Rabbit is another one of those foods that many people seem to feel squeamish about. Perhaps because the live animal is so cute and furry, the thought of eating them strikes people, particularly North Americans, as strange or even disgusting. That’s too bad, because rabbit is actually one of the most delicious of meats, much like chicken but a bit firmer fleshed and more flavorful than most chicken you will find these days.
Rabbit can be used to make just about any chicken dish (and vice versa) but there are any number of recipes specifically for rabbit (and its wild cousin the hare) in Italian cookery. We have already featured coniglio alla cacciatora, or hunter’s rabbit, the original Tuscan dish that morphed into ‘Chicken Cacciatore’ when it crossed the Atlantic, and here is an equally tasty spezzatino from Liguria, the region of Italy that encompasses the ‘Italian Riviera’:
Serves 4-6 people
- 1 medium-sized rabbit
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- White wine
- A bay leaf
- A sprig of fresh rosemary
- A sprig of fresh marjoram or thyme
- A handful of black olives, perferably of the Gaeta or niçoise variety
- A handful of pinoli nuts
Make a soffritto of the onion and garlic, gently sautéed in olive oil.
Add your rabbit, cut it up into serving pieces. (See this post for instructions.) Allow the rabbit pieces to brown lightly in the soffritto and absorb the flavors of the onion and garlic. Season well with salt and pepper.
Then pour in a good splash of red wine, and turn the pieces around so they are all covered well. Add a bay leaf, a sprig of fresh rosemary and a sprig of fresh marjoram (or thyme) and cover the dish, turning down and regulating the heat so that the dish simmers gently. Allow the rabbit to braise in the wine for 45 minutes to an hour, turning from time to time and adding some water or broth as needed to keep things moist but not soupy, making sure that there is enough liquid at the end to make a nice sauce.
About halfway through, add a handful of black olives and another handful of pinoli nuts.
Serve immediately, napping the rabbit pieces with the exquisite sauce. I find that this dish goes particularly well with steamed or mashed potatoes.
You may surprised at the rather long simmering process. The rabbit will often be ‘done’ in as little as 20-30 minutes, but if you cook it longer, you will find that the meat will be much tastier, having fully absorbed the flavorings, and more tender. The typical olives are small, blacks ones called olive taggiasche in Italian, grown along the Ligurian Riviera and used to make the fine, light Ligurian olive oil. They are very similar to the niçoise olives, which can used as a substitute, as can any similar black olive like the Gaeta variety. The wine should ideally also be Ligurian but any medium to light bodied red will do fine. If your rabbit comes with liver and kidneys, as they often do, you can cut them up and add them about halfway through the cooking process, along with the olives and pinoli nuts. Some recipes add celery to the soffritto.
And if you cannot bring yourself to eat rabbit, a cut-up whole chicken can be prepared in just the same way and is almost as delicious.
The dish is also called coniglio alla sanremese, after San Remo, of course, site of the famous music festival, on the coast very close to the French border. Started in 1951, it is still an annual ritual that is almost mandatory TV viewing in Italy. Perhaps the closest thing in the US would be the Superbowl, except it appeals equally to both women and men. The festival launched the careers of several famous Italian singers, including Andrea Bocelli, Laura Pausini and Eros Ramazzoti, but it is meant as a composition for composers, not singers, and features original songs. The festival has attracted the participation of some well known non-Italian singers, including Stevie Wonder, José Feliciano, Roberto Carlos, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark and Connie Francis.