A French classic worth getting to know


It remains a mystery to me why a delicious rabbit dinner, a habit in France, is such a hard sell in the United States, a meal many Americans would shy away from. This is not to say that you can’t buy rabbit here, but you don’t see it on a daily basis in butcher shops or at the supermarket.

When I lived in Paris about 10 years ago, rabbit was always in the weekly dinner rotation. Every butcher shop has rabbits, fetchingly displayed belly-side up, so shoppers can see how fresh, pink and pristine they are. (Rabbits are sold in the poultry section, but chickens there are actually more expensive.)

My favorite place to buy a rabbit in France is at the outdoor markets, where the poultry stand butchers are invariably women, with sure hands and sharp knives at the ready. Nothing gets wrapped in paper without at least a little trimming.

Quickly cutting up a rabbit is not a problem. “Avec ça?” she will ask afterward, giving you the opportunity to buy something else, some eggs, perhaps. Even if your reply is “Non, merci, Madame,” she’ll tuck a few chicken livers into a plastic bag. (A little gift with a purchase makes for loyal customers.)

You may not have that option in American butcher shops, and may be offered only whole rabbits. But these days a new generation of artisanal butchers is on the rise, so it never hurts to ask. (There are online purveyors that sell various parts, however.)

For that matter, you can also roast a rabbit whole, like a chicken, rubbed first with butter or olive oil. Keep in mind that a rabbit is leaner, so it requires some liquid in the roasting pan, frequent basting and the pan must be loosely covered.

But breaking down your own rabbit is no more daunting than cutting up a chicken, once you get the hang of it. The anatomy is straightforward: front quarter, saddle and hind end. That gives you two front legs, two to four pieces of saddle and two hind legs.

Now, if you marinate those pieces in buttermilk, then dip them in well-seasoned flour for shallow frying in a cast-iron skillet, you’ll have crisp, juicy, chicken-fried rabbit to die for.

If you braise the pieces with white wine, herbs, Dijon mustard and crème fraîche, you’ll have a marvelous and rich French classic to serve with noodles, potatoes or rice. That’s a little more fiddly, but absolutely worth the effort.

Mild, lean, tender and sweet rabbit deserves a renaissance.

— RECIPE:

White Wine-Braised Rabbit With Mustard

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

1 small rabbit, about 3 pounds, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

1 cup all-purpose flour for dredging rabbit, plus 2 tablespoons for sauce

1 large onion, diced (about 2 cups)

1 cup dry white wine

2 1/2 cups chicken broth

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

2 thyme branches

12 sage leaves

1/2 cup crème fraîche

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon chopped capers

1/4 cup thinly sliced chives

1 pound cooked pappardelle pasta or wide egg noodles, for serving (optional)

Preparation:

1. Lay rabbit pieces on a baking sheet and season each piece generously with salt and pepper. (If you are using a pepper mill, adjust it for coarse grind.)

2. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Put a deep, heavy-bottomed, oven-safe saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add lard or oil.

3. Put 1 cup flour on a wide plate. Dip seasoned rabbit pieces in flour and dust off excess. Gently set them in the hot oil in one layer without crowding; work in batches if necessary. Adjust heat to keep them from browning too quickly. Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes on each side until nicely browned.

4. Remove browned rabbit from pan and set aside. Add diced onion to fat remaining in pan. Keep heat brisk and cook onions until softened and lightly browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Sprinkle onions with 2 tablespoons flour and stir until well incorporated, then cook for a minute or so, until mixture starts to smell toasty. Add wine and 1 cup broth, whisking as the sauce thickens. Whisk in remaining broth and the whole-grain mustard and bring to a simmer. Taste for salt and adjust.

6. Return browned rabbit pieces to the sauce. Add thyme and sage. Cover pot and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until meat is fork tender. (Alternatively, simmer over low heat, covered, on the stove top, for about the same amount of time.)

7. Using tongs, remove rabbit pieces from sauce, set aside, and keep warm. Put saucepan over medium heat and bring contents to a simmer. Whisk in crème fraîche, Dijon mustard and capers and simmer until somewhat thickened, about 5 minutes. Taste sauce and adjust.

8. Transfer rabbit to a warmed serving bowl and ladle the sauce over. Sprinkle generously with chives and a little freshly ground pepper. Accompany with noodles if desired.


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