Although it is a staple meat throughout most of Europe, rabbit has never been a big supermarket item in this country . . . much to Julia Child's regret. She, like many other good cooks, thinks rabbit is an excellent meat item that should appear more often on American menus.
Somehow, however, Americans tend to find it easier to eat rabbit when someone else prepares it, and it's called lapin or coniglio, French and Italian for rabbit, or even hase, the German word for hare. The thought of dining on a childhood storybook friend or the Easter bunny is more than many can face with equanimity. Thus, except in areas where hunting is still a prevalent pastime and conveniently possible, it is somewhat rare to see it served on home tables.
But, as with everything else, eating habits are changing to some degree. More and more markets are providing a variety of so-called "game foods" for their customers. Frozen meat cases feature pheasant, quail, venison on occasion and, yes, rabbit. And, if you're willing to pay a little more and give the butcher a day or two to get it, many markets will supply you with the fresh rather than frozen product.
Don't expect domestically farmed rabbits to have that somewhat special gamy flavor that wild ones will. They don't, and that's not necessarily all bad. Having dined on my share of wild rabbits, I can cheerfully say that I don't miss the stringy toughness that seemed to dominate the wild "critters" I remember from my early days in Missouri. (Nor do I miss crunching down on a tooth-shattering buckshot pellet.)
Farm-raised rabbits are far more tender with a texture and flavor not unlike that of the dark meat of chicken. In fact, if you have never tried cooking rabbit, almost any good chicken recipe will adapt well. The flesh is a bit more dense and needs slightly longer cooking time, but beyond that the two meats are not too dissimilar.
Good rabbit dishes abound in country cuisines everywhere. A recent trip to Italy provided some interesting recipes for serving rabbit. One in particular proved to be a favorite not only there but also here. Served as an appetizer in its original presentation, it also adapts easily to a good main dish.
Called Coniglio Con Polenta, it's a snap to make. You simply brown rabbit parts in olive oil and then simmer them in a seasoned wine and chicken broth mixture until the meat falls off the bone. The shredded meat is then spread over polenta that has been cooked and spread in a pan to cool and become firm. Cut the mixture into small squares or rectangles and reheat to serve as appetizers, or cut it into larger pieces and serve with a sauce made from the cooking liquid as a main dish.
Another wonderful country dish, this one from the heart of Wisconsin, is the old-fashioned fricasseed rabbit with dumplings that is a longtime family favorite from Donna Deane, The Times' Test Kitchen home economist.
Still other good rabbit recipes often come from ardent hunters themselves. One easy and very tasty rabbit dish is from a new cookbook that makes the most of today's interest in nostalgia cookery. Jason Shulman, the author, has collected a batch of favorite family recipes from assorted friends and strangers for the book, which is quite appropriately called "Grandma's Kitchen" (Fireside Books: $9.95). Among the eclectic collection of nostalgic recipes is one for a rabbit stew made with red wine that stirred warm memories of wonderful meals in the heart of a man named Scott Nedrow. The recipe was a favorite of Nedrow's Uncle Mike, who was a great hunter and found this a great way to serve rabbit.
The recipe for Rabbit Pozole in Red Chile Salsa was adapted in our test kitchen from one shared with us by the Venice-based catering firm, Sabroso, which specializes in authentic Mexican food. They prepare their pozole (hominy) from scratch and use only fresh rabbit when serving this dish to clients, however we found it worked well with canned hominy and frozen rabbit.
These and our other recipes show how versatile and delicious rabbit can be. RABBIT CACCIATORE
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups sliced mushrooms
3 large tomatoes, chopped
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup Burgundy
2 tablespoons minced oregano
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup water
1 rabbit, cut up
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in skillet. Saute garlic and onions in olive oil. Add mushrooms and saute until tender. Add tomatoes and saute. Add tomato sauce, wine, oregano, sugar and water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Brown rabbit on both sides in mixture of remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and butter. Add rabbit to sauce. Cover and simmer about 25 minutes or until rabbit is tender. Uncover and continue cooking until sauce is thickened. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve over pasta or rice, if desired. Makes 4 servings. RABBIT PAELLA
2 rabbits, cut up
1/4 cup butter or margarine