Variations of brown sugar bourbon-glazed ham or rosemary-garlic roasted lamb, warm, billowy biscuits and roasted root vegetables grace traditional Easter tables, and thankfully so. If you want to go beyond the merely traditional but keep close to the holiday’s theme, consider rabbit. After learning how good they are for you and how great they taste, you may just want Peter Cottontail to ditch the bunny trail and hop on into your Dutch oven.
Rabbit is leaner than chicken, veal or turkey, with less fat and cholesterol. It has half the calories per pound compared to beef and pork and is the most easily digestible protein around. Since it’s both abundant and ubiquitous, low consumption has little to do with availability and lots to do with Thumper (a Cottontail) and Bugs (probably a Lop-Eared Gray.)
“Some people just can’t get beyond that mindset,” says Stephen Edwards. His Aspen Hill Farms in Boyne City, Michigan supplies local three- and four-star resorts and sells nationally through U.S. Wellness Meats. “I’ve had my rump chewed any number of times by people who say, ‘That’s not an appropriate food.’” He just holds his tongue and keeps his cool.
“Speaking for ‘the top of the mitt,’ here in Northern Michigan, there are two types of people who don’t bat an eyelash at eating rabbits,” he says. “Good old country boys, and people who enjoy food. We’ll just call them ‘foodies.’” No one’s going to serve up a Flemish Giant or a Holland Lops, he says of two popular pet breeds.
The Fryer, the Californian and the New Zealand White (it’s actually American) were genetically developed and are specifically raised as meat rabbits. They have good meat-to-bone-ratios, meatier legs, longer spines and grow faster than pet breeds.
Because rabbits mature fast they spend less time on earth than cows or pigs and have no time to accumulate toxins. They reproduce quickly and are grown without hormones or antibiotics. They can be entirely raised on alfalfa, clover or grass, making them a non-competitive species with humans - i.e. they don’t eat what we eat. Simply put, they’re very clean meat.
Rabbit is also delicious and no, it doesn’t taste like chicken. “It’s very delicate. I’d say the taste is closer to veal,” says Chef Emily Peterson who teaches at Astor Center in New York City and grew up eating the rabbits and chickens her family raised in their backyard. There were the rabbits that were pets and the rabbits “we weren’t supposed to interact with because at any moment they could be dinner,” she explains. It was an early education in pets versus food.
Peterson grew up in the Hamptons and her mom still runs the Oyster Catcher Farmstand out there, selling vegetables, pies and honey. “I’m from the working-class, blue-collar section of The Hamptons. We were the people who made the glamorous life possible for the other people,” she laughs. Her father was a commercial fisherman and her mom cleaned squid and fish at a local market. While other kids brought Lunchables to school, Peterson - whose family planned dinner around the breakfast table - brought what was grown, raised or caught, things like grilled tuna salad. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time,” she says drily.
A rabbit, says Peterson, is the only four-legged animal which home cooks have access to. “You can’t bring a whole goat or pig into kitchen so a rabbit immediately feels exotic and inspiring,” she says. They come sans fur and ears and are generally headless and footless. The only thing and really, it’s minor, is that a skinned rabbit can look like a cat. If you find that mildly disturbing, buy one with the feet attached.
Rabbits and chickens are very similar aside from a few key differences. Rabbit meat has no marbling as it carries fat in its viscera. Chicken also has no marbling, but its skin is laden with fat and, like many of us, it stores a lot of it around its thighs. Chicken yields legs, wings, breasts and thighs. Rabbit yields front and back legs, a tenderloin – which runs from neck to tail - and the “saddle,” the ribcage from belly to neck. The best parts, the trapezius muscles, are two little strips as wide as a thumb along either side of the top of the spine.
If you can cook chicken, you can cook rabbit. Avoid roasting unless you want to manically baste every ten minutes, plus the small front legs tend to shrivel up. Because it comes skinless (you can’t pluck fur like you do feathers,) and has no fat, you’re better off braising or grilling. Just keep your preparation minimal, says Peterson whose cooking is all about versatility and making the simple sexy.
Rabbit Cacciatore - braised rabbit with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, herbs, pepper and wine - Peterson says, is one of the best and least intimidating ways to either try rabbit or cook it at home. Give it a Mexican twist by seasoning with salt, pepper and olive oil and grilling. Shred and load it into a warm corn tortilla, building flavor with red onion, sour cream, pickled jalapenos. Or, make it French by searing, then braising it with bacon, onion, garlic, thyme, parsley, bay leaves, stock and red wine. Add chervil, tarragon or chanterelles if you want.
Peterson’s family no longer raises rabbits but they do hunt them. Like Edwards, Peterson lacks sentimentality when it comes to rabbits. Rabbits would have fallen off the evolutionary food chain if they weren’t bred, she says, just like pigs. “The only reason pigs are still around is because they’re delicious.” Rabbits are small and furry and we’re socialized to think they’re cute. And they are, up to a point. “If you’ve got a garden and put your time and money into it and rabbits destroy it, they not so cute anymore,” she says. “Suddenly they look delicious.” That’s what’s up, Doc.