Food: For the chop

A step-by-step guide to perfect rabbit stew. Photograph by Jason Lowe

Simon Hopkinson
Saturday 20 March 1999 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Some ill-advised - or bewildered - cooks seem to think rabbit behaves in the same way as a chicken breast: "Oh, yeah, just roast off a little rabbit saddle nice 'n' pink, slice off a few slivers and put 'em on a bit of rocket. Perfect for yer starter salad." So, chef, what do you do with the legs and shoulders of the rabbit? "Legs and shoulders? I didn't know they 'ad those." A little bit of mild joshing there - but only just.

One has to remember that there are two sorts of rabbit for the pot: wild and domestic. At the moment, your discerning butcher, or game dealer, should offer a choice of both. A wild rabbit, well-hung and well-shot, will produce a stew or pie of the utmost savour. Even a young hare will offer no greater treat; save the coagulated blood coaxed from it, with which to thicken the preparation. And, incidentally, why is this now so difficult to find, essential as it is for the preparation of an English "jug" or French civet? Perhaps it is a growing squeamish trend, but why should cooks have this most important ingredient so often omitted from their furred game repertoire? One would hardly see TV's Thompson, Turner or Harriot draining blood from a nicely hung hare, of a Thursday afternoon. Cooking - and food in general - is slowly but surely becoming a tad too cleansed for me. Not very real.

Although a nicely jointed rabbit will successfully stew along with the best of other small creatures - from quails to parts of goat - it does need more lubrication than one might think; particularly so when thinking of a Peter that has energetically leapt in and out of hedges and burrows, rather then a Flopsy Mopsy that has gently lolloped. But even the leisurely lifestyle of this critter, once despatched and de-furred, will only benefit from a suitable emollient - cream, fatty bacon or the enrichment of an interloping pig's trotter - to emerge as a satisfying whole. The following recipe is a case in point.

Braised rabbit with cabbage, garlic and bacon, feeds 3-4 using one domestic rabbit: 5-6 for two wild ones

I have decided to go into great detail as to how to go about jointing a rabbit. I feel it is time you learnt a thing or two concerning simple domestic dissection. The satisfaction of doing it yourself is rewarding; not only for your own piece of mind, but also to impress your butcher or game dealer. A French housewife would not be seen dead requesting her beau lapin to be prepared anywhere else than in her own kitchen. So, apologies for just the one recipe this week, but it is a good one, rest assured. Have your knives good and sharp, please.

2 wild or 1 large domestic rabbit(s), jointed

salt and pepper

a little flour

25g butter

2 tbsp olive oil

12-16 large cloves garlic, peeled

a generous slosh of either Madeira or medium sherry

150ml white wine

200ml good chicken stock

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

1 savoy cabbage, divested of the tougher outer leaves, then cored and quartered

1 small split pig's trotter (optional), which will add succulence, especially towards a wild rabbit braise

6-8 thick slices of very fat, streaky bacon, rind intact, if possible

How to joint a whole rabbit

If the head is still attached, remove it with a hefty blow from a heavy knife. Now cut off each of the shoulders (these are only attached by muscle rather than a joint). Chop off the tiny, spindly extreme joint from each one. Cut straight through the ribcage, about halfway along, around about the point where the meaty saddle part nearest to the (now dismembered) head is tapering off; this is quite clear if you look closely and feel around. Chop the ribcage, neck part and the two tiny shoulder joints into small pieces, put into a small pan and add the wine and chicken stock, together with a modicum of seasoning. Simmer together for 30 to 40 minutes, or longer; this can only improve the favour of your dish, and is the sort of thing a committed cook does without a second thought. You can add the head, too, if you wish, but hew it in two and wash it well first.

Now then, turning to the leg end, and with the rabbit's back uppermost, make an incision around the curvaceous part of each leg, revealing as you so do, a sort of pointy and bony central extremity. As you carefully cut down and against this to remove each leg, a neat and obvious ball- and-socket joint will soon show up on either side. Cut through these to detach each leg. Now, once again, with a heavy blow from the knife, remove the pointy bone (it's pelvic bone, in essence) where this other end of the saddle meat stops - more abruptly this time. We are getting there. Chop that severed pointy bit up, too, and add it to the simmering stock pot. Now remove the membrane that adheres to the saddle, using a small sharp knife, lifting it off in thin strips but without cutting into the meat itself; sort of pierce, lift and separate. This takes a little practice but you should get the hang of it quite quickly. So this gives us two shoulders, two legs and a whole saddle. To complete the process it is necessary to divide the saddle into three pieces, across the joint, with three equidistant, swift chops.

The final count is seven pieces of domestic rabbit - double that if you have chosen to take the wild option - ready for cooking (the easy bit!). The braising time is the same for both, as this is a slow and gentle stew, resulting in fondant meat and richly favoured juices.

Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/ gas mark 1, or even less in my kitchen. It depends on how volatile your oven is at low temperatures; you merely wish for the thing to quietly blip and murmur. Season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper and roll in the flour. Heat the butter and oil together in a large, cast-iron pot (a lidded Le Creuset pot is the one I always use here) until a bit frothy. Add the rabbit in manageable amounts (in two batches if necessary) and cook gently on all sides until golden. Remove to a dish when done and tip in the garlic (isn't it nice when there are no onions in a dish for once?). Frot these against the crusty bits in the bottom of the pot, hoping to pick up scraps of residue, until they, too, have taken on a little golden tinge. Remove and put with the rabbit. Tip off all the residual fats and pour in the Madeira or sherry. Using a stiff whisk, scrape up all the remaining bits and then add the wine. Bring to the boil and reduce by half.

Now strain the little pan of stock into the pot through a fine sieve and whisk together. Re-introduce the rabbit and tuck in the thyme, bay leaves and pieces of cabbage. If you want to use the pig's trotter, include this now, pushing each half down into the pot among the pieces of rabbit. Do not be alarmed if you think there is not enough liquid at this point, as much will exude from the rabbit as it cooks.

Lay the bacon, overlapping, all over the surface and let the stew gently rise to a simmer. Cut a piece of grease-proof paper (a cartouche) to fit inside the pot with a little room to spare, so that it comes up the sides a little, a few snips around the edge with a pair of scissors helps the thing to fall into place. I used to think this was a waste of time, but I don't now, as it really does add a secondary muffle to the proceedings in addition to the lid. This is a similar operation to the one employed inside a kiln when wanting a subdued firing (my mother used to pot). Now put the lid on and put in the oven for about two hours.

Depending on how much fat is floating on the surface once the rabbit is cooked, lift off any excess that offends you with kitchen paper. Dish up directly from the pot onto hot plates. For those who request some, break up the trotter - which will now be deliciously flobby - with the serving spoon and distribute along with everything else. Serve with a large dish of plainly boiled potatoes, nothing more

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