This recipe is likely to push some of you out of their comfort zone. The meat I am presenting you today is rabbit, and you are welcome to go elsewhere if this disturbs you in any way. If it doesn’t, I hope you are inclined to consider this recipe. It is a quintessentially Italian recipe, not because it is very common, nor because the method is widespread, but because of its combination of simplicity, style and intense flavours: a combination at the heart of what makes Italian cooking stand out from the crowd.
The recipe comes from Monferrato, the Southern part of Piemonte. Mainly hilly, but lacking some of the spectacular art treasures and landscapes that have made other regions like Chianti very popular with tourists, Monferrato is home to many a culinary treasure, from tartufo to barolo to bagna cauda. The way of life in the hills is traditionally agricultural, and this reflects on the recipe: in every farm poultry and rabbits, the so-called ‘animali da cortile’, were raised, and constituted one of the main meat sources. The recipe is completed using olive oil from the nearby Liguria and herbs grown in the garden. It was probably invented when the work on the farm was more intense and there was not much time to cook every day: an ingenious and tasty way to keep the meat for a few more days and make a little go further.
I have always eaten rabbit, since it is very common in Veneto, together with other unusual meats like horse or pigeon. Rabbit has a delicate but resilient flavour, not unlike a very good chicken, and a much firmer meat. If you have never cooked with it, there are a couple of tricks to make sure it does not taste gamey, which can put off some people (including me). If the idea of eating rabbit really puts you off, but you still are intrigued by the recipe, or if you can’t find rabbit where you live, you can probably try something similar with a very good free range chicken, or even better, with a hen. Actually in the cookbook where this recipe comes from, there is a very similar recipe made using hen.
I took the recipe from ‘Osterie del monferrato‘: the Slow Food movement made a painstaking work at interviewing the cooks of their favourite osterie, as well as the home cooks of every little village, and collecting their recipes together with their local history and evolution. This recipe however is not new to me. My mum has been making it for years, and now that I can find rabbit (not a very common sight in the UK) I wanted to make it myself.
The recipe must be made ahead. You need to boil the meat, bone it, and marinade it in olive oil, garlic and sage. The active time is probably about half an hour, the longest part being boning the meat. Then you forget about it for a few days in the fridge. In this time the garlic and sage will infuse the oil and the meat will be fed with that oil, turning into a soft but firm preserve not unlike the consistency of very good canned tuna – hence the name, tonno. When you want to eat it, not before two days, and not after a week, let the whole pot get to room temperature. Drip off the oil carefully, and serve with something simple – a green, fresh salad, a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Garlic will be a clear presence, like sage, but none of them will be overly assertive. For this reason make sure you use very good garlic; if you can find it, I like pink French garlic, particularly mild and sweet, while I find the Chinese garlic is to be avoided, at least in Europe. For the sage I brought some fresh leaves from a visit to my parents’ garden, conveniently located in Piemonte :) When cutting the meat, I like to leave relatively big chunks, the size of a big bite, as much as possible, since I find that they have the best consistency after the marinade.
Finally, the recipe is traditionally served as a starter, but I like to add more salad, a few other vegetables on the side and some good bread, and call it lunch.
Tonno di coniglio – Rabbit preserve
Ingredients: serves 4-6 people
3 rabbit tights
For the stock: 1 carrot, 1 piece of celeriac root, 1 onion, 2 bay leaves, grains of black pepper, two or three cloves, 1 tablespoon rosemary leaves
For the marinade: 6 garlic cloves, a bunch of fresh sage leaves, whole black peppercorns, salt.
To serve: fresh salad leaves, a few drops of good quality balsamic vinegar (optional)
To make sure your rabbit does not taste gamey, immerse the parts in cold water, and leave them under a drip of running water for about half an hour, until the meat turns almost white in parts.
Drain it. Put all the stock ingredients into a big stock pot with about 2 lt water. When the water is boiling add the rabbit pieces, and let it cook, covered, for about 45 minutes- 1 hour. The meat should be very tender, but not overly cooked and mushy. Let the meat get warm, then take it off the stock. Cut the meat parts off the bone into large bite sized chunks. Take a glass container; fit about half of the meat on top of it, cover with half of the garlic cloves, peeled and slightly crushed, a few whole peppercorns, half the sage leaves, whole, and a generous amount of salt. Pour some olive oil on top. Make another layer of meat, then again a layer of sage, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover everything with olive oil, so that the meat will be completely covered by it. Cover your container and let it rest in the fridge for at lest two days. Take it out well ahead of time before serving, so that the oil will melt completely. Drain the meat well and serve it as a starter or as a main with some crunchy salad leaves and if you like, a few drops of very good balsamic vinegar.