I don?t often cook rabbit ? we get one or two at home, but most of the population is wiped out by myxomatosis before we have the chance to take any. Like most people, I don?t want to eat them once they are afflicted by that hideous disease.
The best rabbits to eat are the plump young specimens. The ears should be soft and velvety, and tear easily, and the animal?s claws should be smooth and sharp.
If you can, retain the liver, heart and kidneys. These are excellent fried in butter and served on toast or they can be valuable additions to a sauce for rabbit.
I prefer to paunch the rabbit straight away, hang it for a day or two (no longer) and then skin it and use it immediately or freeze it. There is no fat on the meat, so it will dry out in the freezer if left for too long.
To prevent this, I put it in a plastic bag, squeeze out all the air and knot it. I then wrap it in a couple of layers of newspaper, tie with string (or use a rubber band) to secure it, and record the date and contents on the paper with a marker pen.
Preparing the rabbit
Skinning a rabbit is easy. Use a sharp knife or a pair of garden secateurs (it is worth having a pair specially for game preparation) to cut the feet off just below the knee joint.
Separate the skin from the muscle around the middle area by pushing your fingers between the skin and the meat. Working all the way round, you should be able to free the main body from the skin. Now simply pull the skin from the back legs as though taking off a sock, leaving the tail until later.
Do the same with the front legs, and pull the skin so that as much as possible of the neck is exposed. Using a cleaver or sharp knife, cut the head off and discard the skin and head. Use a small sharp knife to remove the tail and glands and any remaining innards. Wipe the carcase with a damp cloth and it is ready to cook.
Rabbit with mustard
This is a classic French dish and the way I prepare it is ridiculously easy. There?s hardly any chopping and almost no washing up. The marinating can be done the day before. You can, of course, alter the amount of mustard to suit your taste. I like my sauce to have a real kick to it, so I put in three or even four teaspoonfuls of mustard powder. It is delicious accompanied by new potatoes with a bit of mint and a fresh salad.
Ingredients (serves four)
* One rabbit, quartered * 3oz cubed pancetta * 3tsp mustard powder * 2tbsp grainy mustard * 2tbsp Dijon mustard * 200ml crème fraiche * 2 garlic cloves * 1 bay leaf salt and pepper
1. If the rabbit isn?t quartered, do so ? cut the shoulders off, keeping them whole, do the same with the back legs, and then cut the saddle in two. Make sure there are no loose bone shards anywhere.
2. Place the rabbit pieces in a deep dish.
3. To the rabbit, add the cubed pancetta. This will add some fat to the meat to help keep it moist. It will also add flavour.
4. In a separate bowl, mix together the mustard powder, mustards and crème fraiche.
5. Crush the garlic and add it to the mixture, as well as the bay leaf, plenty of freshly ground pepper and a scant teaspoonful of salt.
6. Pour the mustard mixture over the rabbit and pancetta. Use your hands to ensure that the rabbit is completely coated with the mixture.
7. If you are cooking this the same day, put to one side for a few hours ? room temperature is fine. If you are cooking the following day, put in the fridge, but do remember to remove it to allow the meat to come to room temperature before cooking.
8. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Put the meat and all the sauce into a shallow baking dish (preferably a ceramic one rather than a roasting tin) and place in the oven. Bake for 35 minutes.