I’ve been enjoying episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations lately. His attitude reminds me of why I love good food. Good food is equal parts of visceral living and connection – connection between physical and emotional, between cook and diners, between present and past. Smell and taste are hard wired into our brains and hooked into our memories more so than any other sense. When remembering a time distant lover it’s always the smell or taste that comes back first for me, followed distantly (if at all) by scattered recollections of sights and sounds. Bourdain often recounts similar experiences of memory and this is part of why he appeals to me. I also quite like the theme of No Reservations where good food doesn’t need to be complicated products of expensive establishments. Good food just needs to be true to the ingredients and the history of the people who make it, and this fits snugly with my own worldview that celebrates food cooked from scratch using techniques of my grandparents. Bourdain is also unashamedly omnivorous, but in a whole animal sort of way where all kinds and all parts of animals are celebrated. Although I admittedly suffer a little queasiness about offal, I enjoy eating meats other than the usual supermarket offerings of cow, sheep and chicken.
It’s with Bourdain’s perspective in mind that I’m posting a half recipe of wild-shot rabbit pie. This is a half recipe because there are no measureable quantities or exact directions, just some components and a process recounted. I must, however, start with an apology… due to the distractions of good company and a delicious bottle of Amisfield Pinot I clean forgot to take a snap of the final product. But rest assured friends, there was no limp pastry in sight.
The components of this dish were: one wild-shot rabbit; cumin, fennel and celery seeds; mushrooms, half an aubergine, bay leaves, garlic and an onion; stock (I used chicken). I broke my rabbit down into five parts so it would fit into the brazing dish by gently peering off the front and back legs. I fried the seeds by swirling in a hot dry pan until they give off a fine aroma, then ground them and rubbed them onto the flesh along with some salt and pepper. I caramelized each of the five rabbit parts in a heavy pan, deglazing with stock afterwards so as to reserve the goodness adhering to the pan after the meat has been removed. I used a cast iron dish that can be both sat the stovetop and in the oven so any golden goodness in the bottom of the dish missed by deglazing was retained (I am resisting the urge at this point to rant about how much I love cast iron cookware). There is something about the caramelization of meat that I find delicious. Lately with the advent if molecular gastronomy there has been a trend of water-bath or other low temperature methods of cooking meets. While I can see how these methods may preserve the tenderness and flavour inherent in animal protein, there is nothing quite like the sweetness, depth of flavour and aroma that comes from applying some decent heat (and a bit of extra fat) to meat.
Once the rabbit is sealed, I cooked the vegetable components down to the point of colouring and then put everything into a brazing dish. It is best to do this in batches so as not to crowd the pan. Overcrowding the pan will prevent browning because there is too much steam. Take care not to singe the onion or garlic as this will leave a bitter note in the dish. For many years I was half hearted about sautéed mushrooms on toast. Then I discovered that those limp, brownish, wet almost spongy things that I had been so often served were miss-treated fungi. Sliced and placed sparsely into a hot plan with a generous splash of high flash-point oil (I prefer rice bran oil at this point, but anything other than olive or walnut), with a little salt and pepper, they will fry till rich and golden. I like to finish mine at the last moment with a little knob of butter and French tarragon before turning out onto a thick slab of toast. Nom.
After caramelization I placed all components back into the brazing dish and topped it up with stock until the liquid almost covered the rabbit. I wanted this rabbit to roast on top while it stewed underneath. The concoction was slid into medium heat oven (around 150°C) and brazed, turning the meat occasionally, for around 5 hours. At this point I took the rabbit from the oven and stripped the meat from the bones using a knife and fork, savouring strips from the back-straps as chefs treats. I added the flesh back to the gravy filled brazing dish cooked this mix for another hour or so. In the end the vegetables had formed rich gravy and the meat was so tender it just disintegrated on the tongue. It would have been possible to stop here, give in to temptation and consume this with thick slabs of fresh white bred to soak up the gravy. But there is something special about pie…
After removing from the oven, I left the rabbit rest a while on the bench. While resting I added a little water every now and then, as it appeared to soak up the juices as it cooled and I didn’t want a dry pie. Ideally I would have waited a day or so for the flavours to develop before making it into pie, but impatience got the better of me. Spooned into a puff pastry case (see the bacon and egg pie recipe for pie making tricks) the rabbit returned to the oven once more and was cooked until the surrounding pastry was crisp and golden. The rabbit pie was served with creamy mashed potatoes and a side of fennel bulb that had been sliced, sautéed and topped with fennel seeds and char-grilled lengths of spring onion.
Before saying goodnight I would like to say a quick word of thanks to Ellersie Meats – a wonderful butchery providing a wide range of meats and great service, and the source of this particular rabbit.