Before I start, I know that some of you reading are turning up your nose at the idea of eating rabbit, even if you’ve never even tried it. You may be vegetarian, and if so, you get a pass.
But for those of you who think nothing of scarfing down a prosciutto sandwich or a porterhouse steak, eating rabbit is no different from eating other animals that are killed for your dining pleasure. In fact, it’s much more eco-friendly since it requires less energy to raise, and produces less waste.
Aside from the ecological benefits, rabbit contains the least amount of fat and calories than other meats, is almost cholesterol free and tastes great. Contrary to what a lot of people think, there’s quite a lot of meat on a rabbit in relationship to bone, and it does not have a “gamey” flavor. Much of it is like eating white meat chicken, only tastier.
So step outside your comfort zone and try cooking rabbit, using this recipe loosely adapted from the book “Blue Plate Special” by Kate Christensen. It was my book group’s selection for January, and we always accompany our discussions with a dinner using food that’s mentioned in the book.
Depending on where you live, it may be hard to find fresh rabbit. I live not far from an Amish market that stocks it regularly. But so does my supermarket. Last week I called ahead to order two of them since I was planning to make it for the book group dinner and didn’t want to risk their not having any in the meat case the day I needed it.
Here’s what it looks like before it’s cut into pieces. You can ask the butcher to do that for you — a task I recommend since it’s hard cutting through the bones. See that bit of liver hanging out? Don’t throw it away. I’ll come back to it at the end.
I ordered two rabbits and used two pans to cook them. One rabbit will feed about four people, assuming you have side dishes and a starch.
This is one of the pots I used and it holds one rabbit beautifully. The pot is probably at least 65 years old and belonged to my mother. It’s perfect for braises, stews and even for baking upside down cakes. Browning the rabbit at high heat means your pan will look pretty messy, but this, and my other pot below, clean up spic and span.
Simultaneously, I cooked another rabbit in this enamel coated cast iron pan – very heavy but it cooks very evenly.
With all the other food that was prepared by other book group members to accompany the rabbit, there were plenty of leftovers for me to take home, and reheat for dinner another night with freshly made polenta and herbs. This recipe would also be delicious served with buttered noodles of some sort, as suggested by the book.
Lentils and rabbit are also a match made in heaven and I made this dish of roasted rabbit, lentils and chestnuts a couple of months ago, trying to duplicate a delicious meal I ate last fall at a restaurant tucked away in the hills of Liguria, Italy. If you’re interested in this rabbit recipe, send me an email and I’ll be happy to send it to you. The lentils recipe is from Joe Cicala, chef at Le Virtù and Brigantessa in Philadelphia, and I posted it a few years ago (along with his rabbit recipe) here.
And remember that rabbit liver I told you to save at the top of this post?
Joe also gave me a great idea of what to do with it.
Chop it up with some shallots and sauté it in some butter, he said, then season with some fresh thyme, salt and pepper. Serve it on toasted bread and drizzle it with a balsamic glaze and you’ve got perfect crostini to drink with your pre-dinner glass of wine.
Ciao Chow Linda is also on Instagram, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Click here to connect with me on Facebook, here for my Pinterest page, here for my Twitter feed and here for my Instagram page to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
1 rabbit (about 2.5 to 3 lbs.)
4 slices of thickly sliced pancetta (about 1/8″ thick), cut into bits
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon flour
1 cup beef broth
1/2 cup wine
1/2 cup water
thyme, rosemary, bay leaf
fresh parsley, minced
Chop the rabbit into pieces. Fry the pancetta in 1 T. of the olive oil until crisp and remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Set aside and resist the temptation to munch on them (ok, have a few bits).
Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until translucent. Remove from the pan. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, sauté the rabbit in the oil on high heat, until the pieces turn golden brown. Sprinkle with the flour and sauté for a few more minutes, turning. The pan will look a mess, but don’t worry. All that brown stuff on the bottom with help flavor the sauce and loosens once you add the liquid. Remove the rabbit from the pan and set aside. Add the beef broth and the wine in the pan, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom. Put the onions and rabbit back into the pan, add the herbs and some of the water. Simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour, adding more water if the sauce gets too thick. Just before serving, sprinkle with the reserved pancetta bits and minced parsley.
It’s been open only a month and they’re packing them in every night. The widely anticipated opening last month of Brigantessa, on Philly’s East Passyunk Ave., – a hot-spot in the city’s restaurant scene – lives up to every bit of expectations. And why wouldn’t it, when you’ve got a talented, three-time James Beard nominated chef (Joe Cicala) and visionary owners of the hugely successful Le Virtù (Francis Cratil Cretarola and Cathy Lee) backing it. What Le Virtù does exceedingly well for Abruzzese cuisine, Brigantessa does for Southern Italian cuisine in general.
It calls itself a “forneria meridionale,” meaning a place that features Southern Italian wood oven cooking. Living up to its name, the back of the house is dominated by a monster wood-fired oven imported from Naples used for cranking out delicious pizza. Joe spent time there to learn Neapolitan pizza making techniques and earn his “pizza verace” certificate. His attention to detail has paid off. But Brigantessa is more than just another pizza joint.
Brigantessa – whose name comes from the female brigands who fought against Northern Italian domination in the late 1800s – features a very reasonably priced menu with inventive selections not typically found at Italian restaurants in the U.S. When was the last time you ate smoky-infused broccoli romanesco served over a bed of polenta or wood-grilled beans and octopus? Exactly.
The second, wood-fired oven in the back of the house, (this time square-shaped) is used to impart a charred, smoky flavor to many of the restaurant’s offerings. And in a word, they’re all fabulous.
The space has been totally renovated and looks fresh and modern, yet welcoming and homey at the same time. The front of the house features a bar and high top tables, ideal when you just want to pop in for a drink and some spuntini. There’s a huge selection of Italian and local craft beers and a wide variety of Italian wines to accompany the food.
Upstairs is a large dining room, with beautifully gripping photographs of Southern Italian subjects lining the walls, taken by Le Virtù employee Kateri Likoudis.
Earlier this week, I was privileged to eat at Brigantessa with Domenica Marchetti and Helen Free, good friends who came up from the D.C. area, and were as eager as I to try the new restaurant’s offerings.
Here’s a sampling of some of the dishes we ate, but the menu is far more expansive and so were the plates on our table. Unfortunately, some of my photos were just too blurry to include here.
These tangy “long hots” stuffed with house-made sausage and sprinkled with cheese were a delicious and different take on the ubiquitous peppers and sausage.
Braised artichoke hearts served with bread crumbs and crispy fried capers never tasted so good.
Don’t miss the sarde “in saor” with fennel and onions – sardines in a sweet and sour treatment.
Of course we had to sample the pizza and the one we ordered was just what you’d expect of the best Neapolitan pizza – a soft, pliable crust charred a bit on the outside and chewy around the edges. Add house-made fior di latte mozzarella, fragrant prosciutto and bits of arugula and you’ve got a concoction that you can’t stop eating.
The pastas we sampled were equally tempting, including these cappellaci dei briganti, served with a rich meat ragu and pecorino cheese.
Sorry for the poor photo, but this pasta was not just delicious, it was sensational. It’s pappardelle made from black chick pea flour and served with a sauce from whey-braised lamb (After making the mozzarella, Joe puts the whey to good use) and sprinkled with fennel pollen. Forget any preconceptions linking Italian food to only red sauce. If ever you could taste Southern Italy in one perfect mouthful, it was this dish, redolent of rosemary and the flavors of Abruzzo.
The pièce di resistance (or should I say “pezzo di resistenza”) was this dreamy dish of ricotta gnudi, showered with a shaving of white truffles. The ethereal pillows just melted in your mouth and made you wish that truffle season was 12 months a year. But the beauty of eating here is what’s so great about eating at the best trattorie in Italy – you taste what’s in season, at the height of its freshness.
Full as we were, we couldn’t leave without sampling some desserts. I would say this was overload, but then again, how could you not be tempted by these sweets prepared by pastry chef Angela Ranalli (Joe’s wife). From right to left you’re looking at crunchy Moorish-style Cannoli with a fragrant filling made with ricotta, and flavored with rosewater, pistachio, and orange blossom water; tortino al rhum – an Italian rum cake in a terrine; an assortment of Italian cookies and candies, including a crunchy Sardinian almond candy, and candied rose petals; and last but not least, house made gelato covered in white truffles (you heard me right!).
We left there totally sated but looking forward to our next visit.
In the meantime, I can make one of Joe’s pasta dishes at home to remind me of the wonderful evening spent at Brigantessa. For those of you who live far from Philadelphia and can’t get to the restaurant, try this recipe at home. It might be a little tough getting the whey, but don’t let that stop you from using milk to marinate the lamb. Black chick pea flour is nearly impossible to find in the U.S., but Bob’s Red Mill makes regular chick pea flour that you could substitute.
Black Chick Pea Pappardelle, Whey-Braised Lamb, fennel pollen Recipe from Joe Cicala at Brigantessa printable recipe here Pasta Ingredients:
3/4 cup black of chickpea/garbanzo flour
1 cup of “00” flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
3 extra large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil Directions:
the “well” method, place the flours on a work surface, and create a
volcano in the center. Add the eggs and oil, and mix with a fork, slowly
incorporating the flour.
Once the mixture is somewhat
homogenous, kneed for five minutes by hand until the dough becomes firm
and smooth. Let rest for one hour covered in the refrigerator. Using a
pasta machine, roll out the dough from the largest setting to the second
to smallest. Cut the dough into 1-inch strips approximately 6-inches
long. Cook in salted boiling water for three minutes or until tender.
Add the cooked pasta to a pan with the ragu and toss. Serve with
pecorino cheese, and dust with fennel pollen. Ragu Ingredients:
1⁄4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
1⁄2 Medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1⁄2 Medium carrot, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 pounds of lamb shoulder cubed
1 cup of dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of rosemary
1/2 gallon of whey or 1 percent milk Directions:
a large pot, sweat the vegetables in the olive oil and butter over
medium heat until translucent. Add the lamb cubes, and turn the heat up
to medium-high in order to slightly brown the meat. Deglaze the pan with
white wine and add the herbs. Reduce the wine until nearly dry, and add
the whey. Simmer for one hour or until the lamb is tender enough to
shred with a wooden spoon. ■
Wake me if you must, but it’s been nearly three days and I’m still dreaming about Saturday night’s dinner with “The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo,” prepared in my kitchen by Joe Cicala, chef at Philadelphia’s Le Virtù restaurant — the same restaurant named yesterday by Zagat one of the “hottest Italian restaurants in the U.S.”
“How did this happen?” people have been asking. “Can I be one of the “Glorious Friends?”
Well, it all started when Francis Cratil Cretarola and Catherine Lee, owers of Le Virtù, and ardent promoters and supporters of this too-little known, mountainous region of Italy, held a fund-raiser for a project there — maintenance of the tratturi, the centuries-old trails used by shepherds to transport herds during the seasonal migration.
My friend Helen Free, co-founder of “Italy, In Other Words,” the workshop in Abruzzo that I now co-teach with Kathryn Abajian, suggested we get a group of friends together and place a bid. So we did. And we won!
l. to r. Chef Joe Cicala, Ciao Chow Linda, Francis Cratil, Cathy Lee, Doug and Helen Free
Fifteen of us were seated around my dining room table, including our special guest — Domenica Marchetti, author of many cookbooks, including “The Glorious Pasta of Italy.” Domenica’s mother hails from Abruzzo and travels there frequently for research and to visit family and friends.
The meal exceeded our expectations, beginning with the stuzzichini, or appetizers that were served before we were seated. Stay with me because this was a meal with many courses, and there’s a recipe at the end for you too. Let’s start with crostini topped with sheep’s milk ricotta that was blended with saffron (Navelli is the town in Abruzzo noted for its production of the much prized pungent spice). Sprinkle with toasted almonds, drizzle with honey and you’ve got something you can’t stop eating.
Have some potato croquettes too, oozing with cheese and tantalizingly hot.
What about arancini, crackly and crispy on the outside, giving way to soft and luscious nuggets of rice, small peas and cheese on the inside? I got carried away with munching and forgot to take a photo, so the one below is courtesy of Stacey Snacks, a fellow blogger, friend and guest at Saturday’s dinner.
Do you know about arrosticcini, one of Abruzzo’s iconic dishes? They’re kebobs of uniformly cubed lamb grilled over an open fire. Traditionally, the meat is not marinated in Abruzzo, where the quality of the lamb is far different from what’s available here. To compensate, chef Joe marinates his arrosticcini in olive oil, minced rosemary, peperoncino, garlic and lemon zest.
I could have eaten a dozen, but I knew these were just the opening act so I restrained myself – barely.
We took our seats at the table, as Joe brought forth wooden boards laden with affettati, house-cured salumi made at Le Virtù – pancetta, guanciale, salame nostrano (a simple pork salame), capocollo,
cacciatorini (small pork salame), lamb salame, sweet and sour carrots
and onions and roasted peppers. I felt like I had been transported back to Italy, where many meals start with plates of similar cured meats.
Next came a soup so delicious it could warm the body and soul of any shepherd tending his flock in mid-winter. I’m not the only one at the table who was wishing for the recipe, and Joe graciously gave it to me. Its monochromatic color may not win any beauty contests, but let me assure you it could take first prize for flavor with its arresting combination of chickpeas, chestnuts and farro.
Before I go any further, let me mention that Joe stepped aside from the stove long enough to describe each course as it was served. Meanwhile Francis, seen in the photo below toasting Domenica (seated next to him), talked about the different wines — all from Abruzzo — as they were being poured.
Are you ready for the primi piatti? That’s primi not primo, and piatti not piatto, because there were two of them. The first was a dish of gnocchi made not with the predictable potato, but with flour and water only, dressed in a creamy sauce of sheep’s milk ricotta from Abruzzo and sautéed bits of lamb sausage. A dusting of pecorino topped the dish.
Nothing says Abruzzo like maccheroni alla chitarra, a pasta made with a wooden, multi-stringed traditional implement called a chitarra. The pasta was tossed with a lamb ragù. If you weren’t an aficionado of lamb, an animal that’s been crucial to Abruzzo’s economy since the Middle Ages, you might have struggled with Saturday night’s lamb-centric menu. But as each plate was cleared from the table, I detected no lingering bits of food from unhappy diners. Had I been eating in private, I would have licked the plate clean — or at least sopped up any remaining sauce with bread, “scarpetta” style.
How could you not when the food was so delicious? The main course followed the night’s theme — juniper smoked lamb loin, served with roasted potatoes and broccoli rape. It was succulent and tender enough to cut with a butter knife or even a sturdy fork — and cooked to the perfect temperature.
Like any respectable Italian meal, there has to be a cheese course, and this was no exception. This was, in fact, a tour de force with cheeses imported from Abruzzo by Bob Marcelli, who was also a dinner guest and who explained each cheese and its characteristics. He should know what he’s talking about since he owns Marcelli Formaggi, importers of products from Abruzzo including cheeses made on his family’s farm. They were served with a selection of artisanal honeys from the region.
At this point you might be wondering if dessert was served and whether any one had room for it. The answer is yes, and yes. As with many special occasion meals in Italy, there is no rush to the process and the portions are not super sized as they are in the U.S. We started the evening around 7:30 and were still seated at close to midnight. So there was no need to move my belt by even one notch when dessert was served — a creamy semifreddo made with fragrant star anise and pine nuts, served with pears poached in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and drizzled with mosto cotto.
But wait, there was still more to come — a platter filled with Italian cookies – biscotti, ferratelle (Abruzzo’s version of pizzelle), jam-filled cookies and struffoli — all made in-house at Le Virtù. P.S. Joe’s wife Angela is the pastry chef there.
As much as I didn’t want the night to end, all good things, as they say must …… what? they must? No they mustn’t, dang it. Not if you live anywhere near Philadelphia they don’t. You can get yourself to Le Virtù and experience these delights for yourself at the restaurant at 1927 E. Passyunk Ave. Want an even more authentic experience? Francis and Cathy are taking a small group to Abruzzo in April on a culinary tour. I can’t imagine a better way to visit the region, unless you have relatives there. And if you’ve been thinking about writing a personal memoir, a food or travel memoir, join me and Kathryn in June for a week in the magical Abruzzo village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio for the Italy In Other Words workshop.
OK, I hear you. You don’t live near Philly and you can’t get to Italy this year. So here’s something for you too — Joe’s recipe for that unforgettable soup is below so you can cook up a bit of Abruzzo right in your own kitchen.
It may not be as complete as Saturday’s dinner with “The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo” but it sure beats frozen pizza or Chef Boyardee.
Thank you Joe, Francis and Cathy for a night I’ll be remembering for years to come and thank you “Amici Gloriosi d’Abruzzo” for your participation.
La zuppa di farro, ceci e castagne Farro, chickpea and chestnut soup
From Chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtù printable recipe here
1/2 cup mirepoix (minced celery, carrots and onions)
1 tablespoon diced pancetta (or any other salame scrap)
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz peeled chestnuts
6 oz chickpeas (that have been soaked over night)
4 oz farro
1 gallon chicken stock (we also use rabbit stock)(I used about 6 cups when I made this – one gallon seemed like too much).
1 tablespoon minced rosemary
Sweat the mirepoix, pancetta, olive oil and chestnuts until the nuts are soft/tender, add chickpeas and chicken stock.
cook until the chickpeas are almost tender.
add farro and rosemary
cook until tender.
serve with pecorino cheese and drizzled olive oil