Unusual Proteins: Rabbit with Creme Fraiche and Tarragon
I don’t follow the public debate. I know that sounds like a weird stance for a relatively intelligent human being but the thing is, whenever I try, I end up with walking, shaking my head, thinking “never again!” This past week was no exception. This past week, Denmark again made international headlines this time over something as relatively benign as the slaying of a bunny rabbit. And the debate that followed was menacing to my psyche.
If you haven’t heard the story, apparently a radio personality named Asger Juhl over at Danish radio station Radio24Syv thought it an appropriate media stunt to euthanize a bunny during a live radio broadcast by striking it swiftly across the head with a bicycle pump, only to take it home, skin it and consume it. The unfortunate critter was a healthy and well-treated eight week old prime specimen which had earned the name Allan and had spend his days hopping around happily, nibbling grass and enjoying life. And, well, as could pretty much be expected, subsequently all hell broke loose. Even in America where our friends over at Fox News picked up the story.
The story, as the media portrayed it, sounded essentially like this: “Danish radio DJ cold-blodedly bludgeons baby rabbit to death on air, brings it home and consumes it with great pleasure along with his family of four.” – or words to that extend.
Horrible as this all may sound, it wasn’t the act itself that caused me grief and headache, it was the media and public reaction of absolute disgust, outrage, anger and the inability to talk about anything else going on in the world like, oh, I don’t know, hunger, devastating earthquakes, floods, politics, civil wars and acts of terror. All because of the death of a single rabbit.
In defence of Asger, The Bunny Slayer!
Looking at things in isolation, I can see why some people would be upset. Killing a cute, little bunny, only eight weeks old, by a sudden blow to the head with a bicycle pump? For shame! But, guys, really, a lot of animals get killed every day. Under far more cruel circumstances. We call them food. Yet, no one sees this, or reacts to it for that matter. And maybe that was exactly what our friendly neighborhood radio personality was trying to get across, hmm? If we disregard for a minute that he was a bit, ahem, blunt in getting his message across, he did bring awareness to a seriously flaw in our modern meat-consuming society. The absolutely hypocritical way we as a society, by and large, look (or rather chose not look) at the animals we raise and slaughter for food.
Of course we’re bound to act when the seemingly senseless slaughter of so-called innocent animals are shoved right in our faces. But honestly, in reacting violently to this, a lot of us totally missed the boat on the point he was trying to put across: In reality, our animals meant for human consumption are treated far worse than he ever did the poor rabbit!
Take the rabbit’s close cousin (no, not really), the chicken, for example. How do we treat these cute little critters? Well, in today’s sobering news. The average life expectancy for a Danish chicken is around the 30-40 days mark if they’re not extra lucky and sold as free-range or organic chickens. That’s about half the age, I dare say, of Allan the rabbit. This is not something I’m pulling out of thin air, it’s actually written on the packaging of the poor birds lined up for display in supermarkets. These chickens, if they’re lucky, end their days not with a bicycle pump to the head but rather with a sudden twist of the neck or slash of the throat. I say if they’re lucky because most commercial chickens to make it past the 4-6 week mark are usually egg laying chickens, many of which spend their life in cages under absolutely horrid conditions without room to even move around. We’ve all seen the pictures they’re not pretty.
But what of the cage-free chickens, I hear you say? You know what the standard Danish definition of a cage-free or free-range chicken is according to the packaging of their eggs (and I’m paraphrasing here): Chickens with access provided to the outside, kept cage-less under roof at a density of no more than twelve (count them, twelve!) chickens per square meter! Again, actually reading the pretty labelling of supermarket goods can be a pretty sobering experience.
Allan, the rabbit, at least had double the time to happily move around and a lot more space in which to do so before he became food (for thought).
Think conditions get better with larger animals such as cows and pigs? Think again! Larger animals obviously live longer lives, but what’s the point of a long life if they’re not worth living? Countless are the stories of Danish sows bred for size who spend their lives in enclosures so small that they couldn’t even lay down if the wanted to. Am I saying this is happening everywhere? No, but I am saying the cheaper the meat, the bigger the chance – and we as a nation love cheap meat! There are producers out there working very hard to reverse these practices and ensure the welfare of their animals. I rather think we owe it to them to spend a little more time paying attention to and recognizing their work and a little less time worrying about an ill-fated bunny named Allan.
But how can we not think about this case in which a defenceless animal was so “savagely beaten to death for entertainment value”? Well, let’s ignore the media buzz and coloration for a while and not forget that the preferred method of executing animals, whether small or large is a swift blow to the head from a large hammer, bolt gun or something else entirely. That is unless, of course, less humane methods such as electrocution are used. Somehow this practice of “bludgeoning animals to” death never create much fuzz in the media. Probably because it’s considered the humane and best way to take care of the inevitable. This was, believe it or not, researched by our friend the DJ before carrying out his infamous stunt. If the radio DJ is guilty of anything, it’s not so much of animal cruelty as it is of exposing how things are actually done to people who would probably rather not know. And doing so in a way that no one could ignore: by applying the actions of the industry in full view of the public eye to an edible source of protein that is, in modern society, generally considered a pet, a companion, not good eats.
But that’s not really a great international news story, is it? No, most certainly not, it doesn’t really show evil or carelessness on the part of one man, it shows either ignorance or hypocrisy on large parts of an entire country and/or world and the media.
So, allow me for once to play the role of opinionated provocateur: How can we, in your right minds be upset about the swift, humane killing and consumption of a rabbit that has, compared to so many other animals we slaughter for food, lived a relatively long, happy, careless life – all while we sit back eating our caged eggs, cheap industry standard chickens and bacon from pigs raised in crammed conditions? The only reason I can think of is because rabbits are considered cuter than most animals and therefore more of a pet than a source of nutrition, and hence deserve better treatment. And that, as the courageous broadcasters tried to prove, is hypocritical behavior on the part of us as human beings. All animals are living creatures and they deserve to be treated with respect – whether they’re wild or domesticated, pets or food. It’s time we as a nation stop focusing mainly on the wellbeing of the animals we keep as pets, and start focusing equally on the wellbeing of the animals we eat…
I know I’m being a bit rough, one-sided and judgmental here and I know the rant above (thankfully) does not apply to everybody. But we have serious issues with animal welfare not only in Denmark but across the world. The solution is not to lash out at someone for exposing this in alternative ways, rather it is to sit back, think, and form an opinion about what we eat. Whether that means looking into free-range, organic meats, looking into sourcing our meat from farms with clearly defined ethical codexes, or finding new, interesting (and happy) sources of protein… Like, oh, I dunno, organic, free-range rabbits?
And with that rant off my chest, I’ll say hand me a happy rabbit over a sad chicken or pig any day!
Which, rather ironically, is exactly what my friend Sune did just the other day at the height of this rabbit craze when he, in a completely unrelated yet nice gesture, dropped by a pair of perfectly fine and tasty little rabbits. “I don’t much care for this stuff,” he said, “here, make something for the blog!”
Thankfully, unlike Sune and completely regardless of public opinion, I love rabbit and so Sune’s gesture, aside from fuelling this major rant about animal welfare and wellbeing, forced me to, once again, focus on a culinary delicacy that is by and large forgotten in our modern society: rabbit! And I’d like to drag you, dear reader, along for the ride. Why? Because I realize that in this day and age, not all of you may have had the chance to try rabbit. And that actually, before this whole controversy blew up around me, was the main reason I wanted to do this post; to explain a little about what a rabbit is (okay, we all know that), what it tastes like and how and why you would go about cooking one at home. And now, after much ado, let’s get down to business!
Rabbit: Tastes just like chicken?
So, with that little rant off my chest… If not only to offend, then why would one want to cook and consume rabbit? Well, obviously, there’s a bit of a novelty factor to the process. It’s something you don’t eat every day and I have, for example, successfully used rabbit meat in an interesting spin on that old creole favorite, Gumbo, when entertaining a large group of guests. I’ve also cooked braised rabbit thighs for a boy’s night spin on Coq Au Vin. Rabbit meat, essentially, is a fun way of adding new flavors and twists to classics without changing them up too much. That being said, you may still be wondering where exactly to use rabbit meat and what the hell it tastes like? Well, you know how they always describe the taste of proteins they don’t really know how to describe? That’s right: It tastes just like chicken!
Rabbit gumbo, anyone? Get the recipe and story here!
In the case of rabbit though, there’s some truth to the saying. The taste, actually, is not quite unlike chicken. But then again, it’s also nothing like chicken. It’s leaner than chicken with more compact fibers and a slightly chewier texture. It also packs a deeper, more delicate, ever so slightly game-like flavor. Because it’s is so gosh darn lean, it overcooks easily, especially if you’re dealing with a smaller specimen, but treat it gently and with respect and you’ll be rewarded with some of the tastiest lean, white meat you’ve ever had. Like chicken – only supercharged! And that, coincidentally, is a very fine way to use it; as a replacement for chicken – or other lean white meat.
… And that all sounds very interesting, but how on earth do I procure a price-winning rabbit specimen, you may be thinking? Well, owing to the cuddliness factor of rabbits in modern society, you may, depending on your current location, face some difficulty procuring rabbits for eating purposes. Unless, of course, you fancy doing the slaughtering yourself (and look where that got others!). Rabbits for consumption are mainly popular in France and southern parts of continental Europe. Up here in the north, they’re rather hard to come by, but usually available for order at specialty butchers, fish mongers (who, believe it or not, sometimes double as game pushers) and well-assorted food markets. Searching online might help, too, as might asking a friend who hunts. He might be able to hook you up, or be able to introduce you to someone who can.
If every effort falls short, rest assured that the recipe featured in this article can just as well be cooked using chicken as the main protein – or pork for that matter. It’s a delicious preparation no matter what. But please, do get a nice, organic, free-range, long-lived bird for this purpose, won’t you? We love animals, remember?
Getting medieval: How to butcher and cook a rabbit
Rabbits, if you can get a hold of them come in many ways, shapes and forms. Popular cuts include legs/thighs, back pieces and sometimes even whole rabbits, head and all… And you don’t always have the luxury of choice if you’re lucky enough to find a source for fresh rabbits.
Luckily, All parts of the rabbit are tasty but the legs, by far, are the easiest parts to cook for the novice chef as they are by far the meatiest and most muscular. Everything else on the critter dries out rather easily because of the leanness and structure of the meat. The key when cooking rabbit thus becomes going low and slow. Sear the surface of the meat quickly over high heat, then braise or boil it gently for no more than half an hour to 45 minutes to finish the cooking. Too high heat for too long of a period of time and the meat will still be tasty but decidedly chewy. Again, the thighs are the most forgiving part of the animal as they stand up to heat and prolonged cooking better than other parts. Consequently, thighs/legs, if you’re feeling a little intimidated, are a good place to start if you’re cooking rabbit for the first time.
If, by some stroke of luck (or ill fate, depending on how you look at it), you find yourself in the possession of a whole rabbit, you’ve no choice but to get your hands dirty before you can do your cooking. But don’t worry, it’s easier than you think.
Firstly, don’t panic. There’s nothing cuddly about a dead rabbit with it’s head still on, I’ll give you that. So step one would be to get rid of the head. Place the rabbit on a large, steady and heavy cutting board. Grab a cleaver if you have one, or your largest, most heavy knife if you don’t. Then take off the head. If you’re armed with a cleaver, you can do so by delivering a heavy, sturdy blow to the bottom of the neck of the animal. If you’re working with a knife. Place it across the neck of the animal and deliver one or more heavy whacks across the back of the knife to force it through. Once the head is properly removed, you can either use it for stock or other interesting projects if you’re into nose to tail eating, or you can simply discard it.
Next, remove the hind legs and thighs much like you would the legs of a chicken and the front legs much like you would the wings. Some actually call these rabbit wings, go figure. Once all legs are gone, you’ll once again have to resort to violence to break the back into four to six manageable pieces, depending on the size of the rabbit. Again use your cleaver or heavy knife and a lot of force to break through the back bones. And watch those fingers as you do! Congratulations, you’ve butchered your first rabbit. Time to cook!
Cooking rabbit: Summer stew of rabbit with Creme Fraiche and fresh herbs
As mentioned above, rabbit can be a bit difficult to cook and the easiest way of doing so is really in a braise or a stew of sorts. There are other ways, of course, but after inspecting the rabbits I’d been given for the project and finding them a bit on the lean side, I wasn’t about to take any chances in producing the recipe for this post.
As such, I wanted to play it safe and eliminate the risk of dry meat by cooking them in plenty of fat and liquid. The only obvious problem with this approach is that braises and stews are usually rather heavy eats and with June rolling around at the time of this writing, it’s not really stew weather anymore. Granted, Danish spring has been, uh, questionable this year. But brighter days and warmer times are finally here and so the end of stew season is nigh. So what’s a boy to do with his lean rabbits? Well, after consulting my fridge for available ingredients and ideas, I decided to do a light , creamy and fresh summer rabbit stew made with plenty of vegetables and a healthy shot of full fat creme fraiche in place of heavy cream for a creamy, yet tangy and fresh finish. In that way, I could easily cook my rabbits in plenty of fat and liquid without fear of them drying out – and still end up with a dish that was decidedly fresh and tangy, and not as heavy and overpowering as your basic fall or winter one-pot meal.
To further increase the spring/summer factor of this dish, I decided to spike my rabbit stew with a small metric ton of fresh herbs. You see, one of my favorite things about spring and summer cooking is the addition of homegrown fresh herbs both during and after cooking for an explosive, fresh flavor kick that to me just screams summer and freshness.
This year, like last year, I’ve been lucky enough to receive a shipment of wonderful, fresh and tasty herbs from my friends over at Growing Home which I’ve very happily and liberally been using to induce a bit of summery freshness in my cooking. They are, of course, blissfully unaware that I am now using their herbs to promote consumption of something as stigmatized as rabbit, but I do take a fair amount of joy in experimenting with using herbs in new and exciting ways. My experimental herb pairing of choice for this dish was tarragon. Tarragon is a much overlooked herb (even in my kitchen), usually reserved for Bearnaise, the mother of all sauces, or for Thanksgiving stuffing. This is a bit of a crying shame, I thought, and as a consequence I’ve been using it quite diligently lately with some interesting results. As it turns out, the anise/grassy/herbal notes of tarragon actually plays really well with all sorts of white meat: pork, chicken – and even rabbit, it seems. In the case of this particular dish, it not only heightens the flavor of the meat and vegetables, it also adds depth, spice and a welcome herbal counter note to the twangy and creme fraiche reduction.
Sounds good? I know! Let’s cook!
- One, rabbit, broken down into chunks.
- 200 grams of Porcini mushrooms, roughly diced
- One small aubergine/eggplant, roughly diced
- One small zucchini, roughly diced
- Two large spring onions, finely chopped
- one clove of garlic, minced
- a generous amount of fresh thyme sprigs, lemon thyme works really well here
- 2-3 large tarragon sprigs
- 25 grams of butter
- Canola oil or other oil with high smoke point
- 250 ml of full fat(!) creme fraiche (must be 30% fat or more!)
- A generous slash of dry vermouth (I use Noilly Prat)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Season rabbit well with salt and pepper and set aside.
- Place a large sauté pan over high heat, allow a few minutes for it to heat up.
- Add the butter along with a splash of oil, wait a few seconds for the butter to melt.
- When butter has melted add the rabbit bits and brown briefly on both sides, you may have to do this in batches as to not crowd the pan.
- Once browned, remove the rabbit from the pan and set aside, lower the heat to medium
- Add a bit more oil and butter to the pan if needed and dump in the mushrooms and thyme. Cook till liquid has evaporated and mushrooms are nicely browned.
- Pour in a generous splash of vermouth and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any flavors stuck on the bottom.
- Dump in the white parts of the spring onions along with the garlic, cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly, then add the sour cream and stir to combine.
- Place the meat on top of the creamy mushroom mixture and pour over any accumulated juices, lower heat to medium-low.
- Add lid and simmer covered for about 30 minutes.
- When the 30 minutes are up, remove all rabbit bits and cover to keep warm.
- Dump in zucchini and eggplant/aubergine and raise heat to medium-high to bring the sauce to a vigorous boil.
- Keep cooking until the sauce is reduced by at least half, stirring every now and then so it doesn’t burn
- While the sauce reduces, pick the leaves off the tarragon stems and give them a decent chop. Once sauce has reduced and thickened, stir in about ⅔ of the tarragon and leave the rest for garnish.
- Scoop bit of the zucchini/aubergine/mushroom mixture onto a plate, layer a piece or two of rabbit on top, finish with a bit of the sauce and garnish with remaining tarragon.
- Serve with boiled or roasted fingerling potatoes and a side salad.
So, rabbit stewed in full fat creme fraiche, eh? You might think that something containing 30% fat or more would be a little, uh, rich on a summer’s day. And you’d be excused for thinking so. In fact, it does sound a little too over the top, but as this dish and accompanying rant hopefully proves, it doesn’t have to be.
In this particular dish, the tangy note of the creme fraiche, coupled with the bite of the vermouth are the main flavor drivers here along with a strong, herbal kick from the tarragon. The porcini mushrooms on the other hand add an umami-like depth and a world of flavor to the dish that help boost the flavors of the rabbit, or other proteins you may be substituting.
Thanks to the use of creme fraiche over cream, the dish, while deliciously creamy and decidedly fatty, does not appear too heavy or overly hearty in any way. Especially not if served over new potatoes and with a side summer salad.
I wouldn’t honestly have thought a summer stew a particularly killer idea, but the lack of deep, roasted flavors and the addition of acidity actually makes the dish quite enjoyable, even if consumed as a lunch item on a warm summer day. I suspect the experience would only be boosted by the addition of a tall, cool glass of crisp white wine such as an un-oaked Chardonnay or a vibrant, young Riesling. That would be a pairing I’ve yet to enjoy, though.
If you have not yet tried cooking with creme fraiche, I wholeheartedly suggest you give this recipe a try. Even if you can’t find a poor, defenceless rabbit and will have to rely on chicken or pork for your protein. 😉