Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day 250 - Orange Braised Rabbit and Perfect Soft Polenta

OK, OK, I know this is dated from before Thanksgiving, but I'm cheating with my time a little. I got so preoccupied with Thanksgiving preparations that I fell behind in my reporting, and I'm just now finishing an entry I started almost a week ago. But I'm going to predate this entry so as not to confuse. Follow?

Here I am, on Day 250, and I'm nervous because I'm serving dinner to the foodie-est group of people I've served so far. How do I know they're the foodie-est? Because they're willing to eat rabbit.

Dawn G., a regular commenter on this blog (thanks Dawn!), is a new friend - we met this past summer in a course at Landmark Education. She's super cool and fun and interesting, and so is her husband Kevin. I went to Dawn's birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where Kevin and Dawn and her mom whipped up some amazing Puerto Rican specialties, so it thought it was only fair to return the favor with some attempted Martha magic. (Also, I was quick to notice her impressive collection of back issues of Everyday Food, so I knew she'd appreciate....)

My "date" for the evening is my childhood friend, Barbara S. Our parents have been best friends since the year one, so Barbara and I have known each other literally since birth. One of the many stops along her very interesting and varied career path includes having attended the Institute of Culinary Education here in NYC. And while she didn't ultimately choose a career in cooking, she does have a wealth of knowledge that for me, tonight, was both very daunting and very helpful.

Orange Braised Rabbit (p. 190)

I've been eying the rabbit at Fairway for months, pondering this meal. I didn't end up buying Fairway rabbit, though, because of the way it's butchered there. Martha wanted me to buy the rabbit cut up as four legs and a deboned saddle in one piece (the saddle is the part of the rabbit equivalent to the two-sided breast of a chicken). The Fairway rabbit looked to be sliced down the middle, so that wouldn't work.

I went to Ottomanelli's on Bleecker for the rabbit, which was convenient because they also had the fatback I needed for the same recipe. (As I suspected, fatback is not salted like salt pork is. Hence my crazily salty pâté.) Unfortunately, the butcher was not willing to debone the saddle. Martha says "have the butcher do this for you" but I'm guessing Martha has her own personal butcher who is paid handsomely to do the RIDICULOUSLY painstaking job of deboning a saddle. I'm sure it wouldn't take a real butcher the 40 minutes it took me to do it, but it would probably take him a good ten minutes, and who needs to be bothered with that? I completely understand, Mr. Ottomanelli, but I'm not happy....

Finally, after cutting around the teeny tiny bones of a rabbit's spine, I had a clean saddle, which I filled with fatback and rosemary and tied up with twine to make a little roulade of sorts. Next, all the pieces were browned in olive oil on both sides. My pan got quite brown, so I did, indeed, have to do the optional deglazing. Then onions and garlic are sweated, a very small amount of cinnamon and red pepper flakes are added, and then comes the wine, orange juice and zest, rosemary and green olives. All told, a cup and a half of liquid. Reality check: that's not a lot of liquid.

I happened to talk to Barbara earlier in the afternoon as I was assembling all the ingredients. She was asking how the rabbit would be prepared, and I was describing it to her, and we were both curious about this small amount of liquid in this recipe. It is a braise, after all. Barbara suggested that if the liquid didn't cover, or at least almost cover, the meat, that I should add more liquid: stock, wine, even water.

So when the meager cup and a half of liquid was nowhere near covering the rabbit pieces, I knew I should take her good advice to throw some more liquid in there. I added a small amount of Basic Chicken Stock, some Brown Chicken Stock, and some more white wine, and then I was in business.

Now here's a little tip for you: Don't try to make this and another time-sensitive, hands-on dish at the same time. I was trying to coordinate this dish with Polenta (see below), and it was too much to manage, even for an expert (ha!) like me.

I moved the saddle to a warming oven, as Martha instructs, but I was so ahead of schedule that when the legs were deemed cooked through, instead of removing them to reduce the liquid, I put the saddle back into the liquid with the legs. I figured it was better to let everything sit in there, wet, than to let it all dry out in the warming oven waiting to be served.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with my polenta, and the minutes were passing, so the rabbit cooked for extra long. Eventually, I took out the saddle to slice it, but it ended up being way too early, and it dried up waiting to be served. The legs fared slightly better. They were in the liquid until almost the end. By the time I was serving the rabbit, the liquid had reduced a fair amount, so it took just a little more heat to finish it up.

Aside from the dried up saddle, I thought the rabbit tasted just fine. Not too gamey, sort of chicken-y, sort of turkey-y. The meat was fine-textured like chicken, but the taste was a little heavier like turkey. The flavors of the dish are nice... subtler than I expected. I think because the braise had cooked so long, the olives lost a lot of their saltiness, which surprised me. It wasn't a bad thing, but you expect olives to carry a huge flavor punch, and these were sapped.

I'd try this again with chicken legs for the flavors, but I don't think I'll go back for another rabbit experience, unless someone wants to bone my saddle.

(That sounds dirty.)

Jeff: C (for bad timing, over-cooking, and self-consciousness)
Martha: B- (for too little braising liquid and for assuming that all butchers debone saddle of rabbit)

Perfect Soft Polenta (p. 419)

You wouldn't think polenta could be a disaster, but I completely botched it.

This is another one of those dishes you have to attend to, right up until serving. Stir stir stir. It takes 45 minutes to make coarse-ground polenta (there are quicker-cooking grinds, but not for Martha).

I had measured my water (in two pots) and started them on the heat early so I wouldn't have to think about them later. Of course, by the time I got around to starting the polenta, a lot of the water had boiled away, and I had to add some more, so my water amounts entered the realm of guesswork. And I guessed really badly.

I was adding two ladles of water every five minutes, or maybe it was three minutes, or eight ladles, or four. It was very inexact, and what happened was, I added waaaaaaaaaay too much water, and there was no getting back. I stirred (actually, we stirred - Barbara pitched in, too) for over an hour, and it just wasn't boiling down. (I think the flame should have been higher, too.) Eventually, we threw in the towel and served it. It was watery, bland, bad. All my fault. Luckily, Barbara was there to force me to put extra salt in, to give it at least a modicum of flavor. A total bust. :-(

Jeff: F (that's what you get for not following directions well)
Martha: A

Other things I served that night:
  • A watercress salad (per Martha's recommendations) - I did that same thing with the shaved pears and fennel and chopped hazelnuts. FYI, it works better with a not-totally-ripe pear. It also works nicely with a crisp apple, e.g. Fuji.
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts shpritzed with lemon juice - yum
  • A Pernod "French Kiss" cocktail - 4 parts orange juice, 1 part pernod, dash of grenadine. Have to do something with that bottle of Pernod I bought for bouillabaisse.... Here's a picture of the cocktail, courtesy of Kevin and Dawn.
  • Goat gouda, vegetable terrine, and membrillo with crackers, and radishes with butter and salt
  • Dawn and Kevin brought wine, and Barbara brought wine and 45 amazing desserts. No, she didn't make any of them.

Until we eat again....

That's Kevin and Dawn, with their rabbity plates.

Here's Barbara, gamely pretending that she's about to eat decent polenta.


  1. Isn't this just Julie and Julia?

  2. Good call! This is exactly Julie and Julia! I guess you missed my introductory entry where I give outright props to Julie Powell for a great idea and acknowledge that I am stealing it for this project.

  3. And fortunate we are that you dove in and are doing this as amazingly as everything else you do. Stealing? Homage? I don't care what you call it. Just keep it coming!

  4. After this meal with you, Kevin & I just had to purchase the book. The rabbit was amazing... such decadence and lovely flavor. We're going to try this one at home. Thank you so much for inviting us, we had a fabulous time in your lovely kitchen. Oh and the cocktails, salad, appetizers... I served the goat gouda as app & a version of your fennel salad at our family TG dinner! Homage all the way!

  5. Thanks, Annie!

    Dawn, I'm so glad that you're going to have the book now! We can compare notes! :-)

    Also, I'm honored to have inspired something on your Thanksgiving menu.

  6. Love your blog, read it all the time! Having dinner with you was wonderful and I admire your commitment to this project. Maybe the Rabbit wasn't all that we hoped for but my parents told me that your Thanksgiving meal was the best they ever had!!! Thanks again,
    xxx Barbara