It’s not often a man walks into your kitchen mid-morning and lays a binding obligation on you…tú á chur faoi gheasa ….
My son-in-law rang
-Can I drop something in to you in the next few minutes?
He arrived, beaming, and presented me with a bag containing portions of three rabbits.
-I’ve just skinned them myself! The guys in Etherson’s Butchers showed me how.
He was on his way out of town for work, and would be away for six days. A little edgy, as he didn’t like leaving his wife, my daughter, who expects their first baby any day now.
-What’ll you do with them?
Lapin a la Moutarde was the first thought that came to mind. Working as teenage au-pair for a family in Bordeaux, Madame had taught me how to make this delicious mustardy rabbit casserole, among other classics from her repertoire.
But no, there was a better idea. Darina Allen’s book winked at me from the bookshelf.
-I’ll casserole it in the old-fashioned way.
-Would it freeze, do you think? (This is a man who loves to go to Sweeney’s and pick a suitable bottle of wine or two)
-Oh it’ll freeze perfectly. And we’ll make an occasion of it when you get back.
-Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.
I opened my well-thumbed copy of Darina Allen’s “Ballymaloe Cookery Course” (why did I not pause to cover it in clear plastic the first day it ever graced my kitchen?) When I saw ‘West Cork Rabbit Casserole’ , I was sorted. That’s where his father’s people hail from. Mind you, this one is going to be ‘Cabra West Rabbit Casserole’, but we won’t let titles get in the way.
It so happens that my own Dad will celebrate his ninetieth birthday next week. My sister-in-law has already begun the festivities and we’ll continue in low key and over a lengthy period, as befits a man of his years. He enjoys great health and his appetite for home cooking is second to none. Reminiscing recently on his childhood, he had mentioned that one of the things he’d love to taste again was his mother’s rabbit stew. Just contemplate cooking for a large family in East Galway in the late 1920’s- early1930’s- it’s pretty bleak- poverty, scarcity….kids distracting each other to try to rob the food off each other’s plates! I think it’s fair to assume that Darina’s recipe would have been similar to what my Grandmother would have cooked- there were few imports, and they managed on what they grew themselves.
I’ve taken a few contemporary liberties like deglazing the sauté pan with some left-over dry white wine , and adding some green peppercorns in brine when reheating after a sojourn in the freezer.
Having prepared the casserole, I left it simmering gently and took the dog for a walk.
On my return, the house was filled with the most wonderful aromas.
Irish Rabbit Casserole
31/2-4 lbs (1.6-1.8 Kg) rabbit, jointed
white flour seasoned with white pepper
10 ozs unsmoked streaky bacon rashers
Lakeshore rape seed oil
1 lb (450g) onions- a mix of large onions for chopping and small ones (or shallots) to use whole
12 ozs (350g) carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
a sprig of thyme
one bay leaf
11/4 pints (700ml) chicken stock- homemade or chicken stock cubes
Salt and pepper
Dry white wine or sherry
Green peppercorns in brine (optional)
Parsley to garnish
Use a mix of rapeseed oil and butter to sauté.
De rind the rashers and fry until crisp. Remove and put in a casserole.
Coat the rabbit pieces in white flour seasoned with a little white pepper and shake off the excess. Saute in the pan until golden.
Watch this carefully- you only want to seal the rabbit pieces, but not to cook them through as this will happen in the casserole. As rabbit is game, the meat is lean and will dry out if you over cook during sautéeing. As the rabbit pieces are sautéed, add them to the casserole, covering with chicken stock and bringing to a gentle simmer.
-Chop the large onions, peel the small ones, sauté until soft and add to casserole.
Deglaze the sauté pan with chicken stock, or some dry white wine or sherry and add the juices to the casserole.
Season well with salt and pepper. Add the carrots, a sprig of thyme and the bay leaf and bring to a gentle simmer. Don’t boil or the meat will become tough.
Put casserole in the oven at 180°C/350°F/ Gas 4 for 35-45-minutes. The cooking time depends on how long the rabbit pieces were sautéed. When the casserole is just cooked, strain off the cooking liquid, de-grease and return the de-greased liquid to the casserole and bring to the boil.
Thicken with a little roux if necessary. Add back the meat, onions and carrots and bring to the boil to cook the roux.
At this point,I’ll freeze it and will thaw it slowly at room temperature for 6-10 hours before bringing gently to a simmer. I may add some green peppercorns in brine ….they give a lovely, spicy tang, but would not freeze well.
To serve, sprinkle chopped parsley on the casserole. Make a cauldron of ambrosial mashed potato, a bowl of braised Puy lentils, some green salad and a jar of redcurrant jelly- some Yin for those inclined to balance the Yang of this rich rabbit casserole.
We’ll make an occasion of it over the next few weeks , le cúnamh Dé.