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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What's Up Doc?

  Michael gave me a  James Beard Foundation Professional Membership several weeks ago for my birthday with the understanding that it was my only birthday gift.  Period.  I was absolutely happy with that.
I was a bit surprised to find sweetly wrapped gifts sitting next to my chair when we returned from my birthday dinner the other night.  After several margaritas with dinner, post-dinner keoke coffees, a restaurant staff gifted double shot of  tequila, and double shots of drive-through Starbucks on the way home, I was in a great mood to open unexpected presents.

A large box contained a shiny new high-powered blender to finally replace the old cranky blender I constantly complain about.  Today, I rearranged the entire kitchen to accomodate it.  A smaller box revealed a new cookbook from Jamie Oliver, Jamie's America: Easy Twists On Great American Classics, And More.  I adore him and his style of cooking.  Rustic and simple.  He wrote Jamie's America after spending several weeks in different regions of America trying to understand and adapt the different cuisines to his style of cooking.

He spent time with the Navajo and was inspired by their simple honest cooking.  One recipe totally got my attention.  Off to the market we went.

Our first stop was a high-end grocery store that sold organic everything.  Good, but pricy. Everything was pricy.  I picked up the last crop of Black Mission Figs along with gorgeous chanterelle and shitake mushrooms.  I browsed the meat counter while Michael picked through potatoes.

"You look like you might need some help, sir.", a young-ish meat man quietly blurted from behind the meat case.  "Anything I can help you with?", he asked.  With all the confidence I could muster, I matter-of-factly said, "Why yes, I'd like a whole cut up rabbit with livers, kidney, and heart." 

The  blank expressionless look on his face assured me they did not have rabbit.  I had to change the plan and rework everything in my head because they didn't have a stupid rabbit.  I scooped up a ridiculously priced air-chilled whole free-range organic chicken and decided to make matzoh ball soup. I knew I had ground matzoh meal back at the house leftover from a Passover thing we celebrated a couple of years ago. Back on course.

As we drove home I thought, if any place in town would have rabbit, it would be Critichfields Meats.  We stopped in and gazed at all the lovely things lining the shelves.  I snuck over to one of my favorite meat cases in town. Bingo!  Rabbit.

The more I thought about Jamie Olivers interpretation of a Navajo rabbit stew recipe, the more unsure I got about it.  Rustic is one thing, but Navajo rustic?  With rabbit?  I decided to use his Rabbit Stew interpretive inspiration as my own inspiration to make something a bit more familiar to us. With a nod to coq a vin, I decided on rabbit stewed in red wine.

I have never cooked rabbit.  I once ate a rabbit that my brother killed with a shotgun.  It was so full of buckshot, it felt like chewing on a meaty miniature plachinko game, each bite loaded with tiny ball bearings. Chew. Spit. Chew Spit. Delightful.

I had a long day off yesterday and thought rabbit stew would be fun to make.  With an overcast sky and dampness in the air, it was a great day for any stew. Most recipes made it clear that chicken and rabbit were interchangeable.  I decided I would cook it just like chicken.

I pulled the rabbit out of the refrigerator to rinse it thoroughly. Hmmm.  Somehow, I was utterly surprised to find that it was a whole intact skinned rabbit, thankfully beheaded with feet and bunny tail removed. It was odd looking. Really odd. I knew how to cut up a whole chicken, so I went for it. For some stupid reason, I was surprised to find four legs and no wings. Unfamiliar territory. It wasn't at all like cutting up a whole chicken.  It was bony and the joints were in the wrong places. I managed to wrestle it into serving pieces.
 I plopped the rabbit parts into a bowl with sliced carrots, onions, celery, fresh parsley, and black peppercorns.  I poured a 3/4 bottle of cabernet sauvignon over everything to marinate for a few hours.
Mise en place.  While the rabbit marinated, I blanched pearl onions, sliced bacon into strips, and sliced mushrooms.

After a few hours soaking in the red wine bath, I pulled the rabbit out, patted it dry, liberally seasoned it with salt and pepper, and dredged it in flour. I fried the sliced bacon in a dutch oven until crisp and caramelized, scooped it out with a slotted spoon to drain, and carefully added the rabbit to brown on all sides.  Once browned, I removed the chicken rabbit and dropped in the marinated vegetables to saute and take on color. 

Once they had browned, I added the red wine marinade, 2 cups of chicken stock, a bay leaf, fresh parsely, fresh thyme, and the browned rabbit pieces.  I brought it to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered it, and slid it into the oven to braise at 350 for 2 hours.

It smelled like stew. Good sign.

Midway through the rabbit braise, I sauteed mushrooms and pearl onions in butter until browned and set them aside.

After 2 hours, I removed the braise from the oven and pulled the rabbit out to rest. I simmered the sauce until it reduced by half before returning the rabbit to the pot with the sauteed mushrooms and pearl onions to heat through while I boiled rolled flat dumplings to accompany it.

After mounding the dumplings into pasta bowls, I ladled the stew over the pasta  and topped it with the reserved crisp bacon, fresh parsley, salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. I toasted and buttered plain white bread for sopping.

  The red wine stock base had enough acidity to balance the sweetness of the carrots, celery, and onions. Their flavors  permeated the sauce with lovely natural sweetness and bite.  Familiar. 

The flat dumpling ribbons absorbed the sauce with delicate softness.  Rabbit pillows. Parsley punched the stew with freshness while the drizzled  olive oil draped the sauce with fruity essence.

I would have thought the rabbit meat would have fallen off the bones after such a long braise.  It didn't.  After two hours, it was still intact.  Weird.  Intriguing. Being such a lean meat, it was surprisingly tender, moist, and succulent. It  seemed like a perfect blend of white and dark meat. It was rich without being heavy, delicate without being precious, and assertive without being gamey. It worked wonderfully with the red wine braise.   That being said, it was difficult to eat. There were so many bones. Tiny little bones in places that I felt shouldn't have had bones.  Hell, I struggled cutting the thing up into serving pieces because of the bones.  I have no problem eating with my fingers.  Ever. Stew might be the exception, until last night. Everything was fork tender.  Switching from fork to fingers got laborious and messy. Maybe I should have taken the meat off the bones before adding it back into the stew. Hindsight.

It was tasty, but tedious.

Will I cook rabbit again?  Probably not. Will I eat rabbit again? 

Sure, if someone else cleans it, cuts it up, cooks it, debones it, and serves to me on a silver platter.

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