Jonathan Whitener makes the kind of joyful, personal, habit-forming American food that's both modern and the very stuff of which nostalgia is made. The catalyst for his beguiling fried rabbit legs is his Mexican-American mother and his dad's German-American mater. "My father was raised in the Carolinas. His mom used to make this dish in Pyrex, baking chicken pieces seasoned with tons of black pepper and sliced onions," says Whitener. "She would remove the chicken when it was cooked, stir chicken stock and sour cream into the drippings, and, finally, return the chicken to the dish, smothering it with the gravy, and serving it over white rice." Grandma Whitener: We. Love. You!
"My mother took the recipe to the next level," says Whitener. "She added lemon pepper, whole butter, fresh parsley, and lemon juice to the whole dish, brightening it up." He made his first contribution to the evolution of grandma's dish when he was a teenager, scouring the fridge for a late-night snack. Whitener found leftovers: fried chicken and sour cream gravy. Dipping one into the other, the Pyrex chicken in his grandma's original recipe became deep fried in Whitener's mind's eye—an inspired front-of-the-fridge reformulation.
At West Hollywood's Animal, where Whitener is chef de cuisine, he's added fried lemons and shaved heirloom carrots, and he ups the gravy-sopping-ante with Carolina gold rice. Most ingeniously, he changed the protein. "It's a great way to eat rabbit legs—better than braised and glazed, confited, or used in charcuterie, simply because rabbit is tough to cook," he says.
The most important part of Whitener's rabbit technique is the braise. He uses a Dutch oven and braises the hind legs for 80 minutes and the front legs for 40—all in rabbit stock made from the carcass and fortified with white wine. To achieve the "meaty and unctuous middle" in the rabbit legs, the meat should braise until not quite tender, but close. Fall off the bone, fork tender meat doesn't cut it for this preparation. After braising, the legs are left to cool in the braising liquid where carry-over heat continues to cook the meat.
The cooled legs get dredged in buttermilk and lemon pepper before they slide into 350ºF peanut oil. The hind legs are fried seven minutes and the front for five and a half.
The lemon pepper spice is also a crucial component of Whitener's rabbit. "It works so well because, if you grew up in America, almost every household has these go-to spice blends in the pantry," says Whitener. "In our house, it was lemon pepper and garlic herb spice blends from Badia and McCormick. My mom literally put it on everything when she wasn't cooking Mexican food. I think people who eat at Animal find comfort in the fact that we use what we call 'DIRTY' ingredients that make a connection to being a kid. It's the hardest thing to do in our industry."
Here's Whitener's technique, step by step, for his fresh 'n dirty rabbit legs, inspired by the flavors of an American childhood.
Fried Rabbit Legs
Fabricate your rabbit: two hind legs, two front, two loins (set aside for another use), and the carcass.
Make a stock with the carcass, bay leaf, thyme, and mirepoix.
In a Dutch oven, sear seasoned legs and reserve.
Add more mirepoix and aromatics to Dutch oven. Deglaze pan with white wine.
Return hind legs to Dutch oven, cover with stock, and braise 30 minutes. Add front legs and braise 50 minutes.
Meat should be not quite tender, but close. Cool in liquid.
Heat peanut oil to 350ºF.
Dredge legs in flour, dip in buttermilk, and coat completely in mix of flour and lemon pepper.
Fry hind legs seven minutes and front for five and a half, until golden brown and crisp.
Drain on wire rack and aggressively season with salt and black pepper.