I really love cooking rabbit. Over the past couple of years I have found myself placing it frequently on the menu at Petersham because it has such a beautiful, delicate, almost sweet flavour, and it works well in so many guises.
As unfashionable as it may sound, I prefer farmed, free-range rabbit to wild. I find wild rabbit too gamey and often too riddled with shot. The gentler flavour of farmed rabbit is much more to my taste.
Your local butcher should be happy to sell you any part of the rabbit that you prefer, but we buy them whole, from a gentleman who is known to us simply as "Albert the Grouse Man". He works on his own and is a supplier of all sorts of beautiful game. He won't entertain the idea of selling any other kind of meat. I have no idea how he earns his living during the spring and early summer.
I've often read recipes that include cooking a whole rabbit - by that I mean jointed and separated into hindlegs, forelegs and saddle. To my mind, this is not a satisfactory method, as each part of the rabbit requires different cooking times. I advocate gentle, long, slow cooking for the hindlegs; slightly less cooking for the forelegs, but gentle and slow nonetheless; and short, hot cooking for the saddle.
And if you've not had the pleasure of eating rabbit liver, try it - far more delicious than chicken livers.
Here are four recipes, each using a different part of the rabbit - hopefully highlighting its attributes. The Richard Olney rabbit dish is one of my favourite things in the whole world.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627
Grilled rabbit with lentils, Speck and mustardy vinaigrette
The gently smoky flavour of the Speck works really nicely with the simply grilled rabbit - while the vinaigrette and lentils lend a depth that feels satisfying and autumnal.
4 rabbit legs (the hindlegs), boned (ask your butcher to do this for you if this seems a little ambitious)
8 slices of Speck (or substitute Bayonne or Parma ham)
300g of cooked lentils (l like the ones from Italy known as castelluccio - but puy are also good)
1tbspn of Dijon mustard
2tbspn of good-quality red-wine vinegar
50ml of gentle-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Season the hind legs generously all over; lay on a hot grill and grill for 4 to 5 minutes on one side before turning and cooking for a further 3 to 4 minutes. While the rabbit is cooking, make the vinaigrette. Place the mustard in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add the vinegar and slowly whisk in the olive oil. Gently warm through the lentils, moisten with a splash or two of olive oil and divide among four plates. Place the rabbit on top and lay over the speck and spoon over the vinaigrette. Serve.
Rabbit livers on toast with Pedro Ximénez
Rabbit livers are deliciously tender, gentle in flavour and almost sweet. Here, I have paired them with Pedro Ximénez - a complex, almost caramelly flavoured sherry and a simple slice of grilled toast which gloriously soaks up the juices.
6 rabbit livers, cleaned
40g unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50ml Pedro Ximénez
2 slices of bread (I have used pagnotta - if you cannot find it, use pane toscana, pugliese or sourdough)
Start by grilling or toasting your bread until golden brown. Set aside in a warm place while you cook the livers. Place a non-stick pan over a medium to high heat. Season the liver lightly all over with the salt and pepper and when the pan is hot add half of the butter.
As soon as the butter has melted and begun to foam, add the liver and cook for 30 seconds on one side. Turn and cook for a couple of seconds on the other side before pouring over the sherry and turning the heat to high. Cook the liver with the sherry for a further 15 seconds or so before removing from the pan. Lay on top of the warm toast.
Add the rest of the butter to the pan and whisk quickly into the sherry reduction. Taste for seasoning - it will need a little salt and a generous grind of black pepper. Remove from the heat and pour over the livers. Eat while piping hot.
Richard Olney's rabbit with saffron, cucumbers and tomatoes
This is one of the most wonderful things I've cooked all year. It originates from Richard Olney's lovely book, Simple French Food. I have changed the original recipe slightly, omitting the flour and the liver and substituting verjuice for white wine. Essentially, though, it retains the spirit of the original - just slightly lighter in flavour. The cucumbers add the most surprising and vital flavour - you really have to try it for yourself to appreciate just how good it is.
4 rabbit legs (you can buy them separately)
1tbspn of olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely sliced
20 strands of saffron
2 cloves of garlic
250ml of verjuice (or light white wine)
500ml of rabbit stock (or chicken stock, if you prefer)
12 little tomatoes (San Marzano are lovely)
3 small cucumbers (I like to half peel them in a stripey way and remove seeds, then cut into half-inch slices)
1 bunch of basil (leaves only and torn into strips)
Salt and pepper
Season the rabbit legs with salt and pepper. Place a pot large enough to hold all the ingredients over a medium heat. Pour in the olive oil and gently brown the rabbit all over; remove and set aside while you sweat the onions gently for 10 minutes. Add the saffron and garlic and sweat for a further 2-3 minutes.
Pour in the verjuice (or wine), turn up the heat and allow to bubble. Add the stock, turn the heat to low and return the rabbit to the pan. Place a lid on saucepan and cook the rabbit on the lowest possible heat for 35 minutes. Rabbit lends itself to slow, gentle cooking in order for it to be as tender as possible.
Once the rabbit is cooked through and tender, add the cucumber. With a little knife, simply pierce the skin of the tomatoes (this allows their sweet juices to seep into the sauce while they remain whole) and add to the dish.
Cook for a further 10 minutes - still on a low heat - check the seasoning, add a little salt and pepper. Finally, add the torn basil and remove from the heat and serve.
I like to serve this rabbit with soft, white polenta. It would also be lovely with little boiled potatoes or simply chewy, peasant-style bread.
Warm salad of rabbit, borlotti, tomatoes and torn bread
This is a really nice way to use the meat from the saddle - which lends itself to shorter cooking times. The flesh from the saddle is so light and clean tasting you can pair it with just about anything that takes your fancy - olives, capers, roasted peppers, chards and any winter leaves that happen to be your favourite.
1 saddle of rabbit
1tbspn extra-virgin olive oil
A little sea salt and black pepper
170g cooked borlotti (or white beans such as cannellini)
2 slices of chewy peasant-style bread - toasted, rubbed with garlic, brushed with olive oil and torn
12 little tomatoes - roasted in the oven until sweet and tender (25 minutes on a low heat, moistened with a little olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper)
A small handful of rocket leaves
Another dash of extra-virgin olive oil
A squeeze or two of lemon juice
For the dressing
Small bunch of basil - leaves only
Small bunch of mint - leaves only
A few sprigs of marjoram - leaves only
5 capers, rinsed
1tbspn of red-wine vinegar
50ml extra-virgin olive oil
Place all the herbs in a blender, add the capers and vinegar - season gently with black pepper (no salt, as the capers are salty enough). Pour in the oil and purée.
Set aside (this dressing will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days and can be used with all sorts of things - try with any grilled meats or roast chicken).
Preheat your oven to 180C. Place the rabbit saddle in a baking tray - drizzle with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool slightly - until you can comfortably pry the flesh from the bones with your hands.
Place in a bowl, add the tomatoes, the cooked beans, the rocket, drizzle with a little olive oil and add a squeeze of lemon. Toss gently. Place on one large plate or divide among four. Spoon over the dressing and serve.
'A Year In My Kitchen', by Skye Gyngell, is published by Quadrille, £25. To order a copy at the special price of £22, plus free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content