Another rabbit recipe, yes, but a really very different one. It used to be normal to give a lot more consideration to the age of the animal you were cooking with – a spring chicken needed a different approach than a boiling fowl; lamb, hogget, mutton, all required various strengths and lengths of marinade and cooking. Although a few luxury youths remain (veal, suckling pig, the yearly argument that is spring lamb) and some of the older animals are making a resurgence, by and large slaughtering age has become standardised somewhere at the lower limits of adulthood, or the minimum required to get a good return on the farmer’s investment. This is a shame.
Apart from any ethical argument over the accelerated growth and early deaths of industrially farmed animals, there is a great variety of cooking that comes from the use of different ages of meat, and the techniques needed to deal with them – coq au vin, for example, is pointless with a young chicken, the long cooking required for the dark, glossy sauce being badly suited to tender white meat. The whole rich tradition, in fact, of stews, daubes, ragus, etceteras, would probably not exist without the need to consume older animals – why spend hours braising an oxtail when you could roast a young, dripping slab of calf?
Curiously, a similar standardisation seems to have happened with game. Although old cookbooks are full of advice for how to treat an old rabbit, a young one, a new mother (feed it to the dogs, apparently) the ones you usually get from butchers are generally of a similar size and condition, and need fairly careful treatment, along the lines I set out before. Once in a while, though, if you live in the countryside, or hate your children’s pets, you might get your hands on some younger ones. If you do, I suggest you do the following –
RABBIT, BACON, SPRING VEGETABLES
1 young rabbit
A small handful of smoked bacon lardons
A bunch of asparagus
About 500 grams of fresh peas, in their pods
3 banana shallots
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp Dijon mustard
A small glass of white wine
Small handful of parsley
Zest of half a lemon
Salt and pepper
Since you’re unlikely to get a baby from the butcher, we’re going to start at the beginning this time. First thank whoever gave you the rabbit. Remember he has a gun. Take the rabbit, and with a small, very sharp knife, make a slit between one of its hamstrings and the muscle, and slide the other foot through this, making a handy loop. Use this to hang it over something (preferably outside). Cut just under the breastbone, and make a slit down the belly to the groin. Pull out all the bits, which will smell horrendous, keeping the liver and kidneys aside if you want them. (The gutting process, pleasingly, is known as ‘paunching’.) Cut two more slits from the groin, down (or rather up, given how he’s hanging) the inside of the legs to the ankle; you’ll find, with a combination of pulling and gentle scraping, that you can undress him down to the feet; cut the skin round here, leaving the furry slippers on, then pull the skin down over his head and repeat at the other end. (You won’t need the head for this recipe – I’m not a monster. Just hack it off and chuck it away.) Right. Give the carcass a good wash, and bring inside. (Young rabbits shouldn’t need hanging.) OR acquire a baby rabbit from a rural game dealer.
First, with a cleaver or mallet-and-knife arrangement, lop of the still-furry feet. Splay the rabbit out on its front, and dislocate the back legs – hold the body down, and grab each leg in turn, giving it a sharp twist towards you – then use your small sharp knife to cut round the hip joint, separating each leg from the body. Put them to one side, then turn the rabbit round so the front legs are towards you. These are easy to take off – get a good grip under the shoulder blade, where the skin is quite loose, and slice round and under. Finally, with your lopping tool(s), trim the saddle at each end. Keep the ribcage for stock if you’re that kind of person. Or just ask your rural game dealer for a jointed baby rabbit. Or just use chicken, for that matter.
Nearly there. Trim the asparagus and pod the peas, and put the stalk-ends and pods in a saucepan. Add one of the shallots, halved, and one of the cloves of garlic, lightly squished. Cover with water, bring to a simmer, and leave to get on while you start the cooking proper.
In a sauté pan big enough to fit the complete dish (sorry if you’ve got this far and don’t have one), gently heat the lardons – the aim is to render a decent amount of fat from them before they brown. Once you’re happy with this state of affairs, remove them from the pan, whack up the heat, and brown the rabbit (or chicken, if you insist) pieces in batches, giving them a merry salting as you go. Put these with the bacon and turn the heat back down.
Finely slice the remaining shallots and garlic and sweat these (you might need a bit more fat or oil) until nicely softened and starting to brown, putting the bacon back in towards the end of this process. Add the mustard, cook for a minute, turn up the heat, add the wine, let it reduce to almost nothing.
Arrange the rabbit pieces nicely on top (they’d better fit) and add a couple of ladles of that veg stock, which should be ready by now – enough to not-quite-cover the rabbit, bring to the boil, simmer for twenty minutes. Meanwhile, slice the asparagus into pea-ish sized bits. When the twenty minutes are up, add the peas and asparagus, cover with a lid and simmer for ten minutes more. Finely chop the parsley with the lemon and stir in. A swirl of cream would be appropriate, and some extra mustard is a good idea.