How to cook rabbit
Photography: Antonia Pesenti
1:44PM, Aug 14, 2012
Here's the thing: wild rabbit and farmed rabbit are two very different beasts. Wild rabbit meat is lean and gamy in flavour, rich, earthy and distinct. Wild rabbits run around a lot and the muscles get very developed, which is why the meat is so dark.
Farmed rabbits, in contrast, are fat and lazy from lying around
the pen eating. Farmed rabbit is white, has lovely creamy fat
hanging around its belly and loin, and has a more delicate
The difference is even more pronounced when the meat is cooked. Farmed rabbit is tender, and can be as soft as butter provided it is cooked a certain way. Wild rabbit has to be cooked for a long time in a wet sauce before it will yield, and it doesn't roast well.
My first experience with wild rabbit was with friends at their vineyard in Yandoit in central Victoria. Rosa Mitchell and her family are Sicilian, and there's always great food on the go at their place: something cooking away in the brick oven, someone making fresh ricotta, or picking wild herbs, or hunting.
As we were leaving in the late afternoon, Rosa's father, a wiry man in his seventies, asked me if I liked rabbit. "Yes! I love it," I replied. Five minutes later he walked past with a shotgun and disappeared over the hill. We heard a shot. He returned swinging a rabbit by its legs and handed it to me. I handed it straight back and asked him to skin it. He made a few slits around the neck and pulled the rabbit's skin and fur off in one smooth action. I was very impressed.
The only way I like to cook wild rabbit is to make a ragù, perhaps with porcini mushrooms, red wine and a touch of tomato, to toss through ribbons of pasta or ladle over wet polenta. It really isn't suited to any other style of cooking.
Farmed rabbit is far more versatile. You can roast it, braise it, grill it and even fry it. Jointing farmed rabbit into small pieces on the bone then marinating it with herbs and olive oil before grilling it yields some of the best results - rustic and delicious.
I really like rabbit fricassée. The rabbit is cut into small pieces on the bone, pan-fried with lots of herbs and garlic, a splash of white wine and some vegetables - fresh peas or sliced artichokes or both - then covered and simmered until it's just cooked.
Rabbit's reputation for being tough and dry isn't without cause. When the meat is just cooked through it should be succulent and tender. But when you cook it further - even just a little further, in some cases - the meat will tighten up, particularly if it's being roasted or grilled. However, if you continue to cook it in a sauce until it just starts to fall off the bone, then it will yield beautifully. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a fine line so you'll need to pay attention; if you continue cooking rabbit in sauce once it has reached the just-falling-off-the-bone stage, it will turn dry and stringy.
I don't roast rabbit whole because it dries out too much before it's cooked through. However, the loin can be boned and roasted to winning effect. The keys are to wrap it in pancetta or something similar to keep the moisture in, to roast the loin no further than medium-rare, and then to rest it well. This is the best option for farmed rabbit. If you'd prefer to braise it, the cooking should be very slow and gentle, and the pot should be taken off the flame just as the meat starts to come off the bone.
I recommend buying rabbit from a reputable supplier who deals in it regularly; farmers' markets are usually a good source. A rabbit is very much influenced by its diet and living conditions. Farmed rabbit will look pink, there should be no blemishes or bruises, the meat should be firm, and if the liver is still attached, it should be bright red.
Italy, France, Spain and Greece are rich sources of rabbit recipes. The south of Italy and parts of Greece do a lovely sweet-and-sour version of rabbit, cooking it with wine and a little vinegar and dried fruit.
Rabbit is also a favourite in parts of China's Sichuan province. I've seen recipes for hotpot of rabbit in black bean sauce, and spicy rabbit heads are a specialty of the city of Chengdu.
Back in central Victoria, I left the farm that afternoon with my still-warm rabbit and put it in the fridge. It stayed there for a week. I wanted to cook it but I couldn't bring myself to, so sadly it got thrown away. This was my first experience with wild game and I was squeamish. Today I wouldn't hesitate; its robust flavour and the fact that it had come so directly from the land would be things I'd relish.