into serving pieces
2 cups buttermilk, more if needed
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
4 to 6 cups lard
1 large onion, sliced into thick rings
Serves two to four.
In a deep, medium bowl, combine the kosher salt, lemon zest and juice, minced thyme leaves, several grinds of black pepper and garlic to form a rub. Add the rabbit pieces to the bowl, massaging the rub all over each piece. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or at least several hours.
The next morning, pour the buttermilk over the pieces and gently toss to coat; the buttermilk should barely cover the rabbit; if not, add just enough to roughly cover. Cover the bowl again and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.
Season the flour: Place the flour in a large bag, bowl or baking dish, and season with 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper. Taste the flour, and adjust seasoning if desired.
About 1 hour before frying, remove the bowl from the refrigerator. Remove each piece of rabbit from the buttermilk, shaking gently to remove any excess buttermilk (do not attempt to dry the pieces). Dredge each piece in the seasoned flour mixture, coating completely. Shake to remove the excess flour, and set the pieces aside on a rack to dry and warm to room temperature.
While the pieces are resting, prepare the lard: Place about 4 cups lard in a large, heavy skillet or frying pan over medium heat. Melt the lard; it should come up about one-half to three-fourths inch up the side of the pan (melt additional lard if needed). When the lard is just melted, add the onion rings and continue heating the lard until the onion is caramelized and the lard is hot. Remove the onion (discard it or save for another use), and check the temperature of the lard; a thermometer should read 350 degrees.
Gently place the pieces in the hot lard, being careful not to crowd. Lower the temperature to 325 degrees and fry the pieces on each side until crisp and golden brown and the meat is firm and opaque, about 5 minutes for smaller pieces and 7 to 8 for larger. Flip the pieces over and fry on the other side until done (a thermometer inserted in the meat should read 160 degrees). Remove the pieces from the hot oil and drain, skin-side up, on crumpled paper towels. Repeat until all of the pieces are fried.
Serve the pieces hot or at room temperature.
ITALIAN BRAISED RABBIT (CONIGLIO BIANCO)
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
10 juniper berries, crushed (optional)
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
1/3 cup olive oil
1 onion, sliced root to stalk
1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
1 teaspoon dried thyme
5 to 6 cloves roasted or preserved garlic
10 to 20 green olives, pitted and halved
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Serves four to six.
Cut the rabbits into serving pieces. Save the stray bones in the pelvis, ribs, belly flaps and neck for the stock.
Make a quick rabbit stock: Place all of the rabbit pieces -- not just the stray ones -- into a pot and cover them with cool water by about one-half inch. Bring this to a boil, then remove from heat. Skim off any sludgy stuff that floats to the top. Fish out all the good pieces of rabbit -- legs and saddle -- and put them in a bowl in the refrigerator. Add the bay leaves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, juniper berries (if using) and cracked black peppercorns to the pot. Return everything to a bare simmer and cook for 1 hour. Strain, discarding the solids, and set aside. You will need 1 cup rabbit stock to complete the recipe; any remainder can be covered and refrigerated for up to five days, or frozen for up to 3 months.
In a heavy, lidded pot, such as a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When it is hot, add the sliced onion and cook until soft and translucent. Do not brown them. Add the white wine, 1 cup of the stock, the rabbit pieces from the refrigerator, the thyme and the garlic. Bring to a simmer and add 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Finish the dish by adding the green olives and fresh parsley. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes and serve.