On chilly evenings, nothing sounds better than a braised, stick-to-your-ribs dinner: root vegetables in a rich sauce, tucked in next to a tender leg of rabbit . . .
This is often where an awkward silence ensues. Rabbit is a highly nutritious, basically fat-free protein choice. But many people have a hard time viewing the meat the same way they view a dinner of chicken or beef.
Julia Sunkler, a rabbit farmer and the owner of My Pharm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, says that rabbit makes a nice change from the more familiar roast chicken. Like chicken, rabbit meat is tender and delicate, and takes well to bold flavors and slow-cooked preparations.
But unlike chicken, rabbit is fine-boned, resulting in more meat per bone. And it really shouldn’t be compared to other proteins at the market. For one thing, rabbit is more expensive; an average four- to five-pound whole rabbit will cost you anywhere from $25 to $30, which pencils out to a pricey-sounding $6 to $7 per pound.
“You have to consider what you’re buying,” said Sunkler. “If you do the cost per pound, rabbits will always cost more than chickens. Don’t compare it to chicken; just compare it to other rabbit. [People] don’t compare beef to chicken, or pork to chicken. This is just a different idea.”
Why that cost-per-pound difference? In addition to weight, the price of raising rabbits factors into the final cost at the market. Sunkler says that Oregon’s mild climate creates a perfect environment for raising rabbits as livestock, as the animals do best in a climate range of 30 to 80 degrees. But while climate control isn’t an issue for her, feed is. Chickens can be raised on whole grains, and other livestock can be pastured. Rabbits, however, need a pelleted, commercialized feed made from alfalfa, which costs more.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cost of rabbits is the feed. It’s more expensive [to raise them] and will always be more expensive,” said Sunkler.
The best place to find rabbit meat is a farmers’ market or specialty meat shop or butcher. There isn’t a specific season for rabbits, as they breed year-round.
For those somewhat skittish about trying rabbit for the first time, Sunkler suggests sampling a rabbit dish at a restaurant before cooking it at home. Luckily, rabbit is becoming more of a mainstay on many menus for chefs around the country.
Veteran New York City-based chef Christian Delouvrier of the French eatery La Mangeoire sources his rabbit from renowned supplier D’Artagnan. He wrote via email that for him, rabbit is “a beautiful meat, not dry, but juicy. Some people I think are resistant because they think about what this was before it was on the plate, but if those people eat chicken, pork, or beef, I would encourage them not to discriminate against rabbit and give it a try for its beautiful tenderness.”
He suggests livening up the leg or loin with strong herbs or mustard, and is currently serving a roast leg at La Mangeoire: “I have Mijotée de Cuisse de Lapin on the menu, which is rabbit leg with tomato, mushroom, and tarragon ragout, served with cauliflower gratin. It is rich and hearty.”
Chef Robb Garceau, of the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, loves rabbit for its delicate flavor, and for “how subtle flavors bloom with the right techniques. Bonus is the range in cuisines you can apply — Thai to French country.” He recommends a rabbit fricassee with polenta and mushrooms.
Does he have tips for coaxing someone into trying a rabbit dish? “My wife and I were at a dinner party, and someone leaned over to her and said ‘Isn’t the rabbit delicious?’ She said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t eat rabbit!’ The guest responded, ‘Well, you do now!’ And she’s been a fan ever since.”
Due to the virtually nonexistent fat content and all white meat of rabbit, most preparations at home call for a marinade or slow cook. Additionally, a rabbit doesn’t sit like a whole bird in a pot, so for even cooking, it’s smarter to piece it out — a simple task requiring a small amount of patience and a very sharp knife.
“If you can cut up a chicken, you can cut up a rabbit,” said Sunkler. I turned to Walid Saleeby, a chef in Eugene, Oregon, for a quick lesson. The photos below show how it’s done.
First, assess the rabbit. Make sure it is clean of fur and anything that didn’t get scooped up during the gutting. Rinse and pat dry.
Next, remove the hind quarters by grasping one hind leg at a time.
Slowly separate the leg where it joins the body and sever where the joint meets the tailbone.
Take the front legs one at a time and cut along where the leg meets the neck, again severing where the joints meet. Then remove what was the rabbit’s belly — the flaps of meat below the ribcage — and sever the ribcage from the saddle and backbone, separating the two.
Take the saddle and turn it so the backbone is facing toward you.
Slice on either side of the bone and separate the loin from the backbone, separating the meat as you cut it away from the bone.
Jackie Varriano is a Eugene-based writer who loves tackling kitchen projects big and small. Keep up with her at seejackwrite.tumblr.com.
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