Rabbit Ragu

For a long time I didn’t ‘get’ rabbit. “It tastes just like chicken,” people told me. Why not eat chicken, then, I wondered. It was like frog’s legs (which, by the way, taste like chicken only if one imagines one’s chickens cold-blooded and amphibious). I.e., it seemed to me like bourgeois foodie one-upmanship. And there’s the cute factor. When I tweeted about making this ragu, someone replied mournfully that their father had killed their pet rabbit and they never got over it. I too had a pet bunny as a child, and I have cats, and the little rabbit carcasses uncomfortably remind me of my kitties. But if you are a carnivore, wild rabbit is about the most sustainable meat you can eat. Rabbits breed, well, like bunnies (apparently a wild rabbit will have five to six litters a season), unlike most animals we eat they spend their whole lives outdoors, they are killed humanely, and the meat consists entirely of lean white-meat protein. Rabbit beats all or almost all other lean meats for protein to fat ratio. In the UK, you can buy a whole two to three kilo wild rabbit for about £4, which, considering that nearly all of that is usable meat, is extraordinarily good value for those of us trying to cook well on a budget. And rabbit doesn’t really taste like chicken, any more than monkfish tastes like lobster.

When I’m cooking lean gamey muscular meat, I like to do three things to it, usually in this order: marinate it; braise it; and stew it. It’s a lengthy process, but once you’ve determinedly battered at the collagens with low, slow cooking, the meat relaxes, absorbs all the delicious braising juices, and attains mythic proportions of deliciousness. The first time I cooked a rabbit ragu I was astonished by how flavourful it was. The meat stood up to the rich sauce, maintaining its density and distinct, subtle flavour. The first time I cooked a rabbit ragu was also the first time I jointed a rabbit. Nobody had ever showed me how, and it’s possible that actual butchers and chefs would throw up their hands in disgust at my efforts, but it wasn’t too difficult.

When you are buying a rabbit (if you’re motivated by environmental concerns, do cook wild rabbit – farmed rabbits have almost the same impact on the environment as farmed chickens), look for a rabbit with firm, dark-pink flesh and a sweet smell. Rabbits shouldn’t smell particularly gamey. You probably will start out with something that looks like this (tender-hearted vegetarians, don’t read further; this blog post has bunny carcass photos):

You can see quite clearly where the joint of the large hind legs attaches to the saddle. With a sharp knife gently carve around the joint, turn the carcass on its back, and separate the legs from the saddle. Similarly detach the front legs from the upper rib cage. If you’re lucky you may have some gizzards; don’t throw these away. Pull them off and reserve for another use or add them to your ragu. Separate the saddle from the ribs. I save the ribs for the braise too; bones add flavour, and even this meat is usable and delicious. When you’re done jointing your bunny you should have something like this:

Now you’re ready to start cooking.

Ingredients:

For the braise

One whole rabbit (about two to three kilos), jointed

One large carrot, coarsely diced

One medium onion, coarsely chopped

2-3 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

A bottle (750 ml) of earthy red wine

1/4 cup olive oil

A large handful of fresh thyme

2-3 bay leaves

Salt and pepper

For the ragu

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

One large carrot, cut into small dice

One to two stalks of celery, cut into small dice

Two pounds of sweet Italian plum tomatoes. If using fresh, blanch, remove the seeds and pulp, and chop coarsely. If you can’t find good fresh, then use good-quality tinned. Drain and chop coarsely.

Two tablespoons of tomato paste

¼ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

Two to three tablespoons of fresh thyme, leaves picked from stems

Two to three tablespoons of chopped flat-leaf parsley

Salt and pepper

One teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

Four or five fresh sage leaves, very finely minced (optional)

Method:

Layer the chopped onion, garlic, and carrot in a large pot or casserole with the rabbit pieces. Cover with the wine, and marinate for at least four hours and up to overnight.

Remove the rabbit pieces from the marinade and season them on both sides with salt and pepper. The wine will have stained them a lovely purple. Drain the chopped vegetables, reserving the marinade juices.

Preheat your oven to 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit).

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet or, if you wish, in your braising casserole. Brown the rabbit pieces on both sides and remove from pan. In the same pan, sauté the vegetables from the marinade until they are soft, about five minutes. Transfer the rabbit pieces and vegetables to your casserole, add the thyme sprigs and bay leaves, and cover completely with the marinade liquid. If you don’t have enough liquid, it is fine to add a little water.

Cover the pot and braise in your oven for about two and a half to three hours, or until the rabbit is completely tender when you poke it with a fork or sharp knife.

When they are cool enough to handle, pull the rabbit pieces from the pot, and again strain out the liquid, Discard the braising vegetables and herbs but reserve the liquid.

Using your fingers, pull the rabbit meat from the bones, shredding into bite-sized chunks. You should have a tidy pile of meat for your ragu.

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the remaining olive oil, and sauté together the garlic, celery, and crushed red pepper (if using) until the garlic and celery are soft and transparent but not brown (about two to three minutes). Add the carrots and continue to sauté until the carrots have started to soften (about three minutes). Stir in the tomatoes. When the tomatoes have started to bubble, reduce heat to a simmer, add the rabbit meat, sugar and enough of the braising liquid to completely cover the meat. Siphon out some of the liquid (about 1/4 cup) and combine together in a bowl with the tomato paste (so the tomato paste doesn’t get lumpy) then stir back into your ragu. Simmer for about an hour, adding additional braising liquid as needed.

Taste and adjust seasonings, then add the thyme, sage (if using), and flat-leaf parsley. Cook for another 15 minutes.

Serve topped with grated parmesan or pecorino romano over pasta (I served mine with wild garlic pasta), polenta, or on its own with crusty bread.

Makes 10-12 servings.

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25 thoughts on “Rabbit Ragu

  1. That looks delicious! Wild rabbits are a bit scarce here now. (I understand the problem has something to do with the loss of native grasses to fescue which causes rabbits to abort, but that’s probably more than anybody on a food blog wants to read about.) We do have a wonderful small and humane rabbit vendor at one of our markets, but hers are much, much more scrawny than the rabbits one finds in Europe. Anyway, though I am usually loathe to plug my own blog, we have a wonderful recipe from one of our earliest and least read posts that you ought to try if you’re a rabbit lover: http://bit.ly/J8M0wc. Oh, and since I’m droning on and on, I’ll ask: Have you read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City? If not, do—it’s a delightful book. I can never eat rabbit without thinking of the French relative’s description of how you skin them.

    • Small and scrawny sounds perfect for stewing! I will look for Farm City. I love getting book recs. And I did look at your recipe — it looks wonderful!

  2. I never thought about wild rabbits being sustainable, Susan. I’m not sure we even have wild rabbits in the Bay Area. I second the recommendation for Farm City: Carpenter is hilarious.

    • I am thinking whether there are rabbits in the Bay Area. *Googles it* Apparently the western cottontail spans regions from Oregon to Baja California, and there also the desert cottontail. It appears people primarily hunt them using beagles. (The Google search told me far more than I needed to know about hunting rabbits in California.) I’ll look for Farm City. I wonder if I can find it here in London?

  3. I love rabbit. It’s so delicious. And cute. Cute and delicious. Does that make me a terrible person?

    Your rabbit ragu looks amazing! I never really understood people who say that X tastes like Y either. I think rabbit tastes like rabbit. And frogs taste like frogs. In terms of the environment, I would hazard to guess that most rabbit that you can buy is probably raised in a much nicer way than most chickens are simply because there is less demand for them — or at least better than those poor chickens raised on industrial farms.

    I think it’s great that you jointed your own rabbit. The first time I ever did that completely on my own, I was glad that no one was around to watch me. But you get better over time, and it’s really not that much different from jointing a chicken.

    • Oh yes! I agree that the domestic bunnies are raised much more humanely than factory-farmed chickens. To explain, when I first started eating rabbit, I did a fair amount of research on sustainability questions because I was curious about the wild rabbits being sold by certain London meat purveyors. One of the articles I read (in the Guardian I think, but I can’t for the life of me find it now) said that the run-off, etc., from a (humane) rabbit farm and the use of feed is roughly equivalent to that from a (humane) chicken farm. I do eat chicken of course, although I avoid the factory-farmed birds because their little lives are so brutal.

      I’d love to see your rabbit recipes!

  4. I saw the first picture and took your advice and stopped reading. I figured I didn’t need the details. But to what I did read I say Bravo!

  5. Ooh i remember that day you tweeted about getting the rabbit to make ragu! I agree, it’s one of the most sustainable, and healthy options out there. and it’s even easier to joint than chicken, which was a nice surprise for me! love not just the ragu, but that wild garlic pasta you served with it. that is one delicious plate, so much effort gone into making everything form scratch, i’m properly impressed!

  6. Nice recipe (and excellent pictures). I have had farm-raised rabbit that did indeed taste like chicken and the raw flesh was the same colour as raw chicken breast, not the very red colour of your rabbit…

    I am not a hunter these days but the only two animals I have ever hunted and eaten were rabbits. They were much more strongly flavoured (not ‘gamey’ exactly) but they were also tougher… the flank muscles were actually so bought they would be un-chewable even stewed for a month, I would guess.

    Did you learn the origin of your rabbit when you bought it?

    • Thank you very much for the comment! My rabbit was a wild Yorkshire rabbit, which I think is what comprises the majority of the rabbits sold by London butchers. In my experience, the younger the rabbit, the less tough the muscles (which is why most rabbits sold in London are shot about four to six months into the season), but I suspect that even the toughest flank muscles could be softened if they were confited. I would suggest: confit the rabbit flanks in duck fat, and then maybe turn the meat into a terrine? I’d eat that!

  7. thanks for this recipe – i made a slightly bastardised version (2 rabbits, bacon, juniper berries and a dash of nutmeg, a ridiculous amount of garlic, crispy fried sage leaves to finish) and it was wonderful.

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