Food: Out of the hat

Simon Hopkinson conjures up some magical rabbit recipes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I first ate at the three-star Michel Guerard "Les Pres d'Eugenie", at Eugenie-les-Bains in the Landes region of south-west France some 17 years ago. There are two things about it I will never forget. The first was a quail salad, the other was a bottle of Romanee Conti 1944. The wine was the same age as my host, and it was a gesture of his munificence to share such a bottle with me, his very excited, 27-year-old private cook. The legacy of that rare treat is a continuing appreciation of great wine and a realisation that great cooking is nothing more than good taste and common sense. Oh, and genius, too.

The quail salad was no more a "salad" than my tummy is a six-pack. There was a char-grilled spatchcocked quail in the middle of it, which was so succulent, with such remarkably crisp skin, that it made me think I had never eaten a quail before. Surrounding the quail were five "satellite salads" comprising a spoonful of mousseron made from diminutive fairy ring mushrooms; some tiny artichokes; a tumbleweed of little salad leaves mixed with a healthy fronding of chervil; a floppy mess of wilting tomatoes and basil ... But I have sat looking at this screen now for 10 minutes, and cannot for the life of me recall the fifth element. Well, it was 17 years ago.

Now then, that was a lengthy preamble to this week's subject, rabbit. But my initial thoughts for the first recipe revolved around a similarly smart salad using - for want of a better description - shredded rabbit.

It will make a splendidly informal springtime weekend lunch, when you have the time to assemble everything. And it might be nice to put together each serving individually, rather than offering all the components in separate dishes. The rabbit aside, the "salads" all celebrate the arrival of spring vegetables. Drink with cool Beaujolais.

It seems odd that I have never given over a complete article to rabbit before now, as it remains one of my favourite meats. Do not get confuse wild with tame rabbit, as the former is more akin to a young hare when it comes to flavour, odour and lack of succulence. Wild rabbits need a lubrication of fatty streaky bacon or lumps of pork fat. That said, my mother used to make a mean rabbit pie from the joints of wild rabbit cooked in the bottom of the Aga overnight then covered with heavenly pastry. The scent of clove and juniper piping up through neat slashes in the crust will always linger in my nostrils. Then sometimes it would be rabbit stew, plumped by suety dumplings floating on the surface. Ah, happy memories.

Tame rabbits, bred exclusively for the table, are a different matter entirely (in my mother's day, the only domestic Flopsies you could find were bits of Chinese rabbit: frozen, meanly muscled and tasteless). As usual, it is down to the French to produce the finest rabbits for the table. These are large, fatty, pink-fleshed and surprisingly huge. And in all the bouchers, hypermarches, Casinos and Codecs that I have visited in France over the years, there have always, but always, been whole rabbits for sale.

Rabbit and mustard is, undoubtedly, the finest - and most common - way to marry Cottontail with condiment. In its simplest form, a whole rabbit is slathered from head to tail with best Dijon and slammed into a hot oven to roast until done. The crust that forms (with the help of a little melted butter) blisters and sets in the most satisfactory way, encasing the flesh almost as pastry; ground mustard seed, after all, is almost a flour.

Anyway, that, fundamentally, is plain rabbit and mustard. But the preparation that really gets my olfactory juices running, is the dish where rabbit is done with white wine, mustard and cream. It is the smoothest of brief stews, irresistibly flavoured in that classical fashion where white meat meets cream and alcohol.

Conveniently, one of these rabbits will be large enough for both of the recipes I am providing today: the shoulders and ribcage for the salad; the legs and saddle for the mustard thing. Naturally, you would not wish to start lunch with rabbit and continue with rabbit, but I want to illustrate just how far one of the fat creatures will go. If you cannot find a French rabbit, there are now some fairly respectable British breeders who are beginning to see the light, but just make sure it is a nice plump creature.

Rabbit salad, serves 3-4

Note: this recipe will keep in the fridge for at least five days, well covered, so you could do the rabbit with mustard (see below) for Monday dinner and have the salad at the weekend.

for the shredded rabbit

the ribcage, the two shoulders of the rabbit and the belly flaps from the saddle; about 500g, bones and all

200ml white wine

100ml water

75ml olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and quartered

6 cloves of garlic, peeled and bruised

6-7 sage leaves

a little salt, pepper

a sprinkle of fennel seeds

3 cloves

2 bay leaves

2 pieces of pithless lemon

rind

the liver and kidneys of the rabbit

75g thinly sliced pancetta or streaky bacon (unsmoked)

Pre-heat the oven to lowest setting (125C or alternative). Remove the shoulders from the ribcage with a sharp knife. Chop the ribcage in half along its spine using a cleaver or big knife - or get your butcher to do this. Also, if you still have the remaining part of the rabbit, cut off the belly flaps from the saddle. Put all these into a stout cast-iron pot that has a lid (a Le Creuset is ideal). Add all the remaining ingredients, apart from the pancetta. Mix together with your hands so that everything is well moistened. Lay the slices of pancetta, overlapping, on the surface.

Put on to a gentle flame and bring up to a simmer. Cook quietly for 10 minutes or so to get the heat up, switch off, then lay a piece of greaseproof paper on top. This should be a little larger than the dimensions of the pot, with scissor snips around the edge so that it fits snugly (in chef-speak, this is called a cartouche, and a jolly useful trick it is for keeping things moist and juicy). Place into the oven and cook for two hours.

Discard the paper, remove the pancetta from the oily surface of the stew and put on a plate - this has only been used to provide its fat and to add flavour. Also remove the kidneys and liver. You can eat the bacon in a sandwich; the offal is for the cats. Carefully lift out the rabbit pieces, flicking off any stray bits of veg and herb, and put on to a plate to cool. Strain the liquor through a very fine sieve into a lidded pottery or porcelain dish. Now, using your fingers, remove every single scrap of meat from the bones - including the finer filaments of flesh between the ribs - and bury into the liquor. Turn around with a fork, press down under the layer of oil on the surface, cover, and put into the fridge.

for the salads

1) A few spindly leaves of rocket, fine frisee, plenty of chervil fronds and a little chopped shallot; season, and dress with lemon juice and walnut oil

2) Some thin slices of artichoke heart, twice-shelled small broad beans, peas and tarragon leaves. Bind with thinned mayonnaise

3) Steamed lengths of small leeks (about 3cm) dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette (don't use olive oil), chives and currants that have been plumped in hot water until bloated

4) Quartered sweet cherry tomatoes, dressed with a little garlic, basil and olive oil

5) Cucumber, peeled and thickly sliced, salted for 30 minutes, squeezed dry and moistened with a little sugar and white wine vinegar, seasoned with black pepper

To serve, take the rabbit from the fridge and remove excess olive oil. It is important the rabbit is served cold, as you will notice that, underneath the oil, the rabbit has set into its own jelly. Scoop out portions with a warmed spoon and place on each plate. Surround with the salads. Also, serve very thin slices of day-old baguette, that have been rubbed with a garlic clove, brushed with olive oil and crisped in a moderate oven until pale golden.

Rabbit with mustard and cream,

serves 2

15g butter

1 tbsp olive oil

the saddle and legs of a fat rabbit (the French call this a baron)

salt and white pepper

a little flour

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

150ml dry white wine

100ml dry cider

bay leaf

1 sprig of rosemary

1 tsp dry mustard

1 dsp best Dijon mustard

150ml whipping cream

squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

chopped parsley (optional)

Remove the legs from the saddle by cutting through the ball-and-socket joint. Hew off the pointy part that is left there, at that end of the saddle, just above the now-revealed sockets. You will be left with the saddle in one piece. Remove the sinew using a sharp little knife, running it underneath and lifting it off in strips, being careful not to cut into the meat. Using a heavy-bladed knife, chop the saddle in half with one blow.

Pre-heat the oven to 325F/ 170C/gas mark 3. Season the rabbit and roll in the flour. Put the butter and olive oil into a heavy-bottomed metal casserole, set on to a healthy flame and, once hot, add the rabbit pieces. Sizzle gently, letting each side gild before turning over. Once golden all over, remove to a plate and set aside. Tip out all but a spoonful of fat and add the shallots. Cook until pale golden, then pour in the wine and cider. Allow to froth up, add the herbs and simmer until reduced by half. Reintroduce the rabbit and simmer again. Cover and put into the oven for 40 minutes, turning the rabbit over once.

Remove the rabbit from its cooking liquor and once more remove to a plate, shaking off any clinging bits of herb and shallot. Strain this liquor through a fine sieve into a bowl, then return to the (rinsed-out) pot. Bring to the boil and simmer a little longer until lightly syrupy. Pour in the cream and continue until custard-like in consistency. Whisk in the mustards and add the lemon juice to taste. Return the rabbit, simmer for about 10-15 minutes and serve, sprinkled with parsley if you like that sort of thing. I do, and would also like some plain boiled potatoes, please

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