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Chicken-fried rabbit

Chicken-fried rabbit
Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

Rabbits "are helping win the war," proclaimed a Los Angeles Times article from 1943. Touted as a patriotic food during World War II, rabbits were raised by thousands of Americans in their backyards. Along with victory gardens, rabbits helped put food on the table when much of the nation's supply was shipped to soldiers overseas and ration stamps provided less at home. But even though rabbit consumption spiked during the war, it all but disappeared afterward.

Think rabbit today and your thoughts probably veer to cartoon characters, cereal mascots, Easter and adorable pets. Perhaps the only "bunny" you've ever eaten was of the milk chocolate breed. For years, it seems the only place you could find "the real deal" was occasionally on the menu at French or Italian restaurants.

But rabbit appears to be going through a renaissance of sorts.

"I think it's gaining in popularity," says Mark Pasternak, co-owner, along with wife Myriam, of Devil's Gulch Ranch in Marin County. Their farm supplies rabbit to a number of butcher shops and restaurants in and around Northern California, including the French Laundry and Chez Panisse.

And in an era when game meats and nose-to-tail eating are redefining fine dining as food sport, rabbit is both familiar and exotic enough to appeal.

"It almost has a prohibitiony quality to it, like it was something your grandfather ate. It's a great 'old-fashioned' meat," says chef Ken Addington, who, with restaurant partner Jud Mongell, owns LA Chapter in downtown's Ace Hotel as well as Five Leaves and Nights and Weekends in Brooklyn, N.Y. "We've always had rabbit on the menus in Brooklyn. It's a fun, versatile meat."

And though Mongell was hesitant to feature rabbit at first, he's come around to the idea. "In these times when we're trying to be so conscious of what, and how, we're consuming, it's something to consider."

At a time when buzzwords like "organic," "local" and "sustainable" are driving the market, rabbit is ripe for resurgence. According to Slow Food USA, rabbit can produce 6 pounds of meat using the same amount of food and water it takes for a cow to produce only 1 pound. Not to mention the health benefits. Rabbit is a lean meat that is higher in protein but lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than many other meats, including chicken, beef and pork.

But how does it taste?

Domestic rabbit's all-white meat is fine-grained and has a mild flavor compared with other game meats.

"Rabbit is one of my favorite subjects because it is so versatile, like veal or chicken," says chef Evan Funke of Bucato. A favorite dish of his for those new to rabbit is ragù. "Anytime I get the opportunity to introduce people to rabbit, [I do]. Ragù is easy."

Addington likes to pair bright flavorings, such as citrus, with rabbit; he currently has a lemon grass rabbit ragù on the menu at LA Chapter.

Though rabbit is mostly available through butcher shops such as Belcampo Meat Co. and Puritan Poultry and online, it is turning up more frequently in upscale markets, including select Gelson's markets. It is usually sold whole, though you can have your butcher break the animal down into parts. (But if you've ever wanted to learn how to break down any four-legged animal, rabbit is a great place to start because it's so small. Do be careful with the bones, however; rabbit bones are even more delicate than those of a chicken.)

And despite its reputation as an inexpensive option during frugal times, store-bought rabbit is not cheap; prices in Los Angeles range from about $10 to $13 a pound for a 2- to 3-pound rabbit.

noelle.carter@latimes.com

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Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes plus chilling times | Serves 2 to 4
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced thyme leaves
  • Black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely minced garlic
  • 1 rabbit, cut into serving pieces
  • 2 cups buttermilk, more if needed
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
  • 4 to 6 cups lard
  • 1 large onion, sliced into thick rings

Step 1In a deep, medium bowl, combine the kosher salt, lemon zest and juice, minced thyme leaves, several grinds of black pepper and garlic to form a rub. Add the rabbit pieces to the bowl, massaging the rub all over each of the pieces. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or at least several hours.

Step 2The next morning, pour the buttermilk over the pieces and gently toss to coat; the buttermilk should barely cover the rabbit; if not, add just enough to roughly cover. Cover the bowl again and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

Step 3Season the flour: Place the flour in a large bag, bowl or baking dish, and season with 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper. Taste the flour, and adjust seasoning if desired.

Step 4About 1 hour before frying, remove the bowl from the refrigerator. Remove each piece of rabbit from the buttermilk, shaking gently to remove any excess buttermilk (do not attempt to dry the pieces). Dredge each piece in the seasoned flour mixture, coating completely. Shake to remove the excess flour, and set the pieces aside on a rack to dry and warm to room temperature.

Step 5While the pieces are resting, prepare the lard: Place about 4 cups lard in a large, heavy skillet or frying pan over medium heat. Melt the lard; it should come about one-half to three-fourths inch up the side of the pan (melt additional lard if needed). When the lard is just melted, add the onion rings and continue heating the lard until the onion is caramelized and the lard is hot. Remove the onion (discard it or save for another use), and check the temperature of the lard; a thermometer should read 350 degrees.

Step 6Gently place the rabbit pieces in the hot lard, being careful not to crowd. Lower the temperature to 325 degrees and fry the pieces on each side until crisp and golden brown and the meat is firm and opaque, about 5 minutes for smaller pieces and 7 to 8 for larger. Flip the pieces over and fry on the other side until done (a thermometer inserted in the meat should read 160 degrees). Remove the pieces from the hot oil and drain, skin-side up, on crumpled paper towels. Repeat until all of the pieces are fried.

Step 7Serve the pieces hot or at room temperature.

Each of 4 servings:
Calories 687; Protein 62 grams; Carbohydrates 40 grams; Fiber 2 grams; Fat 29 grams; Saturated fat 10 grams; Cholesterol 170 mg; Sugar 3 grams; Sodium 1,221 mg.
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