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Bottles and Bunnies

Five Rabbit recipes from top chefs with wine pairings:

Chef Cesare Casella’s
Jack Rabbit Salad: Grilled Rabbit over Radicchio

Joachim Splichal’s
Wienerschnitzel of Artichoke with Roasted Rabbit Loin and Chive Vinaigrette

Willis Loughhead’s
Rabbit Confit Cannelloni with Sweet English Peas, Morel Mushrooms and Black Winter Truffle Sauce

Bobby Flay’s
Pan Roasted Rabbit with Crushed Blackberry-Ancho Sauce

Morou’s
Bacon Wrapped Young Rabbit with Aged Fruit Pesto, Wild Mushroom Flan and Fresh Coriander Froth

By Jim Clarke

Before anyone gets upset, let me go on record as saying I have nothing against rabbits as holiday icons, pets, or even animated heroes; in fact, I can still quote lengthy tracks of Bugs Bunny cartoons, which says a lot about how I spent my Saturday mornings as a kid. Back then, the only rabbit I looked forward to eating came in a basket with green plastic “straw,” jelly beans, and some other miscellaneous candies (peanut butter cups, most importantly).

Nowadays, when I eat rabbit, it doesn’t come wrapped in plastic or foil. Rabbit is a neglected meat in the U.S., despite its popularity in Europe. As with other less-mainstream meats, many people say it tastes like chicken. It’s actually somewhat more flavorful and assertive, which makes it less of a “blank slate” than the ubiquitous bird. I’d compare chicken to vodka, which needs a mixer to give it flavor, whereas rabbit is more like gin: it blends well, but carries its own distinctive character.

Rabbit is generally considered a “game” meat, which suggests hearty winter dining. Given its white meat and mildness compared to venison or boar, it actually suits spring and autumn better, those transitional seasons when “hearty” seems heavy, but it’s not hot enough for an entrée salad.

This in-between quality also makes rabbit versatile with wine; red or white, minerally or fruity, it all depends on what aspect of a rabbit dish you’d like to emphasize. Here are five recipes from chefs across the country, with wine suggestions for each.

Chef Cesare Casella’s Jack Rabbit Salad: Grilled Rabbit over Radicchio
This simple preparation asks for a wine that won’t overwhelm the rabbit and keeps its flavors in balance with the rosemary and the bitter touch of radicchio. A medium-bodied white provides the right weight, and many Italian whites have a touch of herbs and bitter almond that match well with the salad. There are hundreds of indigenous grapes – and, therefore, thousands of producers – to choose from, but my top pick would be Elvio Cogno’s Anas-Cetta 2003. The Nascetta grape is nearly extinct, and only cultivated in Novello, a village on the southwest edge of Barolo. Winemaker Walter Fissore has taken it under his wing; his 2003 is minerally, even earthy, with aromas of hazelnut and clove that are joined by rosemary and sage on the palate. While sporting the typical virtues of Italian white wine, this one offers a lot more interest and complexity than many.

Joachim Splichal’s Wienerschnitzel of Artichoke with Roasted Rabbit Loin and Chive Vinaigrette
Roasting rabbit gives a richer flavor, but the artichokes and the acidity of the chive vinaigrette call for a white wine with high acidity. A good dry, Loire Valley white – especially a Sauvignon Blanc like Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé – will have the crispness the vegetables call for and enough intensity to balance well with the rabbit itself. Try the Pascal Jolivet Château du Nozay 2004; flint, citrus, and a slight floral note surround a focused acidity that gives the wine staying power.

Willis Loughhead’s Rabbit Confit Cannelloni with Sweet English Peas, Morel Mushrooms and Black Winter Truffle Sauce
The different components of this recipe seem to call for different wines. The peas, the rabbit itself, the garnish – white, maybe another Loire wine; the black truffle sauce, red, a Burgundy perhaps. When you need a white that acts like a red, think of either Pinot Gris or Chardonnay. Pinot Gris, after all, is a mutation of Pinot Noir, and often shows some of the same mushroom or truffle aromas, which make it perfect for the morels and truffles in this dish. The Ostertag Fronholz Pinot Gris 2003 from Alsace would be a great choice here; it’s got that morel touch as well as aromas of smoke, apricot, caramel, and flowers. It’s rich, round, and elegant, and helps draw together the various elements of the recipe.

Bobby Flay’s Pan Roasted Rabbit with Crushed Blackberry-Ancho Sauce
This recipe pushes the richer side of rabbit, and could use a wine with rich, dark fruit flavors to complement the blackberries, but low tannins, as they could clash with the spice of the chiles. That sounds like a Zinfandel, but many of them might overwhelm the rabbit in favor of the sauce. An Oregon Pinot Noir would be better – dark fruit flavors, but less voluptuousness. The Anne Amie “Deux Verts” Pinot Noir 2003 hits the nail on the head. It has lots of raspberry, blueberry, and even boysenberry flavors, medium-bodied and enough tannins to give it structure, but none of the astringency that would exacerbate the spice.

Morou’s Bacon Wrapped Young Rabbit with Aged Fruit Pesto, Wild Mushroom Flan and Fresh Coriander Froth
This one is like the cannelloni, another recipe with lots of individual pieces and rich flavors. The bacon and mushrooms call for something with a touch of smoke or minerality, and the pesto can be emphasized with similar fruity aromas in the wine. With all this going on, this is a rabbit dish that can balance with a full-bodied wine. A great place to get that combination – smoke, dark fruits, a touch of spice (to match the coriander), and richness – is in good California Syrah. J.C. Cellars Rockpile “Haley’s Reserve” Syrah 2003 manages the balancing act of putting all this into one bottle: boysenberry and black cherries, clove and cedar, light smoke and smooth tannins, all wrapped around a core of graphite and minerals.

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       Published: March 2006
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