Thursday, January 5, 2012

Still Learning

I guess that the holidays bring out my nostalgic side, because the other day I found myself reading some of the early posts on Bring Your Appetite. In my opinion, a trip down memory lane is never futile. It’s a chance to look at how you’ve grown and changed over time, and hopefully a chance to learn from your mistakes. With about three years’ perspective, I can easily see many of the mistakes I made, and also how my cooking style and abilities have changed. My very first post probably illustrates this the most. I introduce myself and talk a little about what my cooking skills and knowledge level are, and why I decided to start this blog. Wow, what a change three years can make: I wrote about how I often used bouillon cubes in the place of real stock (*shudder*), how I rarely cooked without a recipe (if I use recipes now, they are only guidelines), and how I didn’t know any famous chefs who weren’t on the Food Network (I am now a big fan of many chefs who have never appeared the Food Network). A lot has happened in that time: I went to culinary school, I worked in the culinary field, I cooked more at home, I ate at better restaurants, and, last but not least, I maintained this blog. So, of course I changed, and of course I learned.
Some things haven’t changed, though. I still love to cook, and look forward to the time I set aside almost every day to be in my kitchen. I still like to try new things: new foods, new recipes, and new methods of cooking. I’m also still learning, and I plan to continue learning for the rest of my life. Looking at my old posts was a good reminder of this.

Just last week, I cooked something I had never cooked before. It was rabbit stewed in red wine. I had eaten rabbit before, but never prepared it myself. I chose a Julia Child recipe, because who better to be my guide into the field of rabbit cookery than the “French Chef” herself?
The recipe required that the rabbit be cut up for the stew. Julia suggests that you have your butcher do this for you, but there was no way I was going to let this opportunity to work with an animal I had never butchered before slip away from me. During my internship at Café Juanita, I watched the cooks cut up rabbit many times, so I had a decent idea of how to proceed. Despite the large differences in the anatomy of a rabbit compared to a chicken (a creature with which I am very familiar), the general principals are still the same: cut at the joints, and, when separating flesh from bone, use the bone as your guide so that you lose as little flesh as possible. I think I did an all right job, but I could certainly use some more practice.
Julia’s recipe and everything else I’ve ever read about cooking rabbit warns that this meat has a tendency to dry up and become tough easily. This makes it a good meat to stew, and marinating it beforehand will help it to be even more tender and flavourful. Julia suggests having the rabbit sit in a combination of red wine vinegar and herbs for twenty-four hours, and it turned out to be an excellent suggestion indeed.
The rest of the process will be familiar to anyone who has braised or stewed meat before: the meat is browned, then placed in a casserole with liquid (in this case, the reduced marinade, along with reduced wine, and beef stock), and cooked slowly until the meat becomes tender.
What absolutely makes this dish is the sauce that is put together at the end. When the rabbit is finished, it is removed from the casserole. The liquid left in the casserole is reduced, and then prunes that have been stewed in Cognac, stock, and butter are added, along with the rabbit’s liver, if you want. I also couldn’t resist finishing the sauce with a couple dabs of butter to give it a glossy sheen.
Pour this over the warm rabbit, and voila! Rabbit stew is served.
There are few things as rewarding as cooking something for the first time and having it come out as a great success. This rabbit stew was exquisite. Was it also decadent? Yes. Time consuming? Yes. Worth the trouble? Absolutely. After all, it was all in the name of learning something new, and that is always worth the trouble. I hope you’ll take the leap with me and try something new one night soon because trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Rabbit Marinated in Vinegar and Herbs, and Stewed in Red Wine
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 2 by Julia Child and Simone Beck, pp. 246-249
Serves 4-5

The marinade:
½ to 2/3 cup red wine vinegar (depending on the strength of the vinegar)
½ tsp cracked peppercorns
3 tbsp olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
2 large cloves garlic, unpeeled, halved
4 juniper berries
½ tsp oregano
1 bay leaf
½ tsp thyme
1 whole rabbit (2 ½ lbs), cut into eight pieces

The stew:
4 ounces bacon, cut into 1 ½-inch sticks (makes about ½ cup)
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 cup sliced onions
1 marinated rabbit
1 rabbit’s liver (optional), seasoned and floured
3 tbsp. flour
Marinade from rabbit
1 bottle of red wine, preferably young and full-bodied (Mâcon, Côtes-du-Rhône, Mountain Red)
2 cups beef or veal stock

The sauce:
20-25 large prunes, simmered for 10 to 15 minutes in ¼ cup Cognac, ½ cup of beef stock, and 2 tbsp butter
Sautéed liver (optional), cut into small pieces
2 tbsp butter

Taste the vinegar you plan to use to marinate the rabbit. If it seems very strong and harsh, only use ½ cup. If it doesn’t seem overly acidic, use up to 2/3 cup. Combine the vinegar with the rest of the marinade ingredients in a bowl or casserole large enough to hold all the meat comfortably. Add the rabbit and baste it with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate the bowl, basting and turning the rabbit occasionally. Marinate at least 24 hours, or up to 2 to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 450 F. Brown the bacon in a large frying pan. Add the oil, and stir in the onions. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are tender and lightly browned. Transfer the onions and bacon to a heavy, oven-safe casserole large enough to hold the rabbit pieces easily.

Meanwhile, remove the rabbit from the marinade, dry thoroughly with paper towels, and season with salt and pepper. When the onions are out of the pan, add more oil if necessary so that the pan is filmed by 1/8 inch. Raise the heat to medium-high and brown the rabbit pieces on all sides. Add the rabbit to the casserole. Sprinkle on half the flour, toss the rabbit, sprinkle on the rest of the flour, and toss again. If using the liver, brown it quickly, removing it from the pan as soon as it has browned on all sides.

Heat the casserole to sizzling on the stove, then set uncovered in the upper third of the preheated oven for 5 minutes; toss again, and return the casserole to the oven for 5 more minutes. Lower the oven’s temperature to 350 F.

Meanwhile, pour the browning fat out of the frying pan, and pour the marinade into it. Boil it down until the liquid has almost completely evaporated. Pour in the wine, boil down to half its volume, add the stock, bring to a boil, and set aside.

When the casserole is removed from the oven, pour the hot wine and bouillon mixture over it. Stir everything in the casserole so that it is well blended. Bring the liquid to a simmer on the stove, cover, and simmer in the oven. Regulate the heat so that the stew bubbles slowly and regularly throughout the cooking, and baste the rabbit pieces occasionally. Stew for about an hour, or until the meat is tender if pierced with a knife.

When the rabbit is done, remove to a serving platter, cover, and keep war, while finishing the sauce. Remove bay leaf, and skim surface fat off the liquid. Bring to a simmer, skimming. Reduce until you have about 1 ½ cups of sauce, thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the prunes with their liquid and the cut up liver, if using. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes, drop in the butter, and swirl the sauce until the butter has completely melted. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Pour the sauce over the warm rabbit and serve immediately.


  1. Looks good, but I don't know if I could cut up a bunny. Lianne

  2. This looks delicious Jess! I've actually been thinking about making a rabbit dish myself. Now all I have to do is find a place that sells them here in Redmond!

    1. I'd try going to the folks at Bill the Butcher. I've never seen rabbit there, but if you asked them, they may be able to get one for you, or at least tell you where you can find it.