Year of the Rabbit

rabbits_roundBY Bonni Miller

Backyard chickens? Sure. But today’s homesteading buzz is all about the backyard rabbit.

Rabbits grow quickly, using proportionately a fraction of the water and other environmental resources of larger animals. They are easily housed and handled, and are an excellent and prolific source of uber-healthy protein. Unlike chickens, they’re very quiet. And these small, famously amorous animals are a very big idea in sustainable agriculture.

An indication of rabbit’s trendiness surfaced not long ago in an unlikely place. Referencing its relatively tiny ecological footprint, a recent article in Vogue magazine touted rabbit as the next “ethical meat.” And rabbits are indeed low impact livestock with plenty of merit. One female rabbit can easily produce 75 to 100 pounds of meat a year. And a handful of breeding rabbits could fill most of the protein needs for an average family in a space barely larger than a dog kennel, if raised conventionally (in cages), and with quality feed pellets.

Many new rabbit farmers prefer to pasture graze their animals, though, just as many large-animal graziers do. Even then, a space no bigger than an average backyard can provide enough “pasture” for several rabbits, if managed properly. Rabbits raised on pasture tend to grow somewhat more slowly than conventionally raised rabbits, but they develop a better nutritional profile.

“When you start thinking about where your food comes from,” rabbit farmer Tommy Enright said “given the choice between animals raised indoors in cages and on concrete, or animals raised out on grassy pasture, why would I support the former?”

Enright and his wife, Samantha raise the Silver Fox breed of rabbits at their Black Rabbit Farm in Amherst. Silver Fox are a rare and historic breed that fell out of favor with rabbit raisers in recent decades, but like other heritage livestock breeds have seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years. In a time when people are increasingly conscious of their food decisions, raising an at-risk animal such as Silver Fox or American Blue rabbits, and increasing the diversity of our food supply, has become part of a larger, more ecologically responsible mindset.

Historically, rabbits have been an essential player in the quest for self-sufficiency. During WWII, both in the U.S, and abroad, too, rabbit raising was encouraged by governments as an easy way for families to contribute to national security. Adding to their appeal, rabbits present exceptional value beyond their meat. Not only is their fur warm and soft, but the manure of rabbits is an outstanding garden fertilizer. Hence, rabbits can feed the garden, and the trimmings from a rabbit-fed garden can go back to feed the rabbits. It’s a beautiful efficiency.

Culinarily, rabbit meat is often compared to chicken or turkey. It takes well to all flavor profiles, and can be used interchangeably in any recipe normally used for chicken. It’s even leaner than chicken breast, with more protein than beef. It’s high in vitamins B12 and E, and those wonderful omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s easily digestible and a great choice for the elderly and those recovering from injury.

Trendsetting chefs across the country are embracing the growing popularity of rabbit meat, featuring delicious rabbit pates, confits, and braises on their menus.

Take note that commercially raised rabbit that’s offered in grocery stores is often meat that’s been raised in China and shipped overseas. It pays to seek out a local farmer to buy it directly from them or their market outlets if you want a fresh and superior product.  When preparing rabbit, keep in mind that it’s very lean and be careful not to overcook it, or it could end up a bit dry. Again, it’s comparable to chicken breast. Cook it fast and hot, or low and slow, for best results. Bon appetit!

Cook it! Rabbit with Dijon Sauce
(Adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells)
Serves four
Cooking time: 1 ½ – 2 hours, mostly unattended

This simple braise showcases the flavor and versatility of domestic rabbit meat and is easily made at home on a lovely, lazy day.

Loins and hind legs from two rabbits (reserve the rest of the rabbit for stock)
½ cup dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 bottle of dry white wine
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon flour
Several branches of fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Chopped fresh parsley

a pastry brush, parchment or waxed paper to set the raw rabbit on while it marinates, a large heavy non-reactive skillet (preferably stainless steel or enameled cast-iron), tongs, platter

About an hour before you intend to cook the rabbit, lay the cuts out on the parchment or waxed paper and paint with dijon mustard using a pastry brush or your fingers. Season well with salt and pepper and let it come to room temperature.

Heat the oil and butter in the skillet and fry the rabbit over medium heat until browned and golden. Do this in batches if need be.
Remove the rabbit from the pan to the platter and set aside. Add a few tablespoons of wine to the skillet and deglaze, stirring any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Leaving the liquid and flavorful browned bits in the pan, add the chopped onions and cook until they’re soft and browned at the edges.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour. Add the rest of the wine and the herbs and stir to mix. Add all the pieces of rabbit. Bring the liquid just to a boil and immediately lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook slowly, turning the pieces of meat occasionally, until the rabbit is tender and the sauce is reduced and starting to thicken.

Arrange the meat on the serving platter, drizzle some of the sauce over top, reserving the rest to serve on the side, and garnish with the parsley.

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