That's right. I cooked a bunny.
I understand that this post may lose me some readers.* That's okay. The nineteenth-century prairie wasn't all dry cornbread and apple turnovers. Pa Ingalls went out hunting, and he brought back turkeys and blackbirds and deer and rabbits. It's about time I investigated some of the squishier aspects of prairie meals.
Now, The Joy of Cooking informed me that while rabbit stew may seen like a foreign concept, many people still enjoy rabbit today. This unfortunately led me to believe that I could procure a dressed rabbit at my local Whole Foods. Not so, friends. I had to call around to a few specialty butchers before I found Central Meat Market, which offers beef, poultry, rabbit, goose, quail, whole pigs, and even partial cows (with a special order). Having never ventured into a specialty butcher shop before, I was a little nervous. But the butcher was quite friendly, and he even chopped up the rabbit for me.
Then I proceeded to psych myself up for this recipe. Josh and I went to the Coggeshall Farm Harvest Festival a few hours before I started to cook, which proved inspiring and...um...guilt-inducing.
We visited a hearth cooking site (manned by a well-dressed young fop), where a whole turkey was stewing over the fire. We heard all about heritage breed chickens. We strolled past a pony ride and tried our hand at checkers. Then we stopped by a crafts tent and petted the angora rabbits on display. They were so, so soft and sweet.
That's when the guilt set in. It's hard to think about cooking an animal for dinner when you're petting its relative at a festival.
Nevertheless, I had to soldier on. So that evening I tried to forget the cute bunnies and focus on the meal at hand.
I started off with salt pork (as if I'd use anything else). I browned some diced-up pieces of pork in a Dutch oven, then removed the pork for later. The rabbit pieces went into the fat to brown (while I tried to look at the pieces as abstract bits of meat. Rabbit ends up looking disconcertingly like chicken, which I wasn't expecting). Meanwhile, I simmered the giblets (heart, liver, etc.) in a separate saucepan with water, and added the liquid to the Dutch oven to simmer with the rabbit.
At this point I wasn't at all sure I wanted to eat this stew for dinner.
But still, on I went. I toasted some flour to a nice cocoa-brown, then mixed it with the chopped-up giblets and some water to form a dark gravy. Then I prepared some dumpling dough (your basic flour-salt-buttermilk-baking soda mixture) and got ready for the final stretch. When the meat was tender, I mixed the gravy and the salt pork pieces back into the Dutch oven, and dropped the dumpling dough on top. After about 10 minutes, the dumplings had puffed into a nice crust, and the stew was ready.
Was I ready?
I tried the sauce and dumplings before I tested the rabbit. The sauce was incredibly rich and earthy--definitely the giblets' doing. It was a little too much for me. The rabbit, on the other hand, was lightly gamey and a delicious combination of chicken and venison. So tasty.
I definitely wouldn't make this stew again (that sauce), and I'd have to work up the courage to buy another skinned rabbit from the butcher before I ventured near it again. But preparing for this stew was a surprisingly sobering experience. It wasn't until I visited that butcher that I realized just how sanitized our mainstream American experience of food has become. I've been accustomed to seeing only beef, chicken, turkey, and pork in the supermarket, wrapped up nicely in plastic packages. Were it not for this project, I doubt I would have fully considered how limited that meat selection really is.
* But not you, Lyuda. You've eaten rabbits before, right?