RedEye

Rabbit hopping onto U.S. menus

On menus across the country, rabbit dishes are multiplying like — do I have to say it?

All manner of restaurants are embracing the bunny. Food & Wine restaurant editor Kate N. Krader heralded rabbit as "the great new sustainable meat" for 2013.

There are several reasons for this growing popularity. Rabbit meat is mild in flavor and lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, lamb, pork or chicken. It's a versatile protein, chefs like to work with it, and customer squeamishness (that is, the oh-my-God-you-killed-Thumper factor) has steadily declined over the years.

"There was a time when customers were afraid," says Matthew Accarrino, executive chef of SPQR restaurant in San Francisco, "but now it's become the other white meat. From a quality standpoint, everything I buy, I buy whole. A whole rabbit is just a few pounds; it's not like buying a 200-pound pig to get a whole animal. That makes it very manageable for a chef and a home cook."

Accarrino's go-to rabbit dish is a prosciutto-wrapped rabbit roulade, served with braised rabbit shoulder and drumsticks; that dish, and three other rabbit recipes, are included in his "SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine" cookbook.

The easy availability of rabbit meat is another plus for chefs. A lot of frozen rabbit meat comes from China, but whole rabbits, sourced from local farms, aren't difficult to find.

"Rabbits are relatively easy to raise, especially in the city," says Kevin Sousa, chef and owner of Salt of the Earth in Pittsburgh. "They require a small footprint, eat hay and vegetable scraps, and they're quiet. And they're really sustainable."

The "sustainable" aspect refers to rabbits' well-known reproductive prowess. A female rabbit has a nine-month breeding season, and gestation is only four weeks. Even at the low end of litter size (typically between four and 12 kits per litter), a doe can produce a lot of rabbits in a year — and before that year is out, some of those offspring will reach breeding age (6 months) themselves.

So, rabbits are highly sustainable and nutritious. What are they like to work with? They're a little tricky, it turns out, thanks to a phalanx of tiny bones. You may have seen pictures of rack of rabbit, a dish popularized by Thomas Keller of French Laundry; it's beautiful to look at, but cleaning all those miniature rib bones takes a lot of work.

"Deboning, or breaking down, a raw rabbit can be a bit difficult, as it has super-tiny bones," says Paula DaSilva, executive chef of 1500 Degrees in Miami Beach. "It also makes a great terrine or spread, but those techniques have a higher degree of difficulty."

"In terms of prep, there is some skill involved; you kind of have to know what you're doing," says Sarah Stegner, chef and partner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook. "But that's what makes it fun." Stegner will feature rabbit saddle with mustard sauce and braised leg with sauteed spinach as part of a game dinner Feb. 21 but says rabbit also shows up other times of the year.

"I'll bone out the loins and grill the meat on a skewer," she says. "That's great on top of a salad. I don't like rabbit dishes when the whole accompaniment is cream sauce; I like to break it up with something fresh and healthy and good."

"They're not easy to cook," warns Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef of Sepia restaurant in Chicago. "The back legs are easy, because nine out of 10 times you're going to braise them. But making the loins cook properly is tricky, because they'll dry out in a second."

"They're a very easy sell here," says Tory McPhail, executive chef of the renowned Commander's Palace in New Orleans. "Wild rabbits (as food) go back here 250 years, to the days of the French and Spanish. What we do is re-create those classics with more modern technique and styles."

McPhail's rabbit dish is a play on veal saltimbocca, using rabbit loin for the veal and house-made tasso ham in place of prosciutto. The mozzarella is hand-pulled fresh mozzarella made in crawfish boil, a hot and spicy broth, giving the dish a little Cajun patois.

Apricot-stuffed rabbit loin even made its way onto the menu at Restaurant 1833, a highly regarded restaurant in Monterey, Calif., a bayside town more known for its top-quality seafood than anything with long, fuzzy ears.

"It's a little risky for Monterey," concedes executive chef Levi Mezick. "It started slow when I first put it on the menu, but as word of mouth spread, it picked up in popularity. Wrapping it in bacon gives it a different look as it goes out (into the dining room)."

Another good thing about rabbit, Zimmerman says, is that if something goes wrong with the prep work, wrecking a 3-pound rabbit doesn't hurt as much as goofing up the prep on a larger animal.

"When you're boning out a whole rabbit, you're doing it on a manageable scale," Zimmerman says. "I like to give a rabbit to my younger cooks; I tell them, 'If you can bone out this rabbit, you can bone out a suckling pig.' It's the same basic structure."

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    The four musicians in Marrow know quite a bit about bringing diverse influences to the table. After all, three of them, singer-guitarist Liam Kazar, singer-keyboardist Macie Stewart and bassist Lane Beckstrom were in Kids These Days, a now-defunct septet that combined jazz, funk, rap and rock in...

  • The Kids These Days family tree

    The Kids These Days family tree

    From its 2009 beginnings to its 2013 demise, Chicago's Kids These Days seemed like one of the most promising acts the city had seen in years. While the band split up at the height of its hype, its members have since gone on to do bigger and better things—seriously impressive considering the hip-hop/rock/jazz...

  • Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    After the dissolution of Kids These Days, the much-buzzed about Chicago fusion-jazz-rock-rap septet that split in spring 2013 just a few months after releasing its only album, “Traphouse Rock,” some of its members spent what seems like all of 20 minutes bandless. "We were driving back from the...

  • Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Welcome to RedEye's "Song of the Day," an ongoing feature where music reporter Josh Terry or another RedEye staff member highlights something they're listening to. Some days the track will be new, and some days it will be old. No matter what, each offering is something you should check out. Check...

  • GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    Technical difficulties at GrubHub and Seamless over the weekend drove hordes of hangry would-be customers to air their grievances on social media. The food ordering and delivery sites, which merged in 2013 and use GrubHub’s back-end technology, errantly accepted payments on Saturday evening without...

  • One dead in Heart of Chicago after being shot by police

    One dead in Heart of Chicago after being shot by police

    A 29-year-old man died after being shot by police on the Lower West Side early Saturday, police said.

Comments
Loading
74°