While there's nothing particularly nasty about rabbits, many eaters are discouraged by the idea of cooking that which you can buy at a pet store. Every time I remove rabbits from their packaging, I'm struck by the remarkable resemblance the bodies bear, not to the bunnies of our common imagination, but to the human form. De-furred and beheaded, their elongated spines taper into curled-up haunches; tiny arms jut out with elbows poised.
I've never been much of a rabbit eater. Any animal that is even leaner than chicken seems unpromising given the various ways in which a non-fatty cut of meat can dry out during cooking. But rabbit, though not a fatty creature, can be tender and moist with careful preparation. It took a new recipe to get me interested in rabbits again, from whom else but my favorite nose-to-tail chef, Fergus Henderson.
In The Whole Beast, Henderson presents a rendition of rabbit stew that involves 80 cloves of garlic and 24 shallots. Read: Not eight cloves of garlic or 2.4 shallot heads but a collection of aromatics that, when put together, crosses into the triple-digit count. Sometimes a recipe begs to be tried for its pure extravagance; certainly, 80 cloves of garlic fit the bill.
I proceeded with two specimens, labeled by the Korean market by mistake I presume, as "wild rabbits." Generally speaking, the rabbits available to us in the States are domesticated, possessing a milder taste than the wild hares that are consumed in other parts of the world. (General reports in England allude to the availability of rabbits that private hunters have shot and handed to butcher shops for public consumption.)
Fergus Henderson's Version
Henderson's recipes often take the form of rough procedural guidelines. His recipe for rabbit and garlic goes something like this: Brown pieces of rabbit in olive oil. Sweat the 24 heads of shallot with bacon. Add to the pot the 80 whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic, along with copious amounts of wine and sherry. Stew the rabbit and aromatics in the liquid until tender. Serve with bread, sucking out the bits of juicy garlic from their paper-thin skins.
Like frog, rabbit meat is inaccurately described as tasting like chicken. It shares with poultry the textural divide between dark and white meat, but rabbit has a taste that's slightly gamey. Rabbit in a stew must be cooked at a gentle simmer; roasted, the meat can turn from moist to desiccated in a matter of minutes. As such, both simmering and roasting rabbit should be undertaken with care lest extreme heat render the meat dry like a badly cooked chicken breast.
It was rabbit stew weather: Cold and wintry with the first snow of the season, the rabbit cooked in the oven for an hour and a half. Perhaps it was the eggnog I'd been imbibing so freely, or the cheery distraction of holiday music playing, that wrested my attention from checking on the "giving" qualities of the meat every now and then. For when I retrieved the rabbit from the oven, it was tender, but not meltingly tender; juicy, but not bursting with meaty liquid. It was pleasant enough, but not emphatically good.
I watched the rabbit parts, swimming in a sea of eighty garlic cloves. The garlic, softened yet still intact, bobbed placidly in the thick, brown broth. I took a sip of the broth. It was deeply flavorful from the rabbit and wine, with the sweetness of the garlic and shallots coming through. And yet, there was the problem of the rabbit flesh itself—merely good, but not delicious.
Julia to the Rescue
I stood over the pot and, like the generations of cooks before my time, asked myself the all-important question: What would Julia do? Suddenly, it occurred to me that I'd been meaning to try her garlic soup, which first appeared in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for years now. Julia's soup, made from garlic in water, is enriched by an egg yolk and olive oil emulsion. The French and Spanish cook multiple variations of the soup, but it is humble and simplistic at heart—essentially, a dish crafted from nothing but staples lying around the kitchen. Taking my pieces of rabbits out of the pot, I strained the broth, pressing down on the cloves of garlic. Then, with the emulsion of egg yolks and olive oil in hand, I dribbled the broth into the thickened yolks and watched as the liquid turned a paler shade of yellow from each addition.
I served the soup with rounds of toasted bread and slivers of rabbit—too insipid on its own, the meat was a nice addition to the garlicky soup. And because I firmly believe that everything is better with an egg on top, I pan-fried the egg whites from which the yolks had been extracted and laid the wedges into the thick broth. Fergus Henderson's rabbit stew-turned-Julia Child's garlic soup was not too shabby for a last-ditch effort, or so my gracious friends proclaimed.
What were the lessons to be learned here? That Julia Child knows best, that lean rabbits will never be fatty pigs, that in the end, a meal shared in the company of offal-loving friends on a winter's night could never be truly bad, in any meaningful sense of the word.
Rabbit and Garlic Soup
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 rabbits, chopped into sections
- sea salt and ground pepper
- 2/3 pound smoked bacon, cut into 2-inch chunks
- 24 shallots, whole
- 80 garlic cloves, skin on
- 1 1/3 cups dry sherry
- 2 1/2 cups white wine
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- bundle of parsley and thyme
- For the emulsion:
- 3 eggs, separated into yolks and whites
- 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil for the emulsion
- additional olive oil for pan-frying the egg whites
- a strainer
- rounds of toasted bread
Rinse and dry the rabbit pieces; sprinkle salt and pepper to taste. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a dutch oven. Add the rabbit pieces, browning on both sides. Remove the rabbit from the pot.
Add the bacon and shallots, allowing to the shallots to sweat for 10 minutes in the fat.
Return the rabbit to the pot and add the garlic, sherry, wine, stock, bay leaves, and herbs. Bring to boil; then reduce to a simmer.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350 to 375 F. Place a lid, not completely closed but slightly askew, on the pot. Place the pot in the oven for 1 1⁄2 hours, or until the rabbit is tender.
Let the rabbit cool in the broth to prevent its flesh from drying out. Remove the pieces of rabbit and de-bone, setting aside the most tender sections for the soup. Strain the soup through a fine mesh sieve, pressing down on the garlic and shallots to extract all of the flavor. Set aside, keeping the broth piping hot over low heat.
If desired, make the emulsion: Beat the egg yolks in a bowl for a minute until they are thick and sticky. Drop by drop, beat in the olive oil. Set aside. The emulsion may be kept at room temperature for an hour while the rest of the soup is being assembled.
Heat a pan with a few more tablespoons of olive oil; add the egg whites and let fry for a minute or two on each side, until the surface is nicely browned.
To assemble the soup: Just before serving, beat a ladleful of the hot rabbit broth into the egg mixture by droplets. Gradually add the rest. The thickness and flavor of the soup will vary according to how much broth you add to the egg yolks; taste frequently and stop adding broth when you settle upon a thickness you like. Serve the thickened broth in bowls, nestled with the shredded rabbit meat, the egg whites, and toasted rounds of bread.