The Sunday post: down the rabbit hole

I guess this is going to be a controversial post: every time I mention rabbit cooking, quite a few people look horrified and start yelling “do you really eat THAT?”. I guess it’s a cultural issue: rabbits are pets in some countries, and it might sound weird to eat them. The idea of eating a small fluffy thingie might seem gruesome, but then again last time I was confronted on the subject, a rack of lamb was sitting in front of us, so to each its own I guess…

Anyway: rabbit is a core component in the diet of my homeland. In Liguria and Piemonte (that’s where my heritage comes from) every farmer has rabbits, and there is a ton and a half of recipes to cook what can be a very nice, healthy and tasty piece of meat. This week end I fancied a nice variation on possibly the most traditional rabbit stew I used to have since I was a small child: rabbit with olives and pine-nuts, somewhat Mediterranean style. This dish is usually prepared by cutting the rabbit in large chunks, stewing it with wine and various stuff, then use the sauce for pasta and serve the meat as a main course: what I like to do is merge the two, mincing the rabbit into a ragout and providing a richer sauce for a single main course. All this with a twist, of course. This recipe can be reused for any kind of stewed meat the Ligurian way: start off with a soffritto, add meat, wine, possibly some tomatoes, and let it simmer. Throw olives and pinenuts some 20-30 minutes before cooking completes, and you’re set. Then again, devil is in the details, as we’ll see in a minute.

Since I’ve been mentioning soffritto a number of times already, it’s time to bite the bullet and see how it is done, as it’s easy enough to prepare in advance and, when done properly, can really make a difference. First of all, there are roughly three kinds of soffritto, depending on ingredients: onion only, onion, carrots and celery (the actual “italian soffritto”) and pancetta soffritto, which is italian soffritto plus some good pig fat. Don’t get carried away by the name, as most italians do: soffritto literally means “sub-fried”, but forget about frying altogether, as soffritto is really a stew of finely chopped vegetables. The vast majority of people tends to somewhat chop some onion, throw it in hot olive oil and let it burn for a couple of minutes, but that’s incredibly wrong. Soffritto needs two things: a good cutting attitude, as you’ll be done with your knife just before your vegetables turn into a paste, and a lot of time.

Once you’re done cutting, add a small bit of oil to a pan and immediately (cold pan, that is) throw the vegetables in. Use the smallest flame your kitchen can handle (some say that soffritto should be cooked over a candle) and wait. Stir from time to time and have a small quantity of vegetable stock (or water) boiling in a small pan aside: if the temperature gets too high, you want to add a spoonful or two to prevent burning. Then, again, use your patience: good soffritto can take even 45 minutes to cook (slow heat, remember?). You know that it’s ready when onions are transparents and vegetables are soft enough to be mashed with a slight pressure of a fork. Now the good news: once it’s ready, it will last a week in the fridge or months in the freezer. Usually I cook one full kilo of onions at a time (which require lots of tears), then I freeze them splitting it in spoonfuls as the typical portion I’m going to use later on (the ice cube mold works just fine, for the record).

As I did my homework correctly, all I had to do today was defrosting a portion of soffritto and taking the rabbit from the fridge a couple of hours before (I can’t stress it enough: meat has to be at room temperature). Also, since I wanted a ragout, I carefully separated the meat from the bones using a sharp knife. This doesn’t mean I’m throwing bones away: you should know by now that I don’t like wasting flavour: the biggest bones (legs, mostly) can still go in the pan, while the smallest ones, which would be difficult to separate once the meat is ready, were added to a small quantity of vegetable stock which I prepared in advance and which I was keeping on a low heat for later use.

The most important thing to remember when cooking rabbit is that we’re talking about lean meat, with little to no fat. Lean stuff is fine but it requires careful cooking to avoid the cardboard effect: usually, this means adding some fat to the cooking pot, and I was lucky enough to have a nice piece of Colonnata lard from our recent leisure trip to Tuscany (by the way, that trip was the reason for missing the Sunday post last week: it was good indeed to receive so many inquiries from readers, but just remember that these post happen only if I’m actually cooking something). If you can’t find lard, use pancetta. If you can’t use pancetta and have a really good and fatty bacon lying around, go for it. In any case, do add some fat or your meat will taste like shredded newspaper. I finely (finely! as it has to melt completely) chopped a good slice of lard and I added it to the pan with the soffritto over very slow heat, to have the soffritto and lard flavour melt. No need for oil, as soffritto already got its share, and lard was providing more than enough fat for the rabbit.

Meanwhile, I poured two glasses of white dry wine in a small pot. Wine is everywhere in italian cooking, but you have to make sure that the alcohol disappears in the shortest possible time, or your food will be bitter. This is why, especially when I’m using large quantities of wine I’m fond of the nice “de-alcoholyizing” trick, which requires boiling the wine separately, flaming it as soon as it starts bubbling (use a lighter, but pay attention, as the flame can be pretty high even if not extremely hot). When the flame goes off, the wine can be used safely and will add just flavour, not bitterness, to your dish.

Once the lard was melted in the soffritto, I took everything off the pan, as I needed to seal the rabbit meat at high temperature (which would burn the soffritto and waste my efforts). The pan was still greasy, of course, so I didn’t need any additional fat. A couple of minutes per each side of the meat chunks were more than enough to seal flavour, then it was time to add the soffritto back it together with wine, some rosemary, a couple of bay leaves (always break them in half as that will triple the flavour!) and, a couple of minutes later, half a cup of the (strained) vegetable stock I mentioned above and two-three ripe tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and cubed. Lid on, fire to medium-low, and Bob’s your uncle. Some twenty minutes later the time was right to add some pine nuts (slightly toasted to a very low heat) and a handful of olives. Olives matter: you really should look for Taggiasche, even though that might not be easy. The quest is worth the effort, though, as these Ligurian olives are really a different breed. If you’re the accomodating kind, use the best black olive you can get.

Fifty minutes were more than enough for my rabbit to cook. I carefully took every bone out, and finely minced the remaining meat to a ragout. Some work with eggs, flour and a rolling-pin produced a nice thin layer of pasta, which I rolled and cut into very small noodles (they’re called “Tajarin” in Piemonte). A large pan of salted boiling water received the pasta which in two minutes later, was ready for a light sautée in the saucepan together with the tagout. A sprinkle of cheese and, wow, it just feels like grandma’s!

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