I seem to be missing that gene that people have that prevents them from eating animals that were cute when they were alive. In fact, the fluffier and cuter the animal was when it was alive, the more fun I will probably have breading and frying it. Anyway, I have no reservations about eating rabbit, hence a recent farmers market dinner I’d like to share with you, Braised Rabbit Ragout over Cheesy Fresh Corn Polenta with Sauteed Rainbow Chard.
The previous weekend, I had been to the Alexandria, VA farmers market (at 7:30 a.m. in the rain no less, with my friend Christopher) and I had picked up some beautiful white corn and golden beets which I still had on hand. The following Thursday I was at the Penn Quarter market and looking for a few more things to round out a dinner menu for myself and a couple of buddies who were coming over.
Getting meat at the farmers market can be tricky, because even though the quality is fantastic, the meat is often frozen – and on this particular day I needed something fresh for my guests. I was able to find fresh rabbit from Maryland (“Just killed yesterday!” the man boasted), for 9 bucks a pound. Not exactly cheap, but I’ve never cooked a whole rabbit before, and I thought it would be nice braised into a ragout over some polenta studded with fresh corn and cheese. Surely this was more of an autumn-style menu but I was excited about cooking a whole rabbit, and the menu was suddenly taking shape in my mind.
For the first course, I roasted up a few golden beets to make a Golden Beet Napoleon with Fresh Ricotta and Lemon-Tarragon Vinagrette. I love fresh beets, especially the golden ones, because they make the whole kitchen smell wonderful – roasty and nutty – and when you peel them, they don’t discolor your hands like the red ones. I tossed them in some olive oil and roasted them at 350 for about 45 minutes, then cooled them slightly and peeled them under cold running water. While still slightly warm, I sliced them into rings and tossed them with a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp honey
salt and pepper
a few leaves of fresh tarragon from the balcony garden
Whisk all ingredients together with a few Tablespoons of olive oil
Toss the excess vinaigrette with some salad greens. Mix a few Tablespoons of fresh ricotta with whatever fresh herbs you have on hand. (I got my ricotta at the farmers market. You can also use goat cheese, which pairs beautifully with beets.) Create a bed of dressed salad greens. Build your napoleon on top of the greens, with layers of beet and herbed ricotta. Garnish with toasted walnut halves. My napoleons looked kind of crazy, probably because I went a little overboard with the cheese. No one complained.
So here’s the basic idea for the ragout. I sauteed 4 slices of chopped bacon and then removed it from the pot. Over medium-high heat, I seared the whole rabbit (seasoned generously with salt and pepper) on all sides in the bacon fat until it was golden brown, then removed it from the pot. I turned down the heat a bit and sauteed 8 oz of cremini mushrooms with a couple of sliced candy onions, also from the farmers market, then set those aside with the bacon. I added a little olive oil to the pot and sauteed a half a chopped Vidalia onion and about 5 cloves of garlic and some chile flakes, then added a tablespoon of flour and let it cook for a minute or so. I deglazed the pan with about 2 cups of wine then added 2 cups of crushed tomato and about a cup of milk. (Before you ask, I’m accustomed to using milk in braises and ragouts, as it helps to break down the meat). After bringing this to a simmer I added the rabbit back in to braise for about an hour and a half. I added in chicken broth as needed to keep the rabbit mostly submerged. I also added: a bay leaf, some dried basil, salt and pepper, and a pinch of sugar.
When the meat was falling off the bone I removed the rabbit from the pot so it could cool down enough to handle. At this time I adjusted the seasoning, added a handful of fresh herbs from the balcony garden (tarragon, oregano, parsley, thyme), and added back in the bacon, mushrooms, and candy onions while allowing the sauce to reduce. I shredded the meat off the bone and added it back into the sauce. The ragout was deep and rich in flavor, and the meat was tender and delicious, which just the slightest hint of lean gaminess that is characteristic of rabbit meat. For me, this is really the main trait that distinguishes rabbit from chicken. In fact, my feeling is that just about any recipe that calls for chicken can easily be made with rabbit.
The rabbit was served over polenta with Parmesan cheese and the niblets from one ear of white corn mixed in. Also on the side was some rainbow chard sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chile flakes. Voila!