19 April 2007

Rabbit with lardons and white wine

When Easter rolls around and the Anglo-Saxon world starts talking about bunnies, it always reminds me that I haven't cooked a rabbit in a while. The annual springtime rabbit has been a dinnertime treat chez nous for about 20 years now.

In France, Italy, and other countries, by the way, the Easter Bunny doesn't bring eggs and chocolate. The bells do. Bells? Oui, bells, as in church bells. Bells (les cloches) bringing chocolate eggs? It all sounds very strange. Of course, in our culture, why do rabbits bring eggs? Are the chickens too busy?

Rabbit pieces, smoked pork chunks, herbs, and
aromatic vegetables marinating in white wine

The Easter Bells are for real, though. One day this week I was walking through the Intermarché parking lot here in Saint-Aignan and overheard some people, a group comprising three generation at least, standing and talking near the cart rack. An older woman said to a young boy: "So did the bells come by — Les cloches sont-elles passées ? — on Easter morning at your grandmother's house? Did they bring a lot of chocolate?" Evidently, the bells fly in from Rome.

Lardons cut from a slab of smoked pork belly
which has been trimmed of its rind

Back to bunnies. When you buy a farm-raised rabbit at the Saint-Aignan market, you get the whole thing, skinned. You have to clean it and cut it up yourself — or at least I did. I didn't ask the poultry vendor to do it for me, but maybe I could have. Cutting it up includes cutting off the head, which they sell you by tradition to show you that it really is a rabbit (you can tell by the teeth — they are not the teeth of a cat, for example). I discarded the head, though I suppose you could boil it in a pot (optionally, with some chicken pieces) to make stock.

As Walt remarked that day, the market rabbit's head is there but the ears are missing. I don't know why that is. The feet are missing too — I guess people who raise or butcher rabbits have a good supply of lucky rabbits' feet around their houses. On the rabbit I bought last Saturday at the Saint-Aignan market, I should point out, not much else was missing. There was the liver and there were the kidneys; those parts are good to eat. There also were the lungs, which I discarded. I never found the heart or any other vital organs, however.

Cut the rabbit into at least seven pieces: the two shoulders (aka front legs), the two back legs, and the thorax cut into three more or less equal pieces. The two pieces of the back behind the rib cage, called the saddle or râble, are the meatiest pieces on the rabbit.

Now rabbit is a little gamier than chicken. The Larousse Gastronomique cookbook says the meat is very digestible, but rabbit needs some flavoring ingredients to make it really good. One classic method of cooking rabbit is to baste it with Dijon mustard and roast it in the oven. Another is to cook it in ... what else? ... wine. White or red — your choice.

Frying lardons in a little butter or oil
after their marinade

Rabbit cooked in red wine is called a civetcive means chive or green onion. It's a rabbit cooked with onions in red wine. The chicken equivalent of a civet is coq au vin — rooster or chicken cooked in red wine with onions, mushrooms, and lardons cut from smoked or salt-cured pork belly.

Rabbit pieces and lardons browning in the pan
after being marinated in white wine and aromatics

Rabbit cooked in white wine is called lapin en gibelotte. The chicken equivalent is a fricassée. I'm not sure that there are lardons in most fricassées, but they are essential in a gibelotte. Rabbit, smoked lardons, onions, garlic, carrots, herbs, and white wine — that's the way I like to cook rabbit. I learned the recipe and method nearly 30 years ago from a woman in Paris who was in her 80s at the time. It's a French country classic.

I don't know why we don't have lardons as a readily available ingredient in large parts of the U.S. You can cut your own, of course, if you can get smoked or cured meat, including what is called slab bacon. I never had much luck finding slab bacon in San Francisco, however, though I did once find it in a supermarket up in Fort Bragg, in far northern California, when we were there on a weekend camping trip. I was ecstatic, and I took plenty back home with me to San Francisco that Sunday. After that, I started finding smoked slab bacon in at least one San Francisco supermarket. It was imported from Germany.

In the U.S. South, cooking meats, fish, greens, green beans, or dried beans with cured pork — streak o' lean, pork belly, side meat, fatback, etc. — is a long tradition. When I was growing up, for example, my mother would cook a big baked flounder by laying some bacon strips over the fish and surrounding it with aromatic vegetables like chopped onion, sliced carrots, and celery stalks, along with potatoes or even sweet potatoes. Collard greens, green beans, and pinto beans were all cooked with a chunk of salt pork or smoked fatback.

The use of pork belly or bacon as a flavoring ingredient is one of the things that make me say that old-style Southern cooking and French country-style cooking are strikingly similar in many ways. (Cooking vegetables until they are thoroughly done, considered a horror in California cuisine, is another.)

Rabbit pieces, lardons, and herbs
after their cold white wine bath

One feature of French cooking that I'm not sure you find much in Southern cooking (maybe I'm wrong...) is the marinade. In the case of the rabbit, it's good to slice up some onions, garlic, and carrots, wash some fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, sage, bay leaves, or whatever you like), and put all that in a big dish with the rabbit, the chunks of smoked pork, and some black peppercorns. Pour white wine over it all to cover, and then put it in the refrigerator overnight or for at least three or four hours. Another thing I like to add to a marinade of this kind is a half-dozen whole allspice berries (piment de la Jamaïque in French).
Don't let the order of the pictures in this post confuse you. The steps to follow in cooking a rabbit (or chicken) this way are:
  1. Marinate the rabbit and lardons for 8 hours or longer in white wine.
  2. Take the rabbit and lardons out of the marinade and brown them in a pot in butter or oil. Save the marinating liquid.
  3. Pour on the liquid over the browned meats and simmer for a couple of hours.

When you're ready to cook, take the rabbit pieces and pork lardons out of the marinade and let them dry a little, or dry them off a little with a paper towel. Now they are ready to sauté. The flavors of the herbs and aromatic vegetables, the white wine, and smokiness of the pork will have already flavored the rabbit.

Herbs, chopped onion and garlic, and
pieces of pork rind ready to go into the pot

You can discard the herbs, onions, and garlic at this point, but when the time came it seemed like a shame to me to just throw all that out. So I put it all in a wire basket that I would be able to put in the pot with the rabbit when I simmered it in the white wine. And don't throw out the white wine you used for the marinade — that's what you cook the rabbit in. It has picked up a lot of flavor too.

Cook it all at the simmer

Another thing you shouldn't throw out is the rind of the smoked pork belly, if you have any. Save it, put it in the marinade if you want to, and at the end cut it up into small pieces and put it in the wire basket (or cheesecloth pouch, or right into the pot) and cook it with the herbs, onions, and everything else in the pot. The pork rind gives the sauce good richness in the form of gelatin.

The cooked rabbit: that's the liver (delicious)
that you see there. The color of the sauce in this picture
is not great but believe me, it was good.

I decided to save the carrots and cook them directly in the wine with the rabbit and pork. Some cooks would throw them out, on the theory that they had already given their flavor up to the marinade. But I wanted to cook and eat them.

Walt made some fresh noodles and we cooked some
nice haricots verts to go with the stewed rabbit.

Once you have the rabbit, pork, carrots, and the aromatics (whether loose or in a ball or pouch) in the pot in which you've browned the meat, pour on the wine that the rabbit marinated in. If it isn't enough to cover everything, add more wine, or add water. Or chicken or vegetable broth. C'est vous qui voyez — it's your call. What I'm describing is more a method than a recipe.

Sunday dinner of rabbit, noodles, and green beans

Whether or not you thicken the sauce is up to you as well. I thickened it slightly with a little potato starch mixed into cold water to make a slurry. You pour that slowly into the simmering sauce until you get the consistency you want. You could do the same thing by making a flour and butter roux and stirring that in slowly. The sauce should be too thick, though.

Bon appétit !


  1. This looks delicious! I have only had rabbit once, and loved it. I have not seen it on a menu since, though.

  2. Very thorough post. I am willing to try rabbit now.

    I think.

  3. Hi, Ken, my friends Edie Edwards and Don Edwards and also Bruce Edwards (you, guess,) are being introduced to you and they are very dear friends. They may be contacting you by blog. Cheers. Gabby

  4. Yum. But my daughters won't eat bunny anymore since we got a miniature one as a pet. There are some good rabbit recipes though.


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