Follow me down into my burrow for a moment, for I am about to show you the wonders of the white rabbit.
No, no drugs involved. I have something more rare, more fleeting, in mind: Restraint. Subtlety and restraint are two traits rarely seen in American cooking. We Americans like Big Food, with Big Flavors. Red things, like chiles and barbecue sauce and tomatoes. Chipotle for all! Rabbits don’t like big loud things. They get easily overwhelmed. Slather BBQ sauce on a rabbit and it’s still good, but it becomes less of a rabbit and more of an anonymous white protein.
To shine, rabbit needs to surround itself with ingredients and cooking methods that are more demure. This is one such recipe. I draw my inspiration for it from one of my “desert island” cookbooks, Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand. Chef Bertolli is a master of braised meats, and he notes that rabbit is one of the few foods that really doesn’t benefit from browning the way say, duck or lamb does. That caramelization, the mighty Maillard Reaction we all know and love, strips rabbit of much that is special to it.
So this braise skips that step and uses a Chinese technique instead: To prevent your braise from getting a layer of frothy scum on top (a layer caused by coagulating blood and proteins from uncooked meat), you blanch the rabbit for a moment before it goes into the pot. You then surround the bunny with white wine, olive oil, a very quick stock you make from the “off” parts of the rabbit, along with roasted garlic and green olives.
Eating this dish will make you taste rabbit in a whole new way. You will realize, perhaps for the first time, that rabbit does not in fact taste like chicken, although it looks like it. Rabbit tastes like rabbit. And this, you will see, is a good thing.
Coniglio Bianco, Italian Braised Rabbit
You will want at least 2 cottontail rabbits for 3 people, although two bunnies will serve four in a pinch. One snowshoe hare feeds two easily, and a domestic rabbit will feed 2 to 3 people. Still, this dish is so good, and it reheats as leftovers so well, that I’d suggest you make more than you think you will need. And yes, you can do this with chicken thighs. Sigh.
Serve with mashed potatoes, white polenta or rice. A green thing alongside is always nice, too.
Serves 4 to 6.
Prep Time: 90 minutes, mostly for breaking down the rabbit and making stock.
Cook Time: 2 hours
QUICK RABBIT STOCK
- Ribs, neck and belly flaps from the rabbits
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 10 juniper berries, crushed (optional)
- 1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
- 2 to 4 cottontails, 2 to 3 snowshoe hares or 2 domestic rabbits
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 medium yellow or white onion, sliced root to stalk
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
- 1 cup quick rabbit stock (see above)
- 5 to 6 cloves, roasted or preserved garlic
- 10 to 20 green olives, pitted and cut in half
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- First you must break down your rabbits. (Here are instructions on how to cut up a rabbit.) Save the stray bones in the pelvis, ribs, belly flaps and neck for the stock.
- To make the stock, Cover all the rabbit pieces — not just the stray ones — into a pot and cover them with cool water by about 1/2 inch. Bring this to a boil, then turn off the 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 fridge. Add the remaining stock ingredients, return everything to a bare simmer and cook for 1 hour. Strain and set aside.
- Now find a heavy, lidded pot such as a Dutch oven and heat the olive oil over medium heat. When it is hot, add the sliced onions and cook until soft and translucent. Do not brown them. Add the white wine, 1 cup of the stock, the rabbit pieces from the fridge, the thyme and the garlic cloves. Bring to a simmer and add salt to taste. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot and cook until the meat is tender, about 90 minutes to 2 hours.
- Finish the dish by adding the green olives and fresh parsley. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes and serve.