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Chefs Don't Split Hares, Find 14-Karat Ways To Showcase Rabbit

Nation's Restaurant News, July 5, 1999, by Bret Thorn

The Chinese calendar says this is the Year of the Rabbit, and chefs at fine-dining restaurants across America seem to agree. With a slightly exotic air and accommodatingly mild flavor, rabbit is showing up on menus all over the place. It was cooked at New York's James Beard House no fewer than four times in June.

"It's the other, other white meat," enthuses chef Andrew Wilkinson of Skipjacks and Caffe Lampara in Boston. He braised rabbit with garlic and rosemary, white wine, tomatoes, chicken stock and veal gloss and served it as part of Caffe Lampara's Mother's Day buffet. "It was very well received," says Wilkinson, who doesn't have rabbit on his regular menu, "but we run it as specials, and we sell out of it.

"The good thing about rabbit is it really does take on the flavor of anything you want to add to it," he continues. "You don't have to do anything to it. You brown it up, braise it for an hour, hour and a half, there's nothing easier. It falls off the bone, and people love it."

Although rabbit hasn't made it to the mainstream of American menus, it has been a source of meat elsewhere for thousands of years.

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, rabbits have been eaten in the Mediterranean area since about 3,000 years ago, when the Phoenicians -- famed merchants and travelers -- discovered them in North Africa or Spain and started spreading them around.

China is now the largest producer of rabbit meat, churning out about 300,000 tons of the estimated 957,000 tons raised each year.

In medieval France, according to the FAO, only the nobility was allowed to eat rabbit. That custom led to some preparations that continue to this day.

At Savarin in Chicago, for example, chef John Hogan braises the hind quarters with a mirepoix, garlic, "lots of fresh thyme," white wine and rabbit stock until they're tender. He finishes the sauce with mustard and cream and serves it over spinach noodles.

"It's a very classic Lyonnais dish," says Hogan, who points out that braising is a great way to cook rabbit, "because it's lean. Braising allows the meat to vacate its juices and soak up other juices," giving the chef the ability to choose the flavors to impart to the dish.

What time of year should rabbit be served? That is a moot question. To some, it is a light and mild meat with an affinity for fresh herbs and garlic and therefore should be served in spring. To others, it is a game meat that goes well in stews and thus is a dish for autumn.

At Tulio in Seattle, Chef Walter Pisano offers rabbit as a special, usually in the autumn and winter. "It was kind of a tough sell at first," he recalls, "but now that people have tried it, they love it. It has a nice subtlety. The loin is very tender. The legs are great braised."

Pisano makes a stock out of the loin bones and then slowly braises the legs with herbs and pancetta until the flesh comes off the bone. He serves this with polenta or with roasted shells and rosemary.

But Pisano also cooks rabbit during warmer seasons. At the end of June he teamed up with Ken Giambalvo at Pazzo Ristorante in Portland, Ore., to prepare roast rabbit loin with morel risotto, beef bone marrow and morel jus.

Pisano likes to sear the loin and then remove and julienne the saddle. He presses the loin with thyme and perhaps marjoram and sage and roasts it until medium-rare to medium. He fries the julienned saddle in a very hot pan until it's "kind of crispy" and uses it as a garnish.

He says rabbit should be cooked from medium-rare to just a hint over medium: If it's undercooked, it's too chewy; and if overcooked, it's dry and tough.

Marc Vetri, chef-owner of Vetri in Philadelphia, makes a rabbit terrine with prunes.

"I just think it's a really nice springtime dish," Vetri says. He grinds leg, thigh and loin meat with salted, rinsed pork fatback, adds salt, pepper, nutmeg and "some baby vegetables -- whatever I have, zucchini or carrots -- in a small dice, already blanched. Then I bind it using a little heavy cream."

To assemble the dish, he slices more fatback thinly, "like you would slice prosciutto," and lines the terrine pan with it. He puts the rabbit mixture in the pan, makes a hole in the center and adds prunes that have been marinated in Armagnac for about two weeks. He covers the pan with another thin layer of fatback, cooks it in a water bath for about two hours on a low heat and serves it chilled.

"The rabbit has a distinct flavor that goes really well with the Armagnac," Vetri adds, "and it's sweeter than most meats, so it goes really well with the prunes."

Although rabbit meat is popular in Europe, it hasn't yet won the hearts of America, where visions of Peter Cottontail and the Easter Bunny keep many diners away from this lean, low-cholesterol protein source.

"For people going out to a restaurant that's high volume, you're not going to sell rabbit," says chef Scott Cohen of Las Canarias at La Mansion del Rio in San Antonio. "It's certainly not in the mainstream yet."

He has suggestions for getting people interested in it, however.

"The secret to sell it is to mix it with a higher-end item like shrimp or lobster. People are willing to try it then, because if they don't like it, they'll put it aside; at least they'll have their lobster."

For kids, Cohen serves it pan-fried with a cornmeal crust. He also serves that for grown-ups, adding some dried ancho chilies, other dried and fresh spices and a roasted bell pepper vinaigrette.

That's in the spring. In the autumn Cohen makes a rich, French rabbit stew, complete with the traditional addition of blood as a thickening agent, modified with a Mexican tradition, cocoa powder, which he says gives the sauce a "velvety sheen."

At Scopa, a New York City restaurant that opened in June, chef Vincent Scotto bones the rabbit loin and marinates it with rosemary and garlic. Then, using the leg and thigh as one piece of meat, he removes the thigh bone, pounds it out and stuffs it with a chicken-apple sausage. He rolls the thigh up, wraps it in caul fat, roasts it, and serves it with mashed potatoes and a serving of cabbage, raisins and onions.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Lebhar-Friedman, Inc. in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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