June 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Give lean, healthy rabbit meat a chance

Protein lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than chicken, beef, pork

Don't rush the cooking; letting the meat for this Rabbit Stew with Preserved Pears with Ginger finish slowly helps it get tender. (Glenn Koenig / MCT)

Considered a patriotic food during World War II, rabbit later went out of fashion. But as game meat regains popularity, so has rabbit.

Rabbits “are helping win the war,” proclaimed a Los Angeles Times article from 1943. Touted as a patriotic food during World War II, rabbits were raised by thousands of Americans in their backyards. Along with victory gardens, rabbits helped put food on the table when much of the nation’s supply was shipped to soldiers overseas and ration stamps provided little at home. But even though rabbit consumption spiked during the war, it all but disappeared afterward.

Think rabbit today and your thoughts probably veer to cartoon characters, cereal mascots, Easter and adorable pets. Perhaps the only “bunny” you’ve ever eaten was of the milk chocolate breed. For years, it seems the only place you could find “the real deal” was occasionally on the menu at French or Italian restaurants.

But rabbit appears to be going through a renaissance of sorts.

“I think it’s gaining in popularity,” says Mark Pasternak, co-owner, along with wife Myriam, of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in California. Their farm supplies rabbit to a number of butcher shops and restaurants in and around Northern California.

And, in an era when game meats and nose-to-tail eating are redefining fine dining as food sport, rabbit is both familiar and exotic enough to appeal.

“It almost has a prohibitiony quality to it, like it was something your grandfather ate. It’s a great ‘old-fashioned’ meat,” says California- and New York-based chef Ken Addington. “We’ve always had rabbit on the menus in Brooklyn. It’s a fun, versatile meat.”

And though his restaurant partner Jud Mongell was hesitant to feature rabbit at first, he’s come around to the idea. “In these times when we’re trying to be so conscious of what, and how, we’re consuming, it’s something to consider.”

At a time when buzzwords like “organic,” “local” and “sustainable” are driving the market, rabbit is ripe for resurgence. The animals require few resources to raise and have a well-known reputation for quick breeding. According to Slow Food USA, rabbit can produce 6 pounds of meat using the same amount of food and water it takes for a cow to produce only 1 pound. Not to mention the health benefits. Rabbit is a lean meat that is higher in protein but lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than many other meats, including chicken, beef and pork.

Keep in mind, store-bought rabbit today is not cheap like it was in the old days. Of course, you could always do the patriotic thing and raise your own.

But how does it taste?

Domestic rabbit’s all-white meat is fine-grained and has a mild flavor compared with other game meats.

“Rabbit is one of my favorite subjects because it is so versatile, like veal or chicken,” says chef Evan Funke of Bucato. A favorite dish of his for those new to rabbit is ragu. “Any time I get the opportunity to introduce people to rabbit, (I do). Ragu is easy.”

Addington likes to pair bright flavorings, such as citrus, with rabbit; he currently has a lemon grass rabbit ragu on the menu at LA Chapter.

Though rabbit is mostly available through butcher shops such as Ftoni Meats in Eastern Market and online, it is turning up more frequently in upscale markets, including Westborn Market in Dearborn. It is usually sold whole, though you can have your butcher break the animal down into parts. (But if you’ve ever wanted to learn how to break down any four-legged animal, rabbit is a great place to start because it’s so small. Do be careful with the delicate bones, however; rabbit bones are even more delicate than those of a chicken.)

And despite its reputation as an inexpensive option during frugal times, store-bought rabbit is not cheap; prices in Los Angeles range from about $10 to $13 a pound for a 2- to 3-pound rabbit.

Of course, you could always do the patriotic thing and raise your own.

Chicken-Fried Rabbit

1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
1 ½ teaspoons minced thyme leaves
Black pepper
½ teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 rabbit, cut into serving pieces
2 cups buttermilk, more if needed
3 cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons table salt
4 to 6 cups lard
1 large onion, sliced into thick rings

In a deep, medium bowl, combine the kosher salt, lemon zest and juice, minced thyme leaves, several grinds of black pepper and garlic to form a rub. Add the rabbit pieces to the bowl, massaging the rub all over each piece. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or at least several hours.

The next morning, pour the buttermilk over the pieces and gently toss to coat; the buttermilk should barely cover the rabbit; if not, add just enough to roughly cover. Cover the bowl again and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

Season the flour: Place the flour in a large bag, bowl or baking dish, and season with 1 ½ teaspoons table salt and 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground pepper. Taste the flour, and adjust seasoning if desired.

About 1 hour before frying, remove the bowl from the refrigerator. Remove each piece of rabbit from the buttermilk, shaking gently to remove any excess buttermilk (do not attempt to dry the pieces). Dredge each piece in the seasoned flour mixture, coating completely. Shake to remove the excess flour, and set the pieces aside on a rack to dry and warm to room temperature.

While the pieces are resting, prepare the lard: Place about 4 cups lard in a large, heavy skillet or frying pan over medium heat. Melt the lard; it should come up about one-half to three-fourths inch up the side of the pan (melt additional lard if needed). When the lard is just melted, add the onion rings and continue heating the lard until the onion is caramelized and the lard is hot. Remove the onion (discard it or save for another use), and check the temperature of the lard; a thermometer should read 350 degrees.

Gently place the pieces in the hot lard, being careful not to crowd. Lower the temperature to 325 degrees and fry the pieces on each side until crisp and golden brown and the meat is firm and opaque, about 5 minutes for smaller pieces and 7 to 8 for larger. Flip the pieces over and fry on the other side until done (a thermometer inserted in the meat should read 160 degrees). Remove the pieces from the hot oil and drain, skin-side up, on crumpled paper towels. Repeat until all of the pieces are fried.

Serve the pieces hot or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 687 calories; 29 g fat (10 g saturated fat; 38 percent calories from fat); 40 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 170 mg cholesterol; 1,221 mg sodium; 62 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Italian Braised Rabbit (Coniglio Bianco)

2 rabbits
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
10 juniper berries, crushed (optional)
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
13 cup olive oil
1 onion, sliced root to stalk
½ cup white wine or vermouth
1 teaspoon dried thyme
5 to 6 cloves roasted or preserved garlic
Salt
10 to 20 green olives, pitted and halved
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Cut the rabbits into serving pieces. Save the stray bones in the pelvis, ribs, belly flaps and neck for the stock.

Make a quick rabbit stock: Place all of the rabbit pieces — not just the stray ones — into a pot and cover them with cool water by about one-half inch. Bring this to a boil, then remove from 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 refrigerator. Add the bay leaves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, juniper berries (if using) and cracked black peppercorns to the pot. Return everything to a bare simmer and cook for 1 hour. Strain, discarding the solids, and set aside. You will need 1 cup rabbit stock to complete the recipe; any remainder can be covered and refrigerated for up to five days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

In a heavy, lidded pot, such as a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When it is hot, add the sliced onion and cook until soft and translucent. Do not brown them. Add the white wine, 1 cup of the stock, the rabbit pieces from the refrigerator, the thyme and the garlic. Bring to a simmer and add 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook until the meat is tender, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Finish the dish by adding the green olives and fresh parsley. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Adapted from a recipe on Hank Shaw’s food blog “Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.” Shaw recommends serving the rabbit “with mashed potatoes, white polenta or rice. A green thing alongside is always nice, too.”

Per serving: 642 calories; 33 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 46 percent calories from fat); 4 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 207 mg cholesterol; 615 mg sodium; 74 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Rabbit Stew with Preserved Pears with Ginger

Adapted from “The Cooking of Southwest France” by Paula Wolfert, who writes, “This combination of mustard-flavored rabbit stew and gingered pears is most unusual and exciting to the palate. Though wild rabbits are particularly flavorful, this recipe will work very well with the farm-bred variety.”

Preserved Pears with Ginger

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup dry white wine
1 cup unsalted chicken broth
3 large Bosc pears (about 1 ½ pounds)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a medium saucepan, combine the ginger, sugar and wine. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer until the syrup is reduced to 3 tablespoons. Add the broth and bring to a boil, stirring.

Meanwhile, peel, halve and core the pears. Arrange, cut sides down, in a single layer in a large buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the lemon juice. Pour the syrup over the pears.

Bake, uncovered, until golden brown and glazed, about 45 minutes. Baste often with the syrupy juices. Sprinkle with the remaining lemon juice. If not used at once, set aside at room temperature for up to 8 hours and reheat gently before serving; do not refrigerate.

Rabbit Stew

3 large shallots, halved
2 cloves garlic, halved
¼ cup olive oil
3 cups dry white wine, divided
2 rabbits, cut into serving pieces (about 4 pounds dressed weight)
13 cup rendered duck or goose fat
5 ounces lean salt pork, blanched in water for 5 minutes and cut into 1-inch cubes
½ teaspoon herbes de Provence
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 onions (about ¾ pound), thinly sliced
Scant ½ cup Dijon mustard, divided
2 egg yolks
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup heavy cream
Juice of ½ lemon
3 tablespoons minced fresh chives
Preserved pears with ginger

In a large glass or nonreactive bowl, combine the shallots, garlic, olive oil and half of the wine. Add the rabbit pieces and turn them over until well coated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days, turning the rabbit pieces once or twice a day. If the rabbit is frozen, defrost it directly in the marinade.

About 3 hours before serving, remove the rabbit pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade, reserving the garlic and shallots separately from the liquid.

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. In a large skillet, heat the fat. Saute the salt pork, transferring the pieces to a 4-quart casserole as they are browned. In the same skillet, brown the rabbit pieces a few at a time, on both sides, transferring them to the casserole as they are browned. Sprinkle the rabbit and the pork cubes with the herbs, salt and pepper to taste.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the skillet. Add the onions to the skillet along with the reserved garlic and shallots. Saute over moderately high heat, stirring to avoid burning, until soft and golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in one-third cup of the mustard with the juices in the bottom of the casserole until well blended.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the onions, shallots and garlic to the casserole. Deglaze the skillet with the strained marinade liquid and bring to a boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Add the remaining 1 ½ cups wine and return to a boil. Skim again and pour the boiling liquid over the rabbit and onions. Cover with crumpled wet parchment or waxed paper and a tight-fighting lid.

Set the casserole in the oven and cook until the rabbit is meltingly tender, about 2 hours. (To avoid stringy rabbit, do not rush the cooking; if the rabbit is not tender, let it slowly finish cooking in the oven.) Remove the rabbit pieces to a warm bowl; cover and keep moist. (The recipe can be done up to this point in advance. Leave the rabbit pieces in the sauce. Gently reheat, then remove the pieces to a warm bowl and continue with the recipe.)

Strain the cooking liquid, pushing down on the vegetables to extract all their juices. Quickly cool the liquid and remove any fat that surfaces. Place the juices in a heavy saucepan over moderately high heat and bring to a boil. Shift the pan so that only half of it is over the heat. Slowly boil down to 1 cup, skimming often.

About 5 minutes before serving, whisk together the egg yolks, nutmeg, remaining mustard and cream in a small bowl until well-blended. Whisk a few tablespoons of the hot reduced cooking juices into the egg yolk mixture, then whisk the mixture back into the saucepan. Heat gently, whisking until the sauce thickens. Do not allow the sauce to boil. Add the lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the chives. Spoon the sauce over the rabbit and serve hot with the preserved pears with ginger. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 860 calories; 46 g fat (17 g saturated fat; 48 percent calories from fat); 31 g carbohydrates; 17 g sugar; 261 mg cholesterol; 589 mg sodium; 60 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Food blogger Hank Shaw recommends serving Italian Braised Rabbit with ... (Glenn Koenig / MCT)
Rabbit was popular around World War II, but fell out of favor after. Now ... (Glenn Koenig / MCT)