This Easter, the only rabbit you’ll find in my home is in a pot with a whole lotta wine and cream – but my offspring are still too young to know about the Easter Bunny, so we can still do this kind of thing without traumatising the poor critters too much. Just wait until we serve reindeer steaks at Christmastime though…
The fact that rabbits are both cute and delicious didn’t dawn upon me until the relatively ripe age of 24. I’d joined a cooking class in Florence – it was the first lesson, and I thought I should probably mention to my teacher, Beppi, that I was a vegetarian: “Is there anything vegetarian-friendly on the menu?” I asked. His answer: “Of course – tonight we’re cooking rabbit.” He then produced a skinned bunny and chopped off its head, which, to my horror, he left on display while he showed us how to braise the rest in tomato, red wine and sage until it fell off the bone. But a few hours and several glasses of Chianti later, I was the Italian version of vegetarian.
I still make that amazing dish, but for a nice long lunch over the Easter weekend, I thought I’d go a bit Frenchy with lapin à la moutarde: rabbit slow-cooked in mustard sauce until it’s ridiculously tender. I’ve gone for woodsy herbs instead of the traditional tarragon – and added a few dollops of crème fraîche to the sauce because everything is better with cream.
A note on bunnies: if you get a wild rabbit from the farmers’ market, it’ll be tastier, but not as tender (or large) as a tame rabbit. Add half an hour to your cooking time to get that melt-in-the-mouth effect. You’ll also need to joint it yourself. I learned how to joint rabbit by watching this video by the late, great Clarissa Dickson Wright. Be warned, it’s three minutes of casual bunny bone crunching, twisting and snapping – I almost didn’t have the balls to do it, until Ms Dickson Wright pointed out: “If you think this looks grizzly, all I can say to you is don’t be so ridiculous. If you’re going to be eating it you ought to be able to cut it up.”
Definitely not a vegetarian anymore.
BRAISED RABBIT IN MUSTARD AND CREAM
1 rabbit, cut into 6-8 pieces (you can ask your butcher to do this)
1/2 cup flour
3 tsp mustard powder
Butter, for frying
1 carrot, diced
2 celery sticks, diced
1 small red onion, diced
1 leek, white part only, sliced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 rosemary sprigs
A few sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
2 fresh bay leaves
1 large glass of white wine (add more if you don’t intend to polish off the bottle with lunch!)
300ml (1 1/4 cups) chicken stock
1 tbsp dijon mustard
4 large Swiss brown mushrooms, thinly sliced
125ml (1/2 cup) crème fraîche
1. Combine the flour and mustard powder in a large bowl, season with salt and pepper and dust the rabbit pieces in the flour mixture to coat.
2. Melt a dollop of butter in a casserole over medium-high heat and brown the rabbit, in batches, adding more butter as needed. Basically, don’t be shy with the butter in this recipe. Set the browned rabbit pieces aside.
3. If you now have bits of burnt flour and butter in the base of your casserole, wipe it clean. Melt another dollop of butter, then add your carrot, celery, onion, leek and garlic and cook, for around 5 minutes, until soft.
4. Twist and bruise your rosemary sprigs to release the flavour and toss them in whole. Add the thyme and bay leaves and cook for a minute or so, stirring, until aromatic.
5. Return the rabbit to the casserole. Add the wine and cook until reduced by half. Add the stock and stir in the mustard. Your rabbit should be covered in liquid, so add more stock if you need to. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for an hour (or an hour and a half if you’re using wild rabbit), stirring every now and then.
6. Add the mushrooms and stir the crème fraîche into the sauce. Cook for another half an hour, or until the meat is tender. Keep the lid off to thicken the sauce. Season well with sea salt and pepper, and more mustard if it needs it. Serve with mash and blanched green beans.
Photography: Selina Altomonte