There’s been a run on rabbit in San Antonio lately.
Josh Cross sells more than 30 plates of rabbit a week at Oloroso, 1024 S. Alamo St.
Il Sogno, Andrew Weissman’s Italian restaurant at the Pearl Brewery, 200 E. Grayson St., has a hit with its Coniglio in Umido, rabbit baked in the restaurant’s massive oven and topped with a red wine sauce.
At Brasserie Pavil, 1818 N. Loop 1604 W., chef Scott Cohen has featured rabbit as a special. The meat is braised and served over goat cheese polenta with parnsips, baby beets and a Cognac-Madeira demi-glace.
How times change. Almost 10 years ago, colleague Cecil Flentge tried offering a cooking class to teach people how to fix this meat that’s prized in Europe among more than merely hunters. Not a single person signed up. Maybe it was just a fluke, he thought, so he scheduled it again. Again, no takers.
We repeat, not everyone is hopping up to the plate here. There are those who would never think of eating rabbit because of some image of an anthropomorphic dancing Easter bunny or memories of a childhood pet. If you are one such person, then why are you reading this piece?
For the rest of us — and I had a pet rabbit, Freddie Joe, for eight years — rabbit is a treat because it adapts so well to the flavors it’s cooked with. “It’s a blank canvas,” Weissman says. “You can do a lot with it.”
“Rabbit is the new duck,” Cross says. “People call ahead to make sure we have it in.”
Cross serves his rabbit three ways. He braises the legs in a mirepoix, a mixture of onion, celery and carrots sautéed in butter. The loin is wrapped in house-cured pancetta and cooked with roasted garlic and rosemary. The ribs are frenched and placed on top, giving the plate a dainty quality in what might otherwise seem a rustic dish. Flageolet beans, sugar snap peas, roasted wild mushrooms and fava beans, as well as a Marsala rabbit sauce finish off the plate.
The dish is so popular, “I think I’d be lynched if I tried to take it off the menu,” he says.
Both Cross and Weissman get their supplies from local rabbit farmers, so the meat is fresh and ready to cook.
Weissman tried serving it at his French restaurant, Le Reve, 152 E. Pecan St., but it didn’t sell. The rustic nature of the meat is largely the reason, he says. Il Sogno is more casual, so dealing with bones is less of a problem there. And rabbits are bony animals. You can’t bone a rabbit after braising (I learned that first-hand in what proved to be a tasty mess), but you can bone the back legs, if you must.
If you’re cooking rabbit at home, there are a host of options available to you. Among the compatible flavors Weissman recommends are allspice, curry (see related recipe), bay leaves, juniper berries and cinnamon. He likes the way his red wine sauce colors the meat: “It becomes that ruby red of the wine.”
Rabbit is a lean meat, more tender than wild hare, which is gamier in flavor but often stringier, so the cooking methods are different. Rabbit is generally cooked in some type of fat or liquid to keep it moist. Cooked by itself, the rabbit “just turns into sawdust,” unless you tend it properly, Weissman says.
Cross wraps his rabbit loin in prosciutto. Others have used bacon. Some even prepare a confit, in which the rabbit is salted and slowly cooked in oil or another fat.
To choose the right rabbit, look for one that is “firm with pink flesh,” Weissman says. “Let your nose be your guide.”
If the meat is frozen, then ask your butcher. “Deal with a butcher you’re comfortable with,” Weissman adds.
Rabbit meat is often at Central Market in the freezer section, though the store was out on a recent visit. Many local meat markets, such as Culebra, sell it as coñejo.
Il Sogno’s chef, Luca Della Casa, remembers rabbit from his childhood, when it was a staple at Sunday dinner, a time for the full family to gather over food. “For me, every Sunday in my home, it was gnocchi and rabbit,” he says.