Both my homeland Australia and my adopive England have native creatures that are cute, hop around, happen to be a pest, and make for very good eating. But whereas in Australia, kangaroo meat is a commercial success, widely available in supermarkets and relatively popular for the home cook to use, over here, rabbits are sadly maligned and barely feature on the domestic table at all. Rowley Leigh, who in my opinion writes the best cookery column in England today, recently said of rabbit that it is the “food of the poor eaten only by the rich”. That cuts pretty close to the bone. All the cheap cuts are fashionable now and you can pay a fortune to eat rabbit, pig cheeks, black pudding, oxtail and so on in restaurants, but the people who can afford to do so seem to be the only ones interested in these cuts at all.
Which is a shame. I can perfectly understand the temptation of cheap supermarket junk and the convenience it offers. But the fact remains that you really can take matters into your own hands if you want, and reclaim things like rabbit and pig cheeks for cheap home cooking. I can’t conceive of a reason why people wouldn’t want to eat more rabbit. It’s cheap (£4.50 for a wild rabbit in central London – you can’t even get a battery chicken of the same weight for that), low in fat, and delicious. I even think that holier-than-thou vegetarians would have difficulty coming up with a valid objection to eating wild rabbit. On their world view, these creatures would be left to breed like the rabbits they are, destroy the very crops that vegetarians would rather us be eating in the first place, and then die of disease or at the hands of predators in a fashion far less dignified than simply being shot.
A rabbit will serve 4 people. A potential problem is that I don’t think the cuts of rabbit are particularly suitable for cooking in the same way as each other, and you’d be lucky to be able to buy anything other than the whole rabbit. A rabbit stew tends to call for a whole jointed rabbit, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed saddle meat when slow cooked in a stew – it’s dry, and needs to be barded and roasted quickly to be any good. Even with the legs you need to be very careful as they can be dry too, unless cooked long and slow. So you do need to invest a bit of time, but believe me the result is really worth it.
If you can’t find a butcher selling just the cut you require, buy a few whole jointed rabbits and freeze the joints you don’t need, for another time. Saddle can be used as a substitute in any recipe calling for chicken breast, for example, although you might need to be really nice to your butcher to get him to de-bone the bastards (which can be tricky). Front legs don’t have a great deal of meat on them, but certainly can be used such as in the recipe below (although the yield will be reduced), or to bulk out a terrine (I hope to publish a recipe for ham and rabbit terrine in the near future), a pie or a soup.
Here’s a recipe for slow cooked rabbit that is a bit of a half-way-house between a traditional English rabbit stew, and a Spanish fabada (the Asturian stew of pork, white beans, chorizo etc). I think it works very well. It has very comforting flavours. The slightly gamy flavour of a good tender rabbit is given a bit of further pep by some chorizo; white beans give a creamy texture; and the flavour of the bay leaves comes through to surprisingly good effect. It costs in the order of £10 to make.
4 wild rabbit legs (hind legs if possible. If any of the legs still have bits of rib-cage attached, cut them off)
120g chorizo (you could use fresh but I used the ordinary cured one that is very readily available in the UK. Remove any membrane, if the packet says so, by making a lengthways incision and then peeling it off. Slice into 5mm-thick rounds or long strips, as is your preference)
160g dried white beans (any type will do e.g. butter beans, haricot, cannellini etc)
2 smallish onions, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
A carrot, finely diced
800mL hot chicken stock
3 bay leaves
- Soak the beans in water overnight. The next day, drain and rinse.
- Place a frying pan over medium-high heat. Fry the chorizo until the fat has rendered and the chorizo is crisp; a couple of minutes should do. Ensure the pan does not get too hot, or the fat will burn. Remove the chorizo but leave the fat in the pan.
- Pat the rabbit pieces dry. Brown them in the chorizo fat. If insufficient fat has been rendered, add a bit of olive oil to the pan first. Set aside the rabbit pieces.
- In a flameproof casserole, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over a medium-high heat.
- Add the onions and sweat until they are translucent (about 5 mins). Add the garlic and carrot and sweat for another 5 minutes or so.
- Add the beans and give everything a stir.
- Nestle the rabbit pieces amongst the vegetables and add the chorizo and bay leaves.
- Add enough stock to just cover everything (you may need a bit more or a bit less than 800mL).
- Bring to the boil and then reduce to the lowest possible simmer (a mere trembling is what is required).
- Cover and simmer for at least 1¼ hours. From time to time check that it isn’t boiling. You can also shake the pan from time to time, but do not stir, otherwise the beans will break up into mush.
- Check on the rabbit’s tenderness. It should be falling off the bone. Sometimes it needs longer; if so, just be patient and keep cooking until the rabbit is tender. If you have boiled it too rapidly the dish may be beyond repair so be careful.
- Season to taste and serve with a salad and crusty bread to mop up the juices (which, by the way will be quite thin. Do not be alarmed; it’s a full flavoured liquor so in my opinion there is no need to reduce it further, although you could if you wanted to).
Wine suggestion: the oldest and/or softest red wine you can lay your hands on. Nothing too intellectual – this is a rustic, comforting dish. An old rioja or pinot noir would be great, but I had for a long time had my eye on an old claret that had been gathering dust: 1981 Chateau La Lagune. It wasn’t a perfect match but it was still a delight.