Where I work, we serve rabbit. It’s a delightful dish, but when I describe it to guests, very often I am greeted with head-shaking, gasps of alarm, or– sometimes– the empathetic bunny-twitching of noses.
“Oh no, no, no,” I’ve heard more than once,”I would never eat rabbit. They’re so adorable!”
Some people just can’t stomach the thought of eating “cute”. Of course quite often, these are the same people who ask me to describe for a second time the lamb special.
So when did lambs stop being cute? When their heads are removed? When they are slowly roasted over an open fire? When they are served with potatoes?
Why this aversion to rabbit, I ask?
For those folks who have kept rabbits as pets, the aversion is understandable, though why anyone would want one of these rodents in their home is beyond me. Apart from providing companionship, they serve no practical domestic purpose of which I am aware. Quite often, they are pests– just look at what happened to Australia. Of course, rats are also rodents and considered pests by many, yet I kept one as a pet when I was a boy. And he provided no practical domestic purpose either beyond hours of entertainment. Pests or pets? It’s all a matter of opinion. And careful letter arrangement.
In terms of menu-bound animals, however, here’s what I don’t get: lambs are cute, too, and provide wool for sweaters and socks but still we don’t seem to have a problem eating them. Rabbits are turned into coats that only hookers wear, so why do some people cry when they see them offered on a restaurant menu, but don’t seem to bat an eye when the see the word “lamb”?
Why would anyone else (apart from vegetarians) be averse to eating rabbit meat moreso that any other animal flesh? Did they suffer through enough rabbit stews during the Great Depression and World War rationing? Is the Easter Bunny and his promises of candy to blame? Have we been brainwashed or bribed with enough sugar into believing the consumption of rabbit flesh is a crime against nature, but that somehow eating other adorable-looking animals is perfectly acceptable?
Or does it have something to do with Bugs Bunny? I’ve heard people at my tables reference him (ad nauseum) and giggle after I mention our rabbit dish, but never do they mention Daffy Duck or Porky Pig or Foghorn Leghorn when they order their dishes of duck or pork or chicken, respectively.
Cute food, it seems, is wholly subjective.
The same people who profess horror at the thought of eating real rabbits do not seem to have a problem eating chocolate or marshmallow likenesses of them. Much thought is often given to which part of the delicacy should be eaten first. It seems to me that it is one, short step from eating an effigy of something to eating the thing itself. (Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s something else to think about. I mean, do vegetarians eat marshmallow peeps? It’s just a question.)
I made that leap myself years ago. If you have no issues with consuming animal protein, I invite you now to join me in a little rabbit stew.
And while we’re eating, perhaps you could next explain to me why it is that most people cringe in horror at the site of a rat minding its own business, yet squeal with delight whenever a squirrel (which is essentially a rat with a fluffy tail) rips a salted peanut out of their hand?
Oh, right. It’s all about cute.
Hasenpfeffer with Bacon-Chive Spätzle
When researching Hasenpfeffer, I discovered that there seemed to be no two recipes that were alike. This doesn’t surprise me given the fact that, for most of it’s history, Germany was little more than a patchwork of kingdoms. principalities, Margraves, and Palatinates. What on earth would lead me to think that Hanoverians. Prussians, Pomeranians, and Bavarians would ever unite over a rabbit dish?
Hasenpfeffer is essentially a stew made from bits of rabbit or hare. Hasen is the German word for rabbit and, of course, explains why there is rabbit in the recipe. Pfeffer, which means “pepper” in the same language, refers to the little bits and pieces of rabbit which can be found in the stew and perhaps explains why there isn’t a preponderance of actual pepper in the recipe. It’s there alright, but not enough to merit a co-starring role.
I’ll just chalk it up to me inability to grasp the nuances of the German language.
Serves 6 to 8 hungry people who are unafraid of eating cute creatures.
This is my own version– a culling of others, with a few added touches of my own. I will never claim this recipe’s authenticity as echt German but, being from Anaheim, I think it might be like some sort of birthright or something to lay claim to my own hasenpfeffer dish. It is a forgiving recipe, allowing for increases in amounts of the various ingredients, according to one’s own tastes. The following is merely a guideline.
Part One: The Marinade
2 rabbits (about 4 pounds), skinned and gutted and otherwise dressed.
1 1/4 cups dry red wine
3 cloves chopped garlic
about 1/2 cup shallots, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Part Two: Stewing The Rabbit
1/3 cup all-purpose flour, for dusting the rabbit
1 to 1 1/4 cups water
1/2 pound bacon (I used Black Forest bacon because it just seemed to make sense.)
1 tablespoon red currant jelly
1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
1 bay leaf
A splash or two of apple cider vinegar to taste
Salt and more pepper to taste
A slurry of equal parts flour and water, in case the stew is not thick enough
Part Three: The Spätzle
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (pre-ground works well, too, but not quite as well)
2 large eggs, preferably at room temperature
1/4 cup milk
As much fresh chive as you like, or 2-to-3 tablespoons, chopped
1. In a bowl large enough to accommodate all your rabbit meat, combine red wine, salt, shallots, garlic, and mustard. Whisk to combine well. Rinse rabbit meat. Separate the legs– hind and fore– from the rabbits’ bodies, then divide the carcasses into three or four pieces. Add rabbit to the wine mixture, cover and refrigerate. This can sit in your ice box for up to three days. I recommend letting it sit at least over night.
2. When you are ready to make your hasenpfeffer, fry up your bacon on a medium-high heat until crisp in the largest frying pan, Dutch Oven, or otherwise heavy-bottomed skillet you’ve got. Patience in bacon-frying rewards you with more rendered fat, so go gently. When bacon is done, remove, drain on paper towels, and chop into bits. Leave the bacon fat in the pan.
3. In a large plate or wide, shallow bowl, put your flour. Remove rabbit pieces from marinade, pat dry, and dredge in flour, shaking off any excess. Working in two batches, brown the rabbit. If you don’t have enough bacon fat to evenly coat the bottom of your pan, simply add enough olive oil to do so (I told you this was a forgiving recipe.). Strain the marinade, so that you might temporarily liberate the shallots.
4. When all the rabbit has been browned, remove to a plate then add the shallots to the pan. Sauté for three to four minutes to deepen their flavor (they will have virtually disintegrated by the time your stew is finished, so don’t worry about their looks). Add your wine marinate and water to the pan and bring to a boil. Now add your thyme, rosemary, crushed black pepper, and red currant preserves.
5. Add your rabbit pieces to the pan and one half of the chopped bacon. Return to a boil and then back down to a simmer. Cover and let simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat looks as if it might start falling of the bone, which is pretty much what you want to happen. If you have no proper lid for your largest pan, as I do not, cover well with aluminum foil, or aluminium foil, if you are preparing this dish in Canada.
6. Now here comes the exciting part– the spätzle, which means “little sparrow” in Swabian, in case you didn’t know. In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, nutmeg, and pepper. In a separate bowl whisk together the milk and eggs. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gently pour in the egg-milk mixture. Draw in flour from the sides of the well and combine until the dough is smooth and think. Let rest for 10 to fifteen minutes.
7. Bring about 3 quarts of lightly salted water to a boil in a large, wide pot. Reduce to a simmer. To form the spätzle (or, if you prefer, spaetzle), hold either a spoon or colander with large holes over the simmering water (of course, if you had a spätzle press, you’d be using that) and push the dough through the holes with a spatula. Best to do this in 4 to 5 batches– noodles do not take well to over-crowding. Cook each batch for 3 to 4 minutes, or until they float to the surface, as though they were, in fact, little sparrows that had been forcibly drowned and had finally given up on life. Remove the dead sparrows to a colander and let drain.
8. When the stew is ready, remove the rabbit pieces to a warm platter, placing said platter in a warm oven. If the remaining sauce is not as thick as you would like (read: gravy-like consistency) at a little flour/water slurry to firm things up, cooking long enough, of course, to properly cook the flour.
9. At this point, you could either strain the sauce through a sieve to have a smooth sauce, or leave it as is. I vote as is– why get rid of all that bacon and lumpy goodness? It is entirely up to you.
10. Now– and finally– in a separate pan, add your spätzle, and remaining bacon, along with about a half cup (or more to taste) of your rabbit sauce. Toss gently and heat through. Remove the spätzle to the center of a large serving platter and garnish liberally with chopped chives. Arrange the rabbit pieces around the spätzle, pour over as much of the sauce as you like and some more chives, should you find the need for more color.
Proudly serve your guests this platter of dead bunnies and little sparrows with a side of steamed, whole baby carrots. To young children. While they are watching Warner Bros. cartoons. One mights as well make as grand a statement as one can.
As a little bonus to those of you who have actually read to the bottom of this post, I leave you with this: a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It is entitled Bowery Bugs (1949). I realize that hasenpfeffer is only briefly mentioned, but I recently re-watched Shishkabugs (1962) wherein the dish in question is much more important to the storyline. However, Shishkabugs is a sad affair with poor animation, a wussied-up Yosemite Sam, and a middle-aged rabbit star who is clearly only going through the motions.
And for those of you curious enough about the lead photo, it is the work of one Nicky Dunbar of Canada. He has spent the past several weeks photographing and otherwise giving life to a gold-wrapped chocolate bunny. It’s a thing he does. I hope he gets around to eating it soon.