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This past Wednesday couldn’t have been a more miserable day in terms of weather. The rain was blowing sideways, it was finally cold enough to wear a coat, and the sky was laden with dark, grey clouds. A perfect day for an adventure! I called the Butcher Shop on a whim and ordered 2 whole rabbits. A typical Wednesday afternoon right? We had dinner plans with my friend and his girlfriend that night and I wanted to put some extra work into preparing a dish that we normally wouldn’t serve.
My friend and I studied abroad in Italy together back in 2004, and I remember ordering a braised rabbit dish in the town of Trastevere, Rome and like I do more than I probably should, tried to force him to take a bite. He’s much more adventurous now and quite frankly he didn’t have a choice; I was making rabbit. I hadn’t actually cooked a rabbit since culinary school, but once I got the little bunny on my cutting board, it was just like riding a bike.
Rabbit is a pretty simple animal to understand. As intimidating as it sounds, visually it’s rather elementary. Just by glancing at it, you know where the hind legs are, you know where the front legs are, and just inside the ribcage is the loin. It’s also an extremely lean animal so there isn’t a lot of work to do in order to find the meat. Since I was cooking the rabbits whole, there was very little butchering to be done.
I removed the heart, kidneys and liver from the cavity and set them aside for bigger and better things; the liver is perfect for finishing my Bolognese sauce to give it a creamy, earthy layer of flavor.
Thankfully, we received the mothership of all Le Crusset pots as a wedding gift because these were not small bunnies and there is no chance that they would fit in the standard dutch oven. Our massive, fire engine-red, 15-quart pot can feed a family of 40 and I’m pretty sure it’s the same size as my wife’s largest suitcase. I actually had to turn on both front and back burners in order to get the entire surface hot enough to sear the bunnies.
I seasoned the rabbit with salt and pepper and sizzled them away in the pot, flipping only once, until both sides developed a dark, golden sear. I then removed the rabbits and set them aside while I built the layers of flavor, starting with the basic aromatics.
A classic mirepoix of carrot, celery and onion hit the pot along with a few smashed garlic cloves. You don’t want to rush this step, because this is where you really create the foundation for your braise.
Let the mirepoix caramelize, harmonize with the crusty rabbit bits stuck to the bottom from the sear, and sweat until completely soft. At this point, I added an entire bottle of dry, white wine and let it reduce until all that was left was about a half cup of liquid.
This burns off the alcohol, deglazes the pot, and concentrates the flavor of the wine. I decided to serve my braised rabbit in a fresh pasta with mushrooms, so in order to enhance and compliment the mushrooms I used a quick mushroom stock in the braise. I use this same technique when making mushroom risotto. I take dried, porcini mushrooms and rehydrate them in scalding hot water.
After about ten minutes the water is dark brown and rich with loads of umami.
I carefully returned the two rabbits to the pot and laid them gently on their side. All I could think of was the Bugs Bunny cartoon from when I was younger, where Elmer Fudd had Bugs in the large cauldron of boiling water. Sure enough, Bugs outsmarted Fudd by ladling the soup onto the hot coals and putting out the fire before he eventually escaped. Thankfully these guys were staying put for a solid 2.5 hours in a 325 degree oven.
I added some chicken stock, the intensified porcini liquid, and a bouquet garni that contained a few sprigs of thyme, rosemary and bay leaf before the lid was sealed and into the oven it went.
While the rabbits were braising away, I had plenty of time to get ready for my guests. I planned on serving a fresh pasta which, despite my ambition with the protein, I didn’t actually make myself.
I bought some fresh linguini from my friends at Nella Pasta, a local company specializing in fresh ingredients grown in neighborhood farms. I also picked up some golden chanterelle mushrooms, which along with morels and truffles are among the highly esteemed fungi in the culinary world. They’re meaty, fruity and woody and when cooked in fat their flavor elevates to a whole new level.
Sticking with a rustic, hunter-style meal, I chose to serve a wine exhibits that same profile. The 2008 Felsina Chianti Classico is one of my favorite producers from the heart of Tuscany.
The bright, young cherry fruit intermingles with earthy, herbaceous notes and there’s a long, dry finish that has a pleasant, wet tobacco characteristic. A simple yet complex Chianti is a perfect match for a bowl of fresh pasta with slow cooked game and mushrooms.
Once the rabbit meat was falling from the bone, I removed them from the pot to cool and this is where the real tedious part of the day started. I strained the braising liquid into a sauce pot and started reducing the rabbit/porcini stock into a sauce.
In the meantime, I hovered over the counter and began picking the tender rabbit meat from the skeleton. Everyone says that rabbit tastes like chicken and I don’t disagree completely. It tastes almost like chicken thighs that are slightly more oily and gamier. Personally, I think that rabbit has more flavor than chicken but to each his own. So it turns out that the two massive rabbits that I picked up about five hours earlier only yielded one quart of pulled meat total. HA!
Our guests arrived and there were no cute little bunnies, no remnants of rabbit, just a tupperware container filled to the brim with succulent braised meat. I opted not to show them the “before” pictures until after dinner was served. I tossed the fresh linguini into boiling water for only a few moments and warmed the rabbit meat in a skillet with some of the reduced braising liquid.
When the pasta was cooked, I added it to the pan along with some fresh thyme and a healthy spoonful of butter. Crank up the heat and the stock and fat emulsifies into a silky rich sauce that coats the pasta, causing it to glisten and causing my guests to start drooling. I finished it with some freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese for a tangy, nutty kick.
We sat down at the table, lit some candles and listened to the rain crash against the siding of the condo. At that very moment, after a warming and rewarding sip of the elegant Sangiovese, there was a sense of comfort watching the long noodles twirl around the diners’ forks. The flavor of the rabbit with the intense porcini sauce and the melt-in-your mouth texture of the fresh pasta was just what I needed on that dreary day. It turns out that instead of forcing my friend to try a bite of the rabbit, I actually had to force him not to lick his plate at the dinner table.