It’s rabbit season, it’s duck season, it’s rabbit season, it’s duck season… as a kid I loved that cartoon and being brought up in Yorkshire also loved rabbit season, which was pretty much all year round. I loved the notion of hunting for food and would wake up at 5am on a Sunday morning in eager expectation for a morning’s shooting. With flasks of hot tea and coffee, snacks and hunting gear in hand we’d head off to the local farmer’s fields for a morning of hunting. The farmer would be happy for us to patrol his hectares of fields in order to remove the ‘peskies’ responsible for decimating his crops, and ultimately his livelihood. We were happy because it was a rich source of Sunday lunch.
Some folks get rather offended when the subject of shooting for food is raised, but if you eat meat I think that it’s hypocritical to bury your head in the sand and pretend that it magically and mysteriously appears from nowhere for purchase. No, from a young age I understood about where meat came from, and distinctly remember at the age of 10 bringing home a wood pigeon, plucking and gutting it and then having my mum roast it for Sunday lunch. Rabbit though was my favourite, and although I never had the rifle power or skill to shoot one at that age, they did adorn our table from time to time.
Roll on a few years, and to last week in particular. I had parked at my local shops, which just happened to be outside the butchers, and on returning to the car found a ticket taped to the side of my window – traffic inspectors are like ninjas in this area, appearing and vanishing in a cloud of smoke, leaving a reminder of your rule-breaking behind, in the form of a fine. Anyhow, on closer inspection the ticket was actually a note from the butcher,
“Nick, Nick, quick come inside before you go”
I have a fantastic local butcher that will move the earth to get me something if I require – the pig’s head was the best one. I knew that this prompt meant there’d be something good inside. Indeed when I walked in, there was a wink and a nod,
“Ah Nick, come over here!”
Presented before me were three perfect young rabbits, plucked, skinned and cleaned, having been shot the previous day up in the bushlands of Victoria.
“There you go mate”, he said.
When I get presents like this I usually just stand there with a massive beaming smile; it takes me back to a kid bringing home that freshly hunted Sunday lunch.
So, what did I do with the rabbits? Rabbit can be a tough little cookie if not cooked right, but the wild variety packs bags of gamey flavour so it’s well worth getting it right. To get the best out of it requires slow, low-temperature cooking. You can add some punchy flavours to complement it as it’s flavour can carry it through. Traditionally, in Yorkshire, we’d have rabbit stew, which worked perfectly with mirepoix flavours; carrot, celery and onion. Cooked for long enough the rabbit would fall off the bone and we’d lop up the stew broth with fresh bread.
I discovered a rabbit bolognese recipe about 3 years ago (none other than Jamie Oliver’s), and after a few tries modified it to get the consistency and flavours that launches your palette in to orbit. It involves cooking the rabbit for 12 hours on a very low temperature. You can cook the whole rabbit, but I find it’s better to joint it as some of the small bones can be incredibly difficult to remove from the final dish.
The bolognese uses a classic blend of mirepoix flavours with tomatoes and a good light ale. For enhanced flavour you can use herbs such as thyme, rosemary, parsley or oregano. The rabbit will also take the flavour of nutmeg or mace to add a little twist. This recipe is easy to set up, but a little finicky to finish. Stick with it, however, and you will be in for an incredible treat.
Serves: 8-10 portions | Preparation: 1 hour | Cooking Time: 12-13 hours
3 Small rabbits | or 2 medium rabbits.
1 tbsp. Olive oil |
3 rashers Long middle bacon | Roughly chopped. This bacon has a nice ratio of fat and meat.
1 bulb Garlic | Outer skin removed.
2 Red onions | Wash them, but leave the skin on.
1 Stick Celery | Washed and cut in Half.
2 Large Carrots | Wash and remove the tops and tails. Cut in half. No need to peel.
200g Swiss brown mushrooms | Wiped clean (not washed) and left whole.
1 Large Leek | Remove the outer layer, top and tail. Wash to ensure there is no grit.
2 sprigs Fresh thyme |
2 Fresh bay leaves |
1 Sprig Fresh oregano |
1 Sprig Fresh rosemary |
750ml Light flavoured pale ale | In Australia I use a Coopers pale ale – Avoid high IBU (bitterness) ales.
800-880g Tomatoes | Chopped tinned tomatoes are great – ripened fresh ones are equally as good.
1 tbsp. Tomato puree |
2 tsp. Mace or nutmeg | Freshly grated is best.
2 tsp. Celery seeds |
½ – 1 Squeezed lemon juice| Adjust to your taste.
A few Fresh thyme leaves | Added at the end.
Your choice of pasta – a good spaghetti or penne works really well.
Freshly grated Parmesan (Reggiano).
Heat your oven to 110 deg. C (230 deg. F).
Joint the rabbits into five pieces each; the forelegs, hind legs and saddle (on the bone). Discard the rest or use for stock.
To a large, deep, flame-proof casserole dish over medium-to-high heat add the olive oil and the chopped bacon. Stir fry until the bacon just starts to brown. Now layer the rabbit on top of the bacon and then add the onions, celery, carrots, mushrooms, leek, sprigs of fresh thyme, bay leaves, oregano, and rosemary. Next, carefully (as it will vigorously froth) pour in the ale and then add the tomatoes and tomato puree. Sprinkle over the mace or nutmeg and celery seeds, and finally add enough water to just cover everything. Bring the liquid to the boil, cover the casserole dish with a tight lid and put it in the oven for 12 hours.
After 12 hours, remove the casserole dish from the oven, and with tongs and a slotted spoon carefully lift the rabbit pieces out of the liquid and set aside in a large bowl. Once the rabbit has cooled down enough to handle, but is still warm, pick the meat from the bones and shred it between your fingers. Take your time with this as there will be small bones amongst the larger ones. Once the meat has been picked and shredded go through it again as I guarantee not all bones will have been removed from the first picking.
Now for the remaining stew in the casserole dish. Firstly, squeeze the onion from its skin, taking care as it will be hot. Discard the skin. Remove the bay leaves, rosemary stalks and any rabbit bones that you may have missed. Now mash the vegetables with a masher to break them down. Using a hand blender, blend the liquid and vegetables until you have a smooth pulp (alternatively do this in a blender or food processor, in batches). Now it’s time to push the liquid pulp through a fine sieve, one or two ladles at a time. It may seem a little labour intensive but the results far outweigh the effort. Retain the strained liquid and discard the solids in the sieve. Clean your casserole dish and then put the strained liquid in. Put on a medium to high heat and reduce the liquid by about half, stirring occasionally. You want a thick liquid, but enough left to coat the rabbit meat and create a sauce. Once reduced, season with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper and then add the shredded rabbit meat and bring back to the boil. Add the fresh thyme leaves and remove from the heat.
Squeeze in the lemon juice according to your taste, season if required and serve immediately with pasta and freshly grated parmesan.
If you don’t want to serve right away hold back on the lemon juice, cool the bolognese and either store it in the fridge for up to a couple of days or freeze it in batches. To serve, warm the bolognese up and stir in the lemon juice just prior to serving. Definitely rabbit season.