Rabbit is a wonderful meat, leaner but yet tastier than most chicken you’ll find in these days of industrial agriculture. Many people (at least in the US) have an aversion to eating rabbit, but it is quite popular in Italy, Spain, France and elsewhere in Europe. And why not? Those furry creatures make great eating.
One of my favorite ways of making Rabbit Cacciatore, or ‘hunter’s style’ rabbit. The term alla cacciatora, one of the most widely used in Italian cuisine and is often associated with Tuscany, encompasses many variations. The original meaning referred to a way of making game, of course. Dishes made alla cacciatora are generally some sort of spezzatino, which is to say, unboned meat cut into smallish pieces that are subjected to dry heat and then moist heat cooking. Vinegar is often used either as part of a marinade or as a braising liquid, as its acidity helps to ‘cut’ the strong flavor of the game meat. These days, dishes alla cacciatora are, more often than not, made in rosso—with tomato, either puréed or in concentrate, but tomato being a relatively recent addition to Italian cuisine (a fact that astonishes many) the original recipe, lost in the mists of time, surely did not include it. This version does not include vinegar but the smoother taste of red wine, and it contains just a little bit of tomato concentrate.
- 1 rabbit, cut into pieces
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- A few sprigs each of rosemary and sage, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Red pepper flakes
- Red wine, q.b.
- 2 Tbs best-quality tomato paste
- Olive oil
You start by cutting up your rabbit. It is done very much like you cut up a chicken, as the bone structure of a rabbit is quite similar. Like a chicken, you start by separating thighs and legs (two sets rather than one) from the carcass. But you will quickly notice a few differences. First of all, rabbit bones, though quite thin, are much harder than chicken bones, so you’ll need to strong knife or cleaver to cut through them. And the body of the rabbit is quite a bit longer; it has a mid-section called the ‘saddle’ rather than a breast, running along its backbone than needs to be cut into sections. For a detailed description of how to cut up a rabbit, see this useful article.
Begin cooking by sautéing a soffritto of finely chopped garlic, rosemary and sage in olive oil, over gentle heat in a large sauté or braising pan or casserole, preferably of terracotta or enameled cast iron. When the soffritto is just lightly golden, raise the heat to medium high, add the rabbit pieces and turn them so that they are even coated with the aromatics. Sauté the rabbit until it, too, is lightly golden on all sides. Then season with salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes. Pour over some red wine and allow the wine to evaporate completely.
Add about 2 tablespoons of best-quality tomato paste in about a cup of water, along with a bay leaf, to the pan. Mix well, lower the heat again to a very gentle simmer, cover the pan and let the rabbit braise for about 20-30 minutes. Add a bit more water if the pot dried out.
When the dish is done, the rabbit should be quite tender and the sauce, being quite reduced, should coat the rabbit pieces. Serve hot.
Like most spezzatini, Rabbit Cacciatore can be made ahead and, in fact, tastes even better when it is.
As mentioned above, there are many different methods that go by the name alla cacciatora. Perhaps the most common involves chicken and begins with a classic soffritto italiano—made of onion, carrot and celery like a French mirepoix—rather than garlic and herbs and then simmered in tomato sauce. (Here’s a typical version demonstrated in a video. Pancetta is sometimes added to the soffritto for extra depth of flavor, a good idea with today’s bland chickens. It can be excellent eating if you don’t drown the dish in tomato, as if all too often the case. Artusi’s version calls for a soffritto of onion only, sautéed in lard and simmered in red wine and just a half cup of tomato. There is a wonderful baby lamb dish made with a paste made out of garlic, rosemary and anchovies diluted with a bit of vinegar.
Rabbit is a great meat. Besides making it alla cacciatora, it is also lovely simply roasted or grilled with garlic and herbs, boned and stuffed, as part of a bollito misto, or in any number of spezzatini. In fact, just about any chicken recipe can be used for rabbit. Rabbit can be hard to find, but if you have access to an Italian butcher, ask for it. I have also seen rabbit in some Asian supermarkets here in the States.
This Rabbit Cacciatore recipe is an adaption of the recipe for pollo alla cacciatora in The Fine Art of Italian Cooking by G. Bugialli.