I have to warn you: this post is quite lacking in photographs. This is because as I was braising the rabbit for the Toyota Farm to Table event, half the time I forgot to photograph every step, and the other half of the time when I did remember, I didn’t take as much time as I usually do to take great pictures, so they ended up to be rather unattractive.
So, when I describe the process of this dish: Rabbit Braised in Marsala with Wild Mushrooms, I am going to have to rely simply on my words alone to get the point across. We shall see how it goes, shall we?
The first part of this post is a description of how you would go about braising a rabbit so that you may end up with a tender, flavorful, juicy creature whose flesh is easily pierced with a fork and flaked. You can leave the meat on the bone after it is done, or you can easily pick and shred it as I do for the recipe that will follow this instructional essay.
Braising is a very simple cooking method whereby meats and/or vegetables are cooked in a liquid until they are fork tender. Fork-tender does not only mean that you can easily pierce the meat with the tines of a fork; it also means that it easily slides off of the fork. That means that with minimal effort, such as by shaking your hand, the meat will slide right off of the fork. Often, you will find that meat is easily enough pierced with a fork, but it still has enough toughness in the muscle fibers that it clings tightly to the fork. This means that it is not done–it is, instead, almost done. Keep cooking until the meat will let the fork slide out of it just as easily as it let it slide in.
Braising is similar to stewing, but in general, braised dishes are made with larger cuts of meat or whole vegetables, while stews are made with meats and vegetables cut into roughly bite-sized pieces. Braises also tend to use less liquid than stews; usually the meat is barely covered with liquid, and in fact, some bits of the meat may stick up out of the liquid. Both braising and stewing involve simmering the foods to be cooked in liquid slowly over low, even heat. This slow cooking process gives tougher cuts of meat a long time to become tender, and it allows the flavors of all of the ingredients to combine in the cooking liquid to make a truly delicious sauce.
Braising a rabbit is a little more involved than braising beef or lamb or even chicken, and it has a great deal to do with the fact that the meat of a rabbit has very little fat–it is the lowest in fat of any terrestrial domestic farm animal, and it is very high in protein. Because of this lack of fat, the meat can very easily become tough, and that is the last thing you want. The solution to this problem is quite simple, when it comes to braising rabbit meat–you must make certain that it never boils. It should instead, cook on a very low, constant simmer until it is truly fork tender.
I cannot emphasize enough how delicious and juicy the meat of a rabbit will be when cooked in this way. Cooked at a bare simmer–almost poached, really–rabbit retains all of its flavor and is so moist and tender that you cannot imagine a better meat. You want to make certain that you do not overcook the meat–that means you do not want it to cook until it falls off of the bone–at that point it is more cooked than you want, and the meat will lose some of its delectable texture and moist nature. Only cook it until a fork easily pierces it and then slides right back out of it; you test the rabbit by poking your fork into the thickest meat of the thigh. When it is done, you can remove it from the cooking juice if you like, so that you can reduce the liquid and turn it into a sauce, or you can serve the rabbit without a sauce.
As I mentioned before, you can leave braised rabbit meat on the bone, or, if you are going to make a sauce for pasta, which the following recipe is based upon, then you can pick it from the bones. The best way to remove the meat from teh bones is by hand–just let it cool until you can touch it and go at it, keeping in mind that rabbit bones are fine and thin and can easily hide themselves in the shreds of meat. That is why I use my fingers only when working with rabbit meat–that way I can feel for the bones as I go.
So, now, let me give you the procedure for braising a rabbit.
First, take your rabbit, which can be cut up into serving pieces or whole, and wash it well in cold running water. Take note of how well bled the carcass was–if there is a lot of blood in evidence on the rabbit carcass, you are going to have to do as the Chinese do when making stocks and blanch the meat. This is done quite simply. Put the rabbit into a pot with cold water just covering it. Bring to a gentle simmer and let it cook for about fifteen minutes. During this time, you will see all sorts of scummy bits and stringy matter coming out of the rabbit. This is the blood as well as some marrow coming from the bones and body tissues.
After fifteen minutes, pull the rabbit bits out with tongs and set them in a colander in your sink. Rinse them off well with cold water, scrubbing them gently with your fingers to get all of the scummy icky bits of old blood off of them. Set them aside, then pour the water out of the cooking pot and wash the pot well. Rinse it well, too, dry it, and -then- you are ready to start your braising process. (And when that rabbit is done braising, well, then Cinderella, you may go to the ball.)
Cut up your aromatic vegetables–carrots, celery and onion are usual, as is garlic–and saute them lightly in butter or olive oil. When they are cut as well as you like, you can, if you wish, brown the rabbit, although I tend not to. If you don’t wish to brown the rabbit, just put it in the pot over the vegetables, and immediately pour in the liquid you wish to cook it in. This can be wine, beer, fruit juice, tomatoes in their juice, stock, water or any combination thereof. What is important is that you just barely cover the rabbit with liquid. Season gently with salt and pepper, and add a bay leaf and whatever herbs you like.
Then, bring to a bare simmer, and once there are shimmery bubbles coming to the surface and breaking only now and again, turn the heat down carefully to maintain this heat.
Then, cook for only how long it takes for your rabbit to become fork tender. Generally, it takes around 1 1/2 to 2 hours until it is properly fork tender.
Now that you know how to braise rabbit, let me tell you how to make the dish I presented at the Toyota Farm to Table event on Saturday. It is based very much on one of my favorite Italian pasta dishes of all time: Pappardelle with Rabbit and Porcini Ragu. I had it once in a small restaurant in Boston’s Italian neighborhood and once up on Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, and both times, I was smitten with the rich mushroomy fragrance of the sauce and the succulent rabbit meat, all wound around the wide ribbons of hand-made pasta.
My recipe is a very Frenchified version of that very traditional Italian dish. Because of the logistics of holding pasta which are complex and subject to failure, I chose to serve the braised, shredded rabbit over garlic mashed potatoes instead of noodles. The combination was fantastic, I must say, though my finished dish resembled the original only in the fact that both contained rabbit meat, wine and mushrooms.
I know that there are many steps in making the sauce–and for that, I refuse to apologize. The flavor of the finished dish is worth all of the work that goes into making the sauce. Besides, while you make this with one or two rabbits, imagine what I did, making this dish out of over twenty pounds of rabbit, eight pounds of mushrooms and around five pounds of vegetables with three bottles of Marsala wine. That might make you feel a bit better while you watch the rabbit stock reduce for what seems like hours, and simultaneously saute mushrooms and caramelize onions and make roux to finish the sauce.
Braised Rabbit With Marsala Wine and Wild Mushrooms
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced onions
1 cup sliced celery
1 cup peeled and sliced carrots
1/3 cup peeled and sliced parsnips (optional, but it adds a lot of flavor to the stock)
3 cloves garlic peeled
2 rabbits, either whole or cut into serving pieces, blanched as described above if needed
2 cups Marsala wine
6 large dried shiitake mushrooms, also known as Chinese black mushrooms
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons butter divided
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps sliced thinly
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups thinly sliced onions
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 cups Marsala wine, divided
1 1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
Kitchen Bouquet or thick soy sauce as needed
roux brun made with 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in the bottom of your stockpot or large dutch oven on medium heat. When it is hot, add the onions, celery, carrots, parsnips and garlic cloves, and cook, stirring until the onion is translucent and everything is fragrant.
Lay the rabbit down on top of the vegetables, and pour the first two cups of Marsala wine over everything. Add enough water to just barely cover the rabbits. Add the dried shiitake mushrooms, bay leaf, the first measure of thyme, the teaspoon of salt and the freshly ground pepper. Bring to a nice slow simmer. Do not allow to boil. Turn the heat down and allow to cook uncovered for 1 1/2 hours at the same slow simmer. Test the rabbit meat–if it is properly fork tender as described above, remove it from the pot, drizzling a bit of the cooking liquid over it to keep it moist as it cools.
Turn the heat up on the liquid in the pot and bring to a boil. Cook the stock down until it is reduced by half.
While the stock is reducing, melt the 1 tablespoon of the first measure of butter in a saute pan over medium high heat and allow to become foamy. Then, add 1/4 of the fresh shiitake mushrooms, and cook, stirring until they are lightly browned and tender and very fragrant and delicious. Set aside in a bowl. Repeat for the remaining mushrooms, using one tablespoon of butter and 1/4 of the mushrooms for each pan.
Take the second measure of butter and melt it in the same pan you cooked the mushrooms in. Add the onions, salt lightly and cook until they are a deep golden color. Add the garlic and keep cooking and stirring until the onions are a medium brown color and the garlic is golden and fragrant. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup of the second measure of Marsala wine. Add the onions and garlic to the mushrooms which are set aside.
The remaining 1 1/2 cups of Marsala wine goes into a small saucepan. Over medium heat, simmer until it reduces by half. Turn off heat and set aside.
When the stock has reduced by half, set a colander over a large bowl, and scoop all of the vegetables out of the stock. Squeeze out the dried mushrooms into the bowl, and then squish the cooked vegetables in the colander so that all of their juices run into the bowl. Discard the dried mushrooms and vegetables, rinse out the colander and line it with cheesecloth. Pour the remaining stock into the bowl, straining it into the cheesecloth lined colander. Wash out your pot and put it back on low heat. Add the strained stock, the reduced Marsala wine and bring to a boil.
Heat your roux up in a small saute pan until it is bubbling. Scrape the roux into the boiling stock and whisk like mad until it thickens nicely. Whisk in the tomato paste until it is completely combined. Stir in the sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions. If the sauce is too pale, add a teaspoon or so of Kitchen Bouquet or thick soy sauce.
Remove the rabbit meat from the bones and add to the sauce, making certain to not accidentally slip any bones into the pot.
Stir the thyme and rosemary into the sauced rabbit, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve over wide noodles or mashed potatoes–I prefer garlic mashed potatoes. (And yes, I will post a recipe for those next week. I promise.)
This should feed up to six or eight hungry adults.
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