Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher’s, where he was recently named director of education. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, he discusses a largely unsung source of protein: rabbit.
What if I told you that there is an animal out there that has one of the highest percentages of digestible protein, is loaded with more calcium and phosphorus than any other meat, and is one of the least expensive livestock to raise and process? One of these animals can produce roughly six pounds of meat for every one pound from cattle, on the same feed and water. That, coupled with the highest ratio of meat to bone, means that both farmer and consumer are getting more meat for their bucks. And if you have any sort of dietary restrictions, no worries: We’re talking the lowest in cholesterol, fat and sodium. What is this magical creature? Chicken, you say? Guess again: We’re talking rabbit!
Every year when Easter rolls around and customers approach the counter looking for something other than the usual ham or lamb, I suggest rabbit. I bet you can guess the looks I get. Never mind that if we’re refraining from eating cute animals, a lamb should totally make that list. And since cuteness is highly subjective, we should pretty much refrain from eating anything and everything. We’re not refraining. I could go into the pagan rituals of goddess and god worship that brought us the egg-laying bunny, fertility, resurrection and rebirth, but your eyes (and my customers’) would quickly shift into glazed-over mode. So I’ll spare you, and with Easter in our past, we can finally talk about eating more rabbit.
Like goat (another underappreciated animal), rabbits are widely consumed all over the world. And although their popularity has risen over the last few years, they have, fortunately, eluded the large commercial growers and processors. This is largely due to their requirements of a more relaxed and gentle environment, one that a factory farm could never provide.
Enter rabbit farmers like Eric Shevchenko, owner of Old World Rabbitry in Sebastopol, California (and supplier to esteemed chefs such as Thomas Keller, José Andrés, Dominique Crenn and Nobu Matsuhisa). Shevchenko raises his rabbits — a mix of heritage breeds, chinchillas, California Whites and Flemish Giants, to name a few — with as little input as possible. In fact, most of their diet is foraged or raised on the farm. Barley and sunflowers, burdock and high-protein wheat grass, and occasionally non-GMO raw alfalfa, are all part of his rabbits’ diet, making for flavorful meat that goes beyond the usual — and inaccurate — comparisons to chicken. It’s what makes them so sought after by chefs in Sonoma County and beyond.
Now that you know more about the benefits of eating rabbit and how it can be raised right, let’s cover some ways to make the most of it. Here are two great recipes:
Braised Rabbit Recipe
Rabbit is a delicate meat. Slow roasts and simmers are what we’re looking for. But unlike meat that’s well insulated with fat, rabbit can cook quickly in a braise. It’ll take roughly 1½ to 2 hours on your stovetop — anything more and it’ll quickly turn to sawdust. A simple braise with shallots, white wine and chicken broth (as opposed to red wine and beef) won’t mask the true flavor of this protein.
You can certainly butcher your rabbit at home — we’ve covered butchering a chicken — and it’s not too unlike that. However, until we get a step-by-step demo (soon!), ask your butcher to break down your rabbit for stew. Unlike other proteins, we’ll skip a step when braising rabbit — no browning here. I learned this from Hank Shaw, who learned it from Paul Bertolli, who, I’m fairly certain, learned it from his grandmother. The delicate nature of this protein again requires a tweak on technique. So instead of searing, we’ll blanch to get the same desired effect.
1 fully pastured rabbit, roughly 3 1/2 to 4 pounds, cut into 6-8 portions
½ cup olive oil
3 shallots, minced
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
5 cloves garlic
½ cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock (if you’ve cooked rabbit before, then you better have some rabbit stock! Use that.)
- To blanch the rabbit (and any other meat you don’t want to brown), fill a pot with enough water to cover the pieces and bring to a boil over high heat.
- While waiting, fill a large bowl with ice and cover with cold water.
- Once the water starts to boil, carefully place the pieces into the pot and blanch for 5 minutes once the water returns to a boil. Skim the water frequently, removing froth and scum.
- At 5 minutes, remove the pieces from the pot and submerge in the ice bath for 5 minutes, adding ice if necessary. Remove the pieces from the bath, allowing it to drain before drying with a towel.
- In your Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. When it starts to shimmer, add your shallots and cook until soft, roughly 5-7 minutes. Don’t brown them!
- Add your stock, white wine, rabbit, garlic cloves and thyme. Add salt and pepper and simmer. Don’t bring to a boil. Remember, delicate! Lower the heat, cover and cook for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Roasted Rabbit Recipe
Just like above, we’ll take a more delicate approach to roasting our rabbit. Keep things around 300° to 325°F and use basic ingredients, so as not to overpower the flavor of the protein. We’ll also keep things whole, so no need to steel your knife on this one. This recipe comes from chef Giovanna via Lynne Rossetto-Kasper. I’ve never roasted a better whole rabbit. Aside from basting every 15 minutes, this recipe provides an easy entry into cooking something that’s probably quite unfamiliar.
1 fully pastured whole rabbit
1 large clove garlic, split
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
salt and pepper, to taste
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
¼ cup white wine
3 tablespoons lemon juice
- Preheat your oven to 325°F and dry the rabbit thoroughly. After placing the rabbit in a roasting pan, rub the entire rabbit with the split clove of garlic (reserving for later) and then cover the rabbit with the butter. Salt and pepper to taste and add the garlic and rosemary to the pan.
- Roast for 30 minutes before pouring the wine and lemon juice over the rabbit. With a baster or spoon, make sure the liquid covers the rabbit, loosely cover with foil and roast for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, basting every 15 minutes. That’s it.
Rabbit livers are an unusual treat. Why not ask your butcher to toss them in? Find our chicken liver mousse recipe and sub in the rabbit liver for a little reward.