Rabbit hopping onto U.S. menus

The hot news in sustainable-meat is rabbit, and restaurants are hopping on board

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"In terms of prep, there is some skill involved; you kind of have to know what you're doing" with rabbit, says Sarah Stegner, chef and partner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook. (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune / February 14, 2013)

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

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