Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Rabbit Pie: A Detailed Description

'Now, my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.'

Rabbit pie made with meat from Trowlesworthy FarmsAfter stewing the choice legs and loins of a Trowlesworthy Farms rabbit, I found myself with a lot of trim. Most notable were the forelegs, the belly-flaps from the saddle, and the kidneys. Besides this there was miscellaneous trim pulled from the carcass. I decided that this would become a rabbit pie.

Making the Recipe

A classical rabbit pie (and yes, rabbit pie is a classical preparation...), would use lean rabbit meat and pork fatback, not rabbit fat. In fact, most non-pork charcuterie preparations call for lean meat in conjunction with pork fat. For instance, a sausage made of chicken or duck would be three parts lean poultry meat, trimmed of all fat, and one part pork fat. This is because pork fat has a creamy, pleasing texture, and a fairly neutral flavour. When cleaning the rabbit carcass, I was left with a surprising amount of beautiful, white fat, especially around the kidneys. I decided for the sake of experimentation and frugality to use this fat in a rabbit forcemeat. Separating the lean flesh from the white fat, I found I had:
  • 575g lean rabbit meat
  • 325g rabbit fat
This is roughly a ratio of 5:3 meat to fat. Most sausages have a ratio of 3:1, but several rich sausages like weisswurst use a higher percentage of fat. I found a rich bratwurst recipe that uses a 5:3 ratio, with milk and eggs for further luxury. I based my rabbit pie forcemeat on this recipe.

The Process

With the meat, cream, and egg in the bratwurst recipe, my forcemeat is very much like a mousseline. For a smooth texture and good emulsification of meat and fat, mousselines are usually mixed in a food processor.
I don't own a food processor (and a recent trip to Sears to look at prices confirmed that I will not own one any time soon...) Instead of processing, I used progressive grinding, then a thorough mixing to distribute the cream and egg and develop the meat protein.

The Results

When I fried a quenelle to test the seasoning, the forcemeat tasted great and had a pleasant, light, mouthfeel, though the texture was not perfectly smooth. Every so often there were tiny flecks with a gristly feel. They didn't ruin the meat for me: in fact, once the onions, prunes, and pie crust came into the picture, I didn't even notice them. But if the forcemeat were to be served as a simple boudin blanc, these gristle-bits would definitely draw attention.

I've racked my brain to figure out where exactly these bits came from.
There was definitely some skin in the meat trim that I didn't remove, but the bits had an almost fibrous quality that I don't think skin would have. Ultimately I must have missed some sinews in the meat, but I can't imagine where they would have been.

My trim problem will have to be solved, but the recipe itself was a success. The delicate meat, the fruit, the sweet quatre epice, and the buttery, flaky pie crust all married happily. I'll definitely be making this again. The (almost) complete recipe and process are below.

A slice of rabbit pie with granny smith apples.Rabbit Pie

  • 500g lean rabbit meat
  • 300g rabbit (or pork) fat
  • 15g kosher salt
  • 100mL heavy cream
  • 1 egg
  • 1.5 tsp quatre epices (recipe below)
  • 60g onion, brunoise
  • 60g prunes, chopped
Pie Crust (makes enough for two rounds, top and bottom)
  • 360g flour, sifted
  • 240g butter
  • 120mL cold water
  • pinch of salt
Quatre Epices
  • 2 parts black pepper
  • 1 part cinnamon
  • 1 part nutmeg
  • 1 part clove
  1. Combine meat, fat, salt, and quatre epices. Keep mixture very well chilled while flavours combine.
  2. Gently sweat onions and cool very well.
  3. Prepare the pie crust.
  4. Taking all usual precautions to keep meat and equipment cold, grind meat mixture through medium plate.
  5. Grind meat mixture through small plate.
  6. Mix with paddle attachment on lowest setting for one minute. Beat egg into cream. Slowly add to forcemeat. Increase speed to Level 2 and mix another minute.
  7. Fold in chilled onions and chopped prunes.
  8. Saute a small portion of the forcemeat to test seasoning.
  9. Spread forcemeat into pie crust. Top with second crust.
  10. Bake in 350F oven until meat reaches 180F and pie shell has browned.
Serving suggestion: with apple slices. A little aicidity to cut the fat. Plus apples and quatre epices are good buddies.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Describing dandelions as "edible" is misleading. The term suggests that they should only be eaten in survival situations. (Would you ever describe spinach, or cheese, or pork, as simply "edible"?)

In reality, dandelions are a treasured leafy green in several European cuisines. They even have an entry in Larousse. Some excerpts from that article:
  • "the English name is derived from the alternative French name dent-de-lion (literally 'lion's tooth', referring to its serrated leaves)"
  • "Wild dandelion leaves should be picked before the plant has flowered..., when they are small and sweet." This line confuses me a bit. While our dandelion leaves are definitely better when small and tender, I find that they still have a pronounced (but pleasing) bitterness. I have never tasted a dandelion leaf I would describe as sweet. Perhaps we have a different variety than the Europeans?
  • "In salads, dandelions are traditionally accompanied by diced bacon and garlic-flavoured croutons..., hard-boiled eggs or walnuts.
I love dandelions because they are one of the first weeds to pop up after the snow melts. The bacon-dandelion salad mentioned in Larousse has become a cherished springtime lunch in my kitchen.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Trowlesworthy rabbit with prunesOur 2008 trip to Greece was full of culinary firsts. Besides specifically Greek wine, spirits, candy, and breads, I also had inaugural tastings of fresh figs, rooster, octopus, and rabbit.

Even before I went, I knew that I was going to eat rabbit in Greece. It was on my to-do list. At the time, I put rabbit in the same category as brains and shark meat. Even though I see more rabbits in a given day than cows, from a culinary perspective, rabbit was very exotic.

Finally, at a beachside taverna on Syros, I ate my first rabbit dish. I was served one hind leg with tomato sauce and potatoes. Frankly, I was underwhelmed.

Before leaving for Greece, people were so shocked when I mentioned that I planned to eat rabbit, I expected the meat would have some kind of jarring, gamey taste to match. The truth is, it has more bite than chicken, but not as much as pork, and a very mild flavour. Don't misunderstand me: it's good meat. I was just... surprised.

Rabbit plays a fairly important role in traditional Greek cooking. A meat stew called stifadho, which is practically the national dish of Hellas, was until recently most often made with rabbit and pearl onions. Rabbit meat appears in several other dishes, often paired with fruit, especially currants and prunes.

One of our favourite restaurants in Greece was Portes, in Hania, Crete. "Portes" means "doors", and the stone walk approaching the taverna is lined with brightly painted wooden doors, leaning against an adjacent fence. After our meal, the bill came with a recipe for rabbit with prunes printed on a souvenir bookmark. Lisa and I have been talking about cooking rabbit ever since then, and this week, with Greek food on the brain, we finally did it.

Buying Rabbit in Edmonton

During the weeks approaching Easter, the Trowlesworthy Farms booth at the Strathcona farmers' market displayed a small sign advertising rabbit for sale. It had a cartoon bunny on it that might have been ripped from a child's colouring book. It seems that our pastoral, childhood associations with rabbits are inevitable, even when dealing with an eviscerated rabbit carcass. (For more on this topic, read this Rob Mifsud blogpost, the truly shocking reader comments that follow, and Anthony Bourdain's response, called The Lessons of Bunnies.) This was the first time I had seen rabbit at the farmers' market. It was no doubt brought in as an Easter special, but I am sure you could order one any time of the year. I also know that certain butcher shops, like Easyford, will order in rabbits at your request.

Here is how we prepared our Trowlesworthy bunny.

Rabbit with Prunes
Adapted from a recipe by Susanna Koutoulaki of Portes restaurant, Hania, Crete

  • 1 rabbit, cut in pieces
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 400mL white wine
  • 1 bowl prunes
  • 2 tbsp of brandy (Metaxa would be appropriate...)
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • salt and pepper

  1. Soak the prunes in water.
  2. Brown the rabbit pieces in oil. Remove from pan.
  3. Sweat onions, garlic, and paprika.
  4. Deglaze pan with brandy and wine. Cook off alcohol.
  5. Return rabbit to pan. Add bay leaves and prunes, with their soaking water.
  6. Cover and simmer until rabbit is tender, at least an hour.
  7. Serve on rice.
A Note on Cutting up Rabbit

Traditionally rabbits are segmented as follows: the two forelegs, the rib section, the saddle (the backbone with the two loins, two tenderloins, and two "side flaps"), two hind legs, and tail section. In a rustic preparation, all these parts, with bones, would be thrown into a stew. I didn't feel like picking through bones while eating, so I only included the hind legs, each separated into two, and the loins, cut into stew-sized pieces. The rest, including the meaty side flaps and kidneys, I reserved for a future project.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quebec Part III: Split Pea Soup

With the scraps of my Easter ham I made a killer stock for split pea soup. Besides the leg and hindshank bones in the ham, I used a shoulder bone and a sheet of skin from my last batch of bacon for some smokiness.

Even with a good stock to work with, split pea soup is problematic. It is almost impossible to make split pea soup look good. To speak delicately, the drab green is unappetizing. To speak brusquely, it looks like barf. It is almost always too thick, and the peas have a grainy texture, even when thoroughly pur

There are half-solutions to all of these problems. To brighten the colour, some cooks add fresh peas before pur
éeing. If you really wanted to cheat, there are also yellow split peas. To smooth out the texture, you can pass it through a chinois a few times.

Towards a Theory of Split Pea Soup:

By using the above techniques to refine split pea soup, you make it into something that it's not. Split pea soup is an habitant dish made with a dried legume that can last the winter in storage. Where would fresh peas come from in the dead of winter?

Split pea soup does not take well to refinement, so I say go in the opposite direction: rough, country soup.

With that in mind, I sweated my vegetables in fat rendered from hunks of bacon. Those hunks remain whole in the soup. Also, I didn't pur
ée the soup. The peas break apart and thicken the soup naturally. The coarse texture is reminiscent of dry-bread-thickened soups. Maybe it walks the line between "rustic" and "sloppy", but the important thing is that is tastes of pork, smoke, and peas. It's hot, filling, and a good way to bid adieu to the Edmonton winter.

Rustic Split Pea Soup
Speaking of Quebec, see also:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

When You Eat a Cheemo, a Baba Cries

St. Andrew's Ukrainian Orthodox Church, home of a killer monthly perogy dinnerThe St. Andrew's Parish Perogy Supper

Last night Lisa and I finally attended the St. Andrew's Parish Pergoy Supper, which is usually held on the first Friday of every month, except January, July, and August, when the volunteers take a well-deserved break. This month, because the first Friday was Good Friday, the supper was held the following week. If you're at all confused, you can read the schedule on the St. Andrews website.

Church volunteers, most of them silver-haired, hand-make each perogy. There are two kinds: the authentic cottage cheese and potato, and the North American stand-by, cheddar cheese and potato. Plates come with sausage, sweated onions, sour cream, and coleslaw. There's also juice, coffee, and dessert. To finish our meal we had a choice of coconut cream pie, strawberry short cake, rice pudding, and orange jello.

I have no photos of our dinner - l still hate bringing my camera out in public.
The perogies were so uniform and well-sealed that they looked like they came out of a machine. You know that they didn't come out of a machine, though, because they taste fresh, and aren't freezer burned, like most of the perogies I have consumed in my life.

A plate of six perogies and one sausage cost $8. Twelve perogies and two sausages cost $12.

Where else can you eat like this? We sat under fluorescent lights in a church basement. Our plates were filled by a line of kindly babas (and a couple gidos). Our dishes were bussed by a ten year old girl in high heels. As you would expect, there is absolutely no pretension, although Lisa was scolded for trying to help herself to the sour cream bowl.

Thankfully, non-Ukrainians and agnostics are welcome.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Ham

Irvings Farm Fresh leg of pork, smoking on barbequeIn December there was a feature in Saveur magazine on holiday hams, and I spent the better part of my Christmas break reading about the cured pig legs of the world.

The most revered traditions are those of the dry-cured hams, like Parma ham from Italy, or the country ham of the southern US. Unfortunately Edmonton doesn't have the right climate for drying-curing hams in your garage. Firstly the extreme cold of our winters prevents proper curing. Secondly the air is much too dry here, and the surface of the ham hardens and seals before the moisture from the interior can escape, leading to internal rot. One would have to set up a temperature-controlled, humidified environment. (Some day...)

I decided back around Christmas that I would brine a ham for Easter. I ordered a fresh leg of pork, skin off, haitch bone removed, from Irvings Farm Fresh. When I got it last week it weighed almost 15lbs. I brined the leg for about a week, a half pound per day, then left it in the fridge uncovered for a day so that the surface could dry and form a pellicle.

On Easter morning I smoked it over hickory chips on the barbeque. It took about five hours to come to temperature. Usually for a roast this size I would expect at least ten degrees of carry-over cooking, but since the smoking temperature was so low, around 225F, it was closer to five degrees.

My procedure and brine recipe were from Michael Ruhlman's book Charcuterie.

The ham was glazed with grainy dijon mustard and brown sugar, and served with scalloped potatoes and a salad of broccoli, bacon, and grapes.

Grocery-store hams just don't compare. Texturally they are very uniform, and kind of resemble a soft rubber. Flavour-wise,
though most grocery-store hams are naturally smoked, they only taste of salt and sugar. The home-made ham was sinuous, though incredibly tender; since it was a large cut of well-raised Berkshire, with the bones still in place, it actually tasted of pork; and the hickory lent a warm campfire complexity to that natural taste.

Easter Dinner: home-made ham, scalloped potatoes, salad of broccoli, grapes, and bacon