Rabbit was a rare bird on many a North American menu until relatively recently. Sure, the French had their Lapin à la moutarde and the Germans their Hasenpfeffer. But it wasn’t until European-influenced chefs on this side of the pond began wondering where all the rabbits were hiding that artisanal producers began to answer the demand for this lean and delicate meat reminiscent of chicken in taste and texture.
Unlike chicken, though, rabbit doesn’t come cheap. According to Mark Pasternak, a Marin County farmer interviewed by Karen Pinchin for an article in Modern Farmer, rabbits are difficult to produce on a large scale due to their weak immune systems and a rather unfortunate proclivity to just up and die after being startled. No factory farms for rabbits, then. A good thing for these gentle creatures, but be prepared to shell out a few pennies. Or maybe you, like me, are lucky and happen to know an intrepid backyard farmer who has gotten into this pastime that feeds so well into the desire for local products.
Doppelbock-Braised Rabbit with Caramelized Onions and Wild Mushrooms
Like duck and venison, rabbit traditionally evokes the autumn hunt and harvest, but this subtly smoky rabbit suits just about any season from early fall to late spring. As I mentioned, rabbit is extremely lean, and almost demands a braise preparation or a lengthy bath in a marinade to keep it from being unpalatably dry. For this dish, I turned to a rich and malty beer that would lend depth to the braising liquid: a homebrewed Doppelbock.
You can make this recipe the “complex” way, or you can save some time and effort by skipping the step with the grill, especially if you’re making this dish in the dead of winter. To get the smoky undertones into the dish, use a Rauchbier or a smoked porter in place of the Doppelbock. If you do the smoking step on the grill, you’ll free up time to caramelize the onions and prep the other ingredients. The recipe looks time-consuming, but since many of the steps are concurrent, it isn’t that onerous at all. You can start this dish in the late afternoon, and have it on the table by the time your guests have finished up with the first courses.
Wondering what to drink with rabbit? Though typically classed as a “game” meat, rabbit is closer to chicken than it is to venison, so it’s not absolutely necessary to pair it with a rich beer or robust red wine. An aromatic white, such as a Viognier, a lightly oaked Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, or even a Cru Beaujolais would make an excellent accompaniment. Garret Oliver pairs rabbit dishes with Belgian tripels, Belgian pale ales, or bière de gardes (see his The Brewmaster’s Table, 2003). As a match with a richer sauce and braising liquid like the one in this recipe, a sturdier red (such as a Bordeaux or Côtes-du-Rhône) would not be out of place, nor would a Doppelbock, Scotch ale, Belgian dubbel, or Belgian quad.
For the casserole:
- 1 rabbit (3-4 lbs.), cut into 6-8 pieces
- kosher salt and crushed black pepper
- 1 cup wood chips (cherrywood or applewood)
- 1 cup dried wild mushrooms
- 2 large onions, sliced thinly
- 2 tbsp butter
- 3 carrots, cut into large pieces
- 4-5 large cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
- 5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 500mL bottle of Doppelbock (or a similarly malty beer like Scotch ale or Belgian quad)
- 1 cup of water from reconstituting the dried mushrooms
- 3 tbsp chopped chervil
For the sauce:
- 1 ½ cups strained braising liquid
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp chopped chervil (If you can’t find chervil, tarragon’s great, too –– just use less of it.)
Prepare your grill for smoking and soak your woodchips for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, cut the rabbit into 6 to 8 pieces and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
Once your grill is starting to smoke, reduce heat to the lowest setting and smoke/roast the rabbit in baking trays for an hour, turning every 15-20 minutes.
While the rabbit is getting its smoke on, melt 1 tbsp butter in a heavy casserole set over low/medium-low heat and caramelize the onions. Don’t rush this step.
Reconstitute the mushrooms with boiling water. When they’re ready, skim the mushrooms out of the liquid, and then strain the liquid to make sure it’s free of dirt or pebbles. Set aside.
If the mushrooms are on the large side, slice them before browning them in a skillet with the other tbsp of butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Remove the mushrooms to a plate, and deglaze the skillet with some of the Doppelbock. Add this to the mushroom liquid.
Preheat oven to 300F. Pull the rabbit off the grill, layer the pieces in the casserole with the caramelized onions, and then deglaze your baking pans with the Doppelbock, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
Pour all of this liquid along with the mushroom stock into the casserole, and then add the carrots, garlic cloves, and whole sprigs of thyme. Bring all of this up to a brisk simmer on the stove top before covering and placing in the oven for 2 hours. Reduce heat to 250F after one hour.
When the 2 hours is up, discard the sprigs of thyme and then arrange the rabbit, carrots, mushrooms, and onions on a serving platter and sprinkle with chervil. If you have a stock skimmer, this is the best way to get the onions and mushrooms out of the braising liquid. Cover. Strain 1 ½ cups of the braising liquid into a sauce pan. (You can lightly reduce the remaining braising liquid in a separate pan if you’d like a sauce for your side dish.)
Stirring or whisking constantly, reduce the braising liquid over medium-high heat until the liquid has the consistency of syrup. Lower the heat, add the heavy cream, and whisk in the ice-cold butter. Remove from heat and stir in the chervil. Adjust seasoning.
Serve with fingerling potatoes, rice, or Spätzle.
Prep and cooking time: Approximately 3.5 hours.
Depending on the number of courses, serves 4 to 6 people.
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Images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.