It may be an auspicious year for people born under the sign of the rabbit, but no chef is under the delusion that 2011 will bring rabbit to the nation’s dining fore. Sure, rabbit dishes return each year, on schedule, to spring fine-dining menus, but for the rest of the year the meat tends to fade into the background of our culinary consciousness. Rabbit meat accounts for less than 0.05 percent of U.S. meat consumption, according to the USDA. And in the United States, at least, there are several factors—politics, challenges in farming, cost, and skewed demand—working against our furry friends. Despite rabbit’s lack of mass appeal, chefs still answer the call to a springtime rabbit ritual of sorts, ensuring we get a taste of the tiny beast at least a few times a year.
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People who are passionate about rabbits tend to fall into three camps: animal rights activists and squeamish pet owners, who can’t see beyond bunnies’ fluffy tails; locavores, who champion the rabbit’s sustainability; and food lovers, who are more interested in rabbit’s delicious flesh and offal than its politics.
And while most of the chefs we talked to say diners embrace rabbit on their menus, a great many Americans would rather just see bunnies at a petting zoo or in molded chocolate form. Easter, like no other time, has the tendency to bring rabbit controversy to center stage. Just ask Chef Matt Smith of Caffe Boa in Tempe, Arizona. Last year, working with Chef Payton Curry, he helped devise an Easter rabbit tasting menu with rabbit terrine, rabbit ravioli, prosciutto-wrapped rabbit leg, and, naturally, carrot cake for dessert. After posting the menu on Facebook, says Smith, the kitchen started getting harassing emails and phone calls; one caller wished Curry a slow and painful death.
Caffe Boa moved forward with its Easter plans, and the meal sold out. “Our regulars appreciate our sense of humor,” says Smith, who sources rabbits from Nicky USA in Oregon. Far from daunted, Smith plans to showcase rabbit on his Easter menu again this year.
On the other side of the political spectrum, rabbit is having a moment of sorts thanks to the locavore movement. After all, you can mate a pair of rabbits in your Brooklyn backyard without bothering the neighbors. Plus, the pseudo-ruminants eat a high-roughage diet that doesn’t compete with the human food chain (they don’t eat corn), according to Mark Pasternak, Co-owner of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, California.
Since rabbits have to be raised in cages and their living quarters have to be kept immaculately clean (to protect them from protozoa in their feces), they do minimal environmental damage. “You can [raise rabbits] on a small scale. They’re quiet. They’re not going to bother your neighbors. Old people, children, and even the disabled can handle them. And you can forage food for them if you know what you’re doing,” says Pasternak.
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While raising a few rabbits out back isn’t too complicated, farming rabbits on a large scale takes more than a Michael Pollan mindset and thumping, humping bunnies. It’s labor and management intensive. “One out of 10 or 20 guys or gals who want to raise rabbits succeeds,” says Geoff Latham, President and Founder of Nicky USA. “People think you can put a couple of rabbits in a pen, and you’ll be a rabbit producer. It’s a lot harder than you think.”
Rabbits are known for their reproductive prowess, but just because “they have lots of furious [sexual] encounters over a short period of time” doesn’t mean they’re easy or inexpensive to farm, says George Faison, Partner and Chief Operating Officer of DeBragga, a meat distributor in New York City.
The difficulties of breeding rabbits translate into fewer successful rabbit farms, low availability, high demand, and expensive meat. And in the USDA’s one-size-fits-all-style regulations, rabbits are classified as poultry, along with chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, ratites, and squab. Just in case you’re thinking high school biology failed you, rabbits are not members of the poultry family at all. They’re mammals and, therefore, much more difficult to grow than chickens, for example. Hens can lay an egg a day, chicks fend for themselves, and birds are ready for slaughter after just four to 10 weeks.
Rabbits, on the other hand, require cleaner cages and more fresh water, and female rabbits (called does) need warm straw boxes to birth and nurse their young (called kittens). Does gestate for 28 to 31 days, and the most common meat breeds, New Zealand Whites and California Whites, yield 8 to 10 kittens per litter. At that rate, does have to produce about 36 kittens each year to make a rabbit operation profitable, according to Latham. And it takes 8 to 12 weeks for rabbits to reach optimal slaughter fryer weight—between 2.5 and 4 pounds.
Even though a single doe produces more meat in her lifetime than a cow, according to Pasternak, rabbits are delicate creatures at the bottom of the food chain. “As a result, they die easily. They’re susceptible to disease, stress, and predators,” says Pasternak. “Mother Nature built that into the model. Mothers kill babies when they encounter any stress, because they can re-breed.”
The costs of farming are passed on to chefs at $4.50 to $7 per pound for whole fryer rabbits, around $10 per pound for legs, and $18 per pound for the coveted saddle. Older, somewhat tougher roaster rabbits that weigh between 4 and 8 pounds cost about $1 less per pound than the smaller fryers. To turn a profit on rabbit, says Chef Dean Maupin of Keswick Hall in Keswick, Virginia, you have to use the whole animal. Maupin sources his rabbits from Green Fence Farm in the Shenandoah Valley and Jamerson Rabbit Farm in Powhatan, Virginia, and after spending $22 per animal, he manages to sell $95 to $100 worth of rabbit dishes.
Maupin gets two appetizer orders from the livers—usually in the form of pâté. The animal yields two saddles, which he can sell as entrées for $25 a pop. Maupin confits and shreds the legs and adds the meat to four to five pasta orders. He roasts and boils the carcass to make jus. All in all, Maupin says his rabbit food costs fall into the 25 percent sweet spot.
Hugo Ortega of Hugo's in Houston steams rabbits whole for his Mixiote de Conejo: Rabbit in Banana Leaf with Salsa Guajillo and Jicama Salad. He shreds the sweet meat and mixes it with chili-spiked salsa. He then wraps the mixture in banana leaves (and sometimes agave skin) and warms the packages for pick-up.
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The only parts of a rabbit you should throw out are the tail and feet—unless you need an extra dose of luck, that is. And since rabbits are classified as poultry (and poultry have notoriously bacteria-laden intestines and stomachs), a rabbit’s digestive innards are illegal to sell for human consumption.
The yield per rabbit may be small, but for chefs like Damian Sansonetti of Bar Boulud in New York (who secures his rabbits through DeBragga from John Fazio), working with the whole animal is one of the creative joys of work in the kitchen. Here’s a breakdown of rabbit parts and ways chefs love to use them:
Blood: Most rabbit processors send blood to biological research facilities, but if chefs can secure a pint of the precious red stuff, rabbit blood can be used to thicken sauces and make charcuterie.
Head: Not all rabbits arrive in kitchens with their heads on, but heads traditionally are used in stews and stocks.
Bones: Like any set of animal bones, rabbit carcasses can be roasted and/or boiled to make stock and rabbit jus.
Heart: Rabbit hearts—and other offal (except the intestines and stomach)—can go into farces and charcuterie.
Liver: The chefs we interviewed all raved about clean-tasting, mild rabbit livers. After soaking them in milk—the lactic acid pulls out some of the blood and iron taste—Chef Sansonetti sears livers to medium rare in butter and tosses them with fresh fava beans (à la Hannibal Lecter, minus the Chianti). Rabbit liver pâté is a perennial favorite, as are deep-fried livers (line cooks are known to abscond with rabbit livers for such delicious purposes).
Kidneys: Chicago’s Chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol, who sources rabbit from Swan Creek Farm, poaches rabbit kidneys in butter and adds the morsels to a ragoût of livers, bacon, shallots, herbs, and sherry vinegar. You also can render the precious fat surrounding the kidneys; just finely grind the fat, slowly heat it, and strain it through a chinois. The rendered rabbit fat—just like lard—can be used in pastry dough and for frying.
Lungs: Though technically legal to sell for human consumption, no chef, purveyor, or farmer we spoke with had heard of using rabbit lungs in cuisine. Latham says they can be dried to make dog treats, if your pooch should be so lucky.
Shoulder (or foreleg) and hind legs: Most chefs rely on confit, frying, and braising techniques to tenderize and infuse fat into hard-working rabbit legs. Depending on the flavor you want to impart, clarified butter, olive oil, and duck fat are good choices for cooking them confit. You can shred the legs and add them to pastas or serve them whole, much like confit duck legs. Chef Harold Dieterle of Kin Shop in New York, braises the legs—sourced from Whiskey Hill Farm through Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meat—in a lemongrass- and ginger-infused mixture of stock and wine. He then steams the legs in a banana leaf and douses them in sweet and sour yellow curry.
Belly and saddle: The thin rabbit belly is attached to the coveted saddle, an über lean cut of meat that chefs debone much like a chicken breast. The saddle also yields two thin rabbit tenderloins; the small pieces of meat tend to get lost in a dish, so it’s best to stuff them back into the saddle. All the chefs we talked to leave the belly and saddle attached; they wrap the belly around the saddle (and often farces or vegetable fillings) to prevent the meat from overcooking and drying out. Chef Nicholas Stefanelli of Bibiana in Washington, DC, and Maupin add an extra layer of protection. Stefanelli wraps his rabbit saddle in ramp leaves and lardo before rolling the belly around the meat; Maupin uses Parma ham and sage. Caul fat also is often used to encase rabbit saddles. Common saddle preparations include roasting and frying. Sansonetti sous vides his saddles—that are stuffed with Swiss chard and gaeta olives and wrapped in caul fat—and then sears them in herb-infused brown butter at pick-up.
Rib rack: Compared to beef or pork ribs, rabbit rib racks come in a “Barbie-sized” portion, says Sansonetti, who frenches the racks and gives them a quick sear until they reach medium rare.
For obvious reasons, chefs prefer fresh rabbit to frozen. The tissue of the latter tends to break down over time, and the offal—whose expiration date is just a few days after slaughter—can’t be salvaged. Pasternak prefers to send his rabbits to Bay Area chefs loosely packed in a cardboard box, but he’s currently experimenting with vacuum bags to see how the packaging affects the meat over time.
The integrity of the meat—its flavor, freshness, and the farming practices behind it—makes for great eats, but it’s also a powerful tool for luring diners into ordering rabbit. “Rabbit isn’t the most popular item we offer, but it holds its own. And people are even more receptive when they know the animal was killed the same day,” says Maupin. And as more consumers want to know where their food comes from (and how it meets its maker), perhaps rabbit has a chance to bound beyond spring menus. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait for another year of the rabbit—the next is 2023—for bunnies on the plate to catch on.