For many, rabbit is a controversial meat. A lot of people are quite squeamish about it, particularly my generation, most likely thanks to their presence as cute characters in children’s books and films, as well as experience of them as household pets. In the US, the supermarket chain Whole Foods was forced to withdraw rabbit meat from sale after triggering widespread outrage and protests from customers, where the meat market is monopolised by beef, chicken and pork; in the UK, lamb can be added to that list.
In much of the world though and throughout history, rabbit is and has been a larger part of the human diet. Wild rabbit has often been a staple for the poor thanks to its abundance, and hunting rabbits would have helped limit any damage they could do to crops. Eating rabbit in the UK is now most strongly associated with rationing in the Second World War but, as with offal, has since been replaced with cheaper, industrially farmed meats instead.
Farmed rabbit (though often of questionable welfare) is more common in mainland Europe where demand is greater, but in the UK, wild rabbit is available year round from butchers and is very reasonably priced too for a low fat and sustainable meat source. While I was at Ashburton Cookery School, we prepared a rabbit terrine by confiting the legs in duck fat, as well as preparing a consommé from the carcass – slow cooking with additional fat and liquid is essential to keep the meat from drying out.
I actually prepared this in October last year and am only now getting round to writing it up. I based this ragu on two recipes: one by Marcella Hazan and one by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I tweaked things with what I had to hand, changing the herbs that were suggested by the River Cottage chef for example. While shredding the meat and removing the bones was a bit fiddly, I think it’s definitely worth doing to take out all the small bones. If you’re confident with butchery, you could take the meat off the bone first and save the carcass to make stock later, but I’d prefer to have the extra flavour in my sauce instead – after all, it’s very rare a recipe will call for rabbit stock! Linguine or a similar long pasta makes for a much more appealing accompaniment than the suggested polenta too.
In a wide saucepan, heat half the oil until very hot and brown the rabbit pieces well on all sides. Once they are well coloured, remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining oil to the pan and on a medium heat, soften the onion, carrot and celery with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. When the onion is translucent, add the herbs and chopped garlic and tomato purée to pan and cook gently for a couple more minutes. Add the wine an boil until there is almost no liquid left in the pan before adding the tomatoes and returning the rabbit to the pan. Simmer for 90 minutes, until the rabbit is tender and comes easily away from the bones. Once cooked, remove the rabbit pieces from the sauce and using a fork, shred the meat and discard the bones.
Remove the herb stalks from the saucepan and use a handheld blender to create a smooth sauce. Return the meat to the pan and bring back to a simmer. If serving with pasta, toss it through the sauce in the pan to coat it well, and serve with grated parmesan and a smattering of basil leaves. Serves 4.