Food and Drink: All in a stew about rabbit?: The French don't understand why we are so squeamish about eating a tender and tasty meat

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the tender-hearted, my theme today is rabbit. Not chocolate bunnies swaddled in pretty bows and shiny paper, but the genuine article.

I pondered the wisdom of this but, after all, if we can happily sit down to eat a juicy leg of paschal lamb, with all its religious connotations, for our Easter lunch, I don't see why people should become upset at the idea of a rabbit in a saucepan, unless they are vegetarian, and that's a different story. In France - indeed, throughout the rest of Europe, as far as I know - people would be surprised to discover that we can be squeamish about eating rabbit. They can't see why anyone should differentiate between rabbit and chicken in the sentimental culinary context. Both are raised for the table, both are easily cooked, both have a distinct flavour but one that is mild enough to marry well with all kinds of other ingredients.

I'm not talking of wild rabbit, which can be tough and pungent and needs a more dedicated approach. Farmed rabbit is a delicate enough meat, and unless you are deeply unlucky, what you buy will be tender and young. So much so that, if you take the time to remove the flesh on the saddle and hind legs from the bones, it can be thinly sliced and flash fried. Very nice, too.

Having said that, I usually cook rabbit in the more orthodox way. I like it casseroled - one rabbit, cut into suitable pieces (ask your butcher to do that, making sure he splits the saddle in two) is enough for four people. Rabbit can take the place of chicken quite successfully in most chicken stew recipes.

On the other hand, if it's just two for supper, or if I've got a brace of rabbits and four to feed, I might well treat the meat differently. The saddle - the back with its two relatively large loins of meat, not forgetting the fillets underneath, and the two little kidneys - is a joint made for two. It can be roasted at a high temperature and is done to perfection in a quarter of an hour. The hind and fore legs can then be marinated overnight, ready to be braised gently the next day.

Lapin a la moutarde

Rabbit cooked the French way, with mustard, is a winner. The rabbit portions are first baked in a moist, steamy oven to stop them drying out, then finished with a creamy sauce. This is the stuff of French family Sunday lunches.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 3tbs Dijon mustard

2tbs groundnut or sunflower oil

1 rabbit, cut into 4 joints

1 large carrot, sliced

1 onion, sliced

4 fl oz (115ml) water

3 fl oz (85ml) white wine

4 fl oz (115ml) creme frache or double cream

salt and pepper

Preparation: Mix the mustard with the oil and a little salt and pepper, and smear over the rabbit joints. Spread the carrot and onion out in a roasting tin, add the water and then lay the rabbit joints on top. Roast at 200C/400F/gas mark 6 for 25-30 minutes, basting frequently with pan juices, until rabbit is cooked (test by piercing the thickest part of a thigh with a skewer - as soon as the juice runs clear, rather than pink, it is ready).

Lift the rabbit joints on to a warm serving dish and keep hot. Pick out the vegetables and discard. Set the roasting tin on the hob and pour in the wine. Bring up to the boil, stirring, and simmer for about 30 seconds. Add the cream and stir well, bring gently up to the boil. Draw off heat, taste and adjust seasonings, and pour over rabbit.

Roast saddle of rabbit with

juniper and gin

The saddle makes a choice little roast for two, and a hint of smoky juniper and gin makes it even better. Save the legs either for a stew, or for the next recipe.

Serves 2

Ingredients: 1 saddle of rabbit

1oz (28g) butter

2tbs gin

4 juniper berries, crushed

salt and pepper

1/2 tbs redcurrant jelly

1/4 pint (140ml) game or chicken stock

salt and pepper

Preparation: Rub the juniper berries into the meat, then smear with half the butter and season with salt and pepper. Sit in a shallow roasting tin. Preheat the oven to 230C/

450F/gas mark 8. Roast the saddle for 12-15 minutes until just cooked through. Transfer it to a warm serving dish and rest in the oven, turned off and with door slightly ajar, while you make the gravy.

Place the roasting tin over the hob. Add the gin, and stir for a few seconds until it has bubbled away. Pour in the stock. Bring to the boil, stirring and scraping up the meaty juices stuck to the bottom. Boil hard until reduced by two-thirds. Stir in the redcurrant jelly, then reduce heat and add the remaining butter, little by little, swirling to melt it into the sauce. Strain the gravy, taste and adjust seasoning and serve with the roast saddle.

Jambonneau de lapin

These rabbit pieces, coated in crisp crumbs, are good served cold, perhaps for lunch, with a dollop of coarse-grain mustard, gherkins, mayonnaise and a fine green salad. You could, of course, heat the rabbit through in the oven or, alternatively, egg and crumb the legs, drizzle with melted butter or oil and then grill them.

Serves 2

Ingredients: Hind and forelegs of 1 rabbit

2oz (55g) fine dry breadcrumbs

1oz (28g) butter

For the marinade:

2tbs white wine vinegar

4tbs olive oil

1 stick celery, sliced

1 carrot, sliced

1/2 onion, sliced

4 peppercorns, crushed

leaves of 1 sprig rosemary, bruised

1 bayleaf, torn in 3

2 cloves garlic, crushed

salt and pepper

Preparation: Mix the marinade ingredients and pour over the rabbit legs. Leave overnight. Place the legs and the marinade in a pan with enough water to cover. Simmer gently until tender. Leave to cool in the cooking liquid.

Fry the breadcrumbs in the butter until golden brown, drain on kitchen paper, then season with a little salt and pepper. Drain the rabbit legs and coat them evenly in the crumbs. Eat as soon as possible while the crumbs are still crisp.

Rabbit, apricot and walnut stew

This is a beautiful, rich, dark stew and one of my favourite rabbit recipes. The sweet and sharp apricots and earthy nuts go particularly well with the flavour of rabbit.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 rabbit, cut into joints

seasoned flour

2-3tbs sunflower or vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

1/2 pint (280ml) red wine

2 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs parsley

8oz (225g) dried apricots, halved

4oz (110g) shelled walnuts, roughly chopped

salt and pepper

Preparation: Toss the rabbit pieces in flour, then brown briskly in the oil over a high heat. Place in an oven-proof casserole. Fry the onion gently in the same oil, adding a little more if necessary, then add it to the rabbit. Pour any excess fat off from the pan, then add the wine. Bring up to the boil, scraping up the brown meaty residues. Pour over the rabbit. Tie the herbs together with string to form a bouquet garni, and tuck that in, too. Add salt and pepper, and just enough hot water to cover. Put the lid on the casserole and cook in the oven, set to 170C/325F/gas mark 3 for about 1 hour.

Now add the apricots, tucking them right down in the juices, and return the casserole to the oven for a further half-hour. Finally, add the walnuts and cook for another 5 minutes. Skim off what fat you can, and serve with rice or noodles.

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