Spend enough time outdoors and you will cultivate a few special spots — places where you know, just know, that you will find what you seek. Your ace in the hole. Professional guides call it a “back pocket spot.” I have such a spot for cottontail rabbits. Holly and I dearly love to eat wild rabbit, and our friend Evan has an old barn on his family’s land in Amador County that will always produce cottontails. In five years, it has never failed us.
It wasn’t always so. At some point before we met Evan, one of his relatives (by marriage, not blood) had an ugly penchant for killing these cottontails for sport. The relative was later banned from the property, but for years afterward the rabbits were few and far between. When the rabbits did what rabbits do and finally multiplied enough to make their presence known again, Evan’s father forbade anyone from shooting them. Until we came along.
We promised Evan’s father we were going to eat the cottontails — he was upset that the bad seed relative had left them to rot — and we struck something of a deal with the rabbits themselves. We would come there only twice a year, and we would only shoot two or three cottontails each time. This is so small a number, and our appearance so infrequent that for years, the rabbits have always been there and the hunting has been so easy it borders on “harvesting.”
Evan, Holly and I returned last week and sure enough, the cottontails were out. Only this time there were dozens of them hopping around. We were sorely tempted to shoot more than our ritual pair, but we did not. A deal’s a deal. Only two came home with us, to become this stew.
This is an unusual German rabbit stew called, according to Mimi Sheraton in her excellent book The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking, eingemachtes kaninchen. It is a Swabian recipe, from Bavaria in Southern Germany. Read the recipe and you don’t immediately think of Germany, but rather of that country’s financial nemesis: Greece. Lemon, capers and bay leaves play a prominent role in this stew. But instead of oregano and olive oil and yogurt, the Germans use parsley and butter and sour cream. It is brothy, meaty and tart, with just a whiff of creaminess. Think avgolemono with more fiscal discipline.
You may be wondering if this is some sort of variant on the most famous German rabbit recipe, hasenpfeffer. It is most definitely not. For starters, hasenpfeffer requires a hase, a hare. And a hare is not a rabbit. Rabbits are light, mild white meat. Hares are heavy, strongly flavored red meat, and hasenpfeffer is a heavy, strongly flavored stew. In America, hasenpfeffer should be made with jackrabbit. I have one that Holly shot, but you will have to wait until the weather cools for that recipe.
This recipe, however, is a perfect stew for early autumn. Strong enough to comfort you on cool nights, yet still light enough to enjoy with a chilled white wine outside on the porch as you watch the sunset, thinking about the next time you’ll get a chance to reach for your ace in the hole.
German Rabbit Stew
Flavorwise, this stew is similar to my recipe for German meatballs, with a little sour cream, capers and lemon. It is a flavor combination common in southern Germany, and really works well with lighter meats. I would not use hare or jackrabbit for this recipe, so stick to cottontails, domestic rabbits or snowshoe hares, which are all white-meat rabbits. Chicken thighs would work well here, too, as would pheasant. There is another version of this stew in Germany that uses veal, too. So if you have some humanely raised veal, go for it.
It is a two-step stew, meaning you make the base and “mount” it with sour cream, white wine and capers right at the end. Once you add those final ingredients you are committed, so if you want to make this for dinners or lunches for the week, store just the base (up to Step 4) and add the remaining ingredients when you want to eat.
Serve this with bread or potatoes and a crisp, German white wine. A lager beer would be good, too.
Serves 4 to 6.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
- 2 cottontail rabbits, or 1 domestic rabbit, cut into serving pieces
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 to 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 onion, sliced root to tip
- Zest of a lemon, cut into wide strips (white pith removed)
- 2 to 3 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons capers
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- White wine to taste, at least 2 tablespoons
- Black pepper
- Parsley for garnish
- Salt the rabbit pieces well and set aside for 10 minutes or so. Set a Dutch oven or other heavy, lidded pot over medium-high heat. Pat the rabbit pieces dry and brown well on all sides. You may need to do this in batches, so don’t crowd the pot and don’t rush things. Remove the rabbit pieces once they’re browned. This may take 15 minutes or so.
- Add the remaining tablespoon of butter, then the sliced onion and cook until the edges just begin to brown, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir well. Cook, stirring often, until the flour turns golden, about 5 minutes.
- Return the rabbit to the pot and add enough chicken stock to cover. Use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Add the lemon zest, bay leaves and lemon juice and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook gently until the rabbit wants to fall off the bone, which will take anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours, depending on how old your rabbit was.
- This is an optional step, but I prefer it: Turn off the heat, fish out the rabbit pieces and let the cool on a baking sheet. Pull all the meat off the bones and return the meat to the stew. I don’t like fiddly stews with bones in them, so I do this. You can leave everything on the bone if you want.
- You can now store the stew for several days. Or you can serve it at once. Turn the heat to low just to make sure the stew is nice and hot. Do not let it simmer. Add the sour cream, capers and as much white wine as you want — you want the stew to be a bit zingy. Stir in a healthy amount of black pepper and garnish with parsley.