After cooking lobster, I thought I should do a meat dish from the cookbook next.
The meat recipes in The French Laundry Cookbook are not your typical steak and potato kind of dish. They are rather exotic – veal, venison, lamb, rabbit, and the least exotic among all, prime beef short rib.
There is a whole page where Thomas Keller describes himself butchering a live rabbit for the first time, an experience that has taught him how to respect and use the whole animal product without any waste, which is fascinating and inspiring.
I had rabbit when I was a kid in China. A whole butchered rabbit was brought in the kitchen by Mom, chopped into little pieces, and slowly braised in a big pot. From my memories, it was one of the most delicious thing that I had tasted, even better than chicken! Mom is a simple cook, and never cooks anything too fancy or elaborate, often using the same spices and sauces for all her meat dishes, pork ribs or chicken. But it is the flavour I grew up with, something that still holds dear in my heart.
And now it is my turn to cook the rabbit dish for Mom.
Rabbit, Veal Stock, and Butcher Shops
Going through the recipe, I decided to tackle 2 tasks: get the saddle of rabbit and find veal stock for the rabbit sauce.
I had seen frozen rabbit at supermarket. But I thought maybe the quality would be better at some local butcher. I went to Seafair Gourmet Meats in Richmond and found a whole frozen cost over 50 bucks. Hmm… Maybe I should look around more?
I also asked the butcher for veal bones for making stock. They don’t even have veal meat in stock usually, but they would order veal for you from their vendor if you request it.
Okay that was not a good start. And it was almost 5pm in a Sunday afternoon.
The veal stock recipe in the cookbook takes over 20 hours to make, which is pretty much an all-weekend project. I just don’t want to wait for another week just because of a stock – so I decided to find veal stock to buy somewhere.
Trying to put the rabbit and veal stock aside and deal with the rest of the ingredients, I found myself at the local supermarket, Pricesmart. And I found the rabbit! Guess what, it is the same product from the same farm with one I saw at Seafair Gourmet Meats, and it was only $16. Wow, gourmet meats my ass… I chuckled.
I also found applewood-smoked bacon as well. Oh boy, I guess it was my lucky day after all!
On Monday morning before going to work, I took the rabbit out of the freezer and soaked it in a big bowl of cold water in the sink. Tonight is the prep night!
While I was taking my lunch break at work, I did a little research on gourmet butchers in Vancouver.
It looks like the best bet for getting veal is Columbus Meat Market in East Vancouver. It is a Italian butcher – of course, Italians like their veal. For quality beef, lamb and lamb bone for making lamb stock, Robson Gourmet butcher seems the best bet since it is downtown and close to my work.
Also I found out about this shop on Granville Island Stock Market that sells veal stock. What a smart and funny name! They are somewhere inside the Granville Island Public Market, and they sell different kinds of handmade soups and stocks in their own kitchen.
I know that there are a few butcher shops at the Public Market as well and I’m sure they have a wide selection of gourmet game meats.
But they are on Granville Island, and they are probably pretty expensive. Well let’s find out!
I left work a little early, and RAN to Granville Island. I went straight to Stock Market and got a pack of veal stock. It was $9.95 for 2 cups sealed in a fancy plastic package – definitely not cheap! I also bought a package of chicken stock, as required in the sauce recipe. For $3.75, the chicken stock doesn’t sound too bad as it’s hand made.
After Stock Market, I paid a little vista to Tenderland, the biggest butcher shop at the Market, where people can find a great variety of different cuts of beef, pork, lamb or veal here, as well as some wild games and gourmet meats.
My mind was clearly still on the veal stock, so I asked the butcher if they had veal bones for making stock. Searching through all their freezers, they collected several bags of them. I could have walked away. But instead I talked to myself, let’s do this – let’s make our damn veal stock! So $14 dollars was spent on 5 pounds of veal bones. Holding my heavy shopping bags, I could feel the big silly grin on my own face. Yay… I am done shopping… And yay… I just booked myself an all-weekend project making veal stock.
I Can’t Stop Hacking the Bunny!
The following program contains scenes of violence, which may not be suitable for younger children. Parental supervision is advised.
I got home and quickly chowed down my takeout dinner. Then I put the thawed rabbit on the counter surface. This is the very first time I ever chop up a whole uncooked animal body. I have deboned a cooked chicken quite a few times – but that certainly can’t be compared to what I am about to do here.
I can’t help noticing how beautiful the body of the rabbit actually is – completely skinned, cleaned inside with all the organs taken out except a pair of kidneys, and glowing with all that lovely pink flesh. The flesh is so lean and I can clearly see every single piece of muscle, but it is also very delicate.
I almost forgot to mention that I actually watched quite a few videos on YouTube on cutting and preparing a whole rabbit. This one so far is the best one and it is by the Top Chef winner Nicholas Elmi.
Knife is sharpened, and I am ready!
The legs came off first, which was pretty straightforward as the joints were pretty easy to cut through.
Then I tried to find the first rib above the waist, and starting from that point, I separated the upper body from the lower, and cut the 2 little racks off the chest. I had frenched lamb racks before, but the rabbit rack was so much smaller and harder to clean. I was being super careful, but one of my racks stilled ended up with a couple crooked bones.
Here comes another hard part – separating the saddle from the spine on the lower body. I was very patient to slowly cut and scrape of the flesh from the back bone without severing the back muscles. This is important if you are using the whole saddle for stuffing. And After the saddle was off, I carefully cut off the pair of strip loins, then the pair of tenderloins.
Voila, it took me about 45 minutes.
I quickly seasoned the saddle flaps and the loins with salt and pepper, and rolled the saddle flaps around the loins to form a compact cylinder. Then I put 6 overlapping slices of bacon on the surface to form a rectangle as wide as the length of the cylinder, rolled the cylinder up in the bacon, and finally tied it with twine. Pheww…. That concluded the preparation of the rabbit!
“Quick” Rabbit Sauce
After I finished preparing the rabbit, I started reading the instructions for making “quick” rabbit sauce. After going through the details, I felt like I was manipulated, or more like, betrayed.
A few days ago, this is what I saw for the rabbit recipe:
1/2 cup “Quick” Rabbit Sauce (page 228)
I did turn to page 228 but I only scanned through the ingredients quickly but did not look at the instructions. If I knew the sauce was by no means QUICK whatsoever, or if I knew it was going to cost me over 2 hours, I would have picked a totally different dish.
But there was turning back. Moments ago I had just cut off the meat from the legs, and thrown the leg bones onto a pile of back bones gathered from earlier. And beside the pile of bones, there was several piles of vegetables that I just prepared for for the sauce as well.
Okay let’s do this sauce.
The concept is quite simple. You make the sauce by making a stock using the bones of meat you are serving. The process extracts the flavours from browning the bones, caramelizing vegetables, then by deglazing, reduction, and clarification. But in this recipe, there are FOUR deglazing processes.
I only prepare one rabbit, but luckily I had enough bones to prepare half of the portion in the cookbook.
I browned the rabbit bones in canola oil over high heat in a small stock pot. It took about 5 – 6 minute to brown all sides.
For the first deglazing, I added 1/2 cup of water in to the pot, kept stirring until the liquid was completely evaporated.
For the 2nd deglazing, I added 1/3 cup of chicken stock, keeping stirring until the liquid was completely evaporated.
At this point I felt a little bored and also a little concerned. The first 2 deglazing already took 25 minutes, and the next deglazing would definitely take longer. Basically I had to cook all the liquid out of all the vegetables that I was putting in.
Yes it took me another 20 minutes to completely evaporate the moist in the vegetables (1/2 cup of onions, 1/2 cup of leeks, and 1/2 cups of carrots, all cut into 1/2 inch mirepoix). That was 3rd deglazing.
Then for the fourth deglazing, I put in 2/3 cup of chicken stock, 1 cup of veal stock, and 1 cup of water. Brought it to a simmer, ladled off the oil and the impurities carefully, and simmer for another 20 to 25 minutes.
I like the little trick shown in the cookbook for skimming impurities – set the pot partially off the burner to force the impurities to the side of the pot. Brilliant!
Finally, I strained the sauce through a China cup. I don’t have a chinois, but I thought my China cup was fine enough because the liquid was quite after going through it.
There was about 1 1/2 cups of sauce. It needed to be reduced further but I decided to leave it till the next day when I was putting the dish together.
I was exhausted… But having accomplished such a elaborate process of sauce making, I was happy and heading to a very good sleep.
Fennel, and more Fennel!
The day has come, and let’s finish cooking this baby!
I started it by preparing the fennel. Fennel is the star vegetable component of this dish with the use of caramelized fennel, fennel oil, and some fennel sprig for garnish. I followed the instructions, cut a cross on the bottom of the bulb, and put in a pot of cold water along with fresh thyme, dry star anise, fennel seeds, bay leaf, and kosher salt, brought the water to a boil, covered, and simmered for just over 15 minutes. Once I made sure it was cooked through, I drained it, shocked it quickly in ice water bath, and put it in the fridge. In the book, it was supposed to be put in the fridge without ice water bath, but I figured I needed to speed up the process.
Then I made the fennel oil by blanching 2 cups of fennel fronds and 2 cups of Italian parsley for merely 15 seconds, having the herbs shocked in ice water and dried with paper towel, and blending it in 3/4 cup of canola oil for 3 minutes. Finally the oil was strained through cheese clothe. I did not have time to do it in batches as instructed in the book. So the colour was not as intense. Oh well… And the amount of the final product was almost 1/3 cup, so it was a lot for this dish. I saved the extra in the freezer for later use.
Then I took the bulb out the fridge, cut 2 venter-cut slices, and set aside.
It’s Rabbit Time!
I heated up a large frying pan with a thin film of oil over medium high heat, seared the saddle on all sides for about 10 minutes. The cooking time could be shorter if the bacon was not so thick, and I had to make sure it was nicely browned on all sides.
Then I put the saddle in the oven, and let it cook about 5 minutes according to the book, but it was still raw. It took another 10 minutes before the temperature indicate it was medium done inside. Damn those thick bacon slices!!!!
Then I used a little bit of the bacon fat to sauté the racks for about 3 minutes. They are small so they cook very quickly. Then I did a quick sauté on the kidneys. Trust me you don’t want over cooked kidneys!
Then it was time to pan fry the fennel slices, about 2 minutes on each side. Meanwhile I put the ‘Quick’ rabbit sauce in a small sauce pan and warmed it up. Last I sliced the west rested rabbit saddle into 2 smaller beautiful cylinders.
As for plating, I squeezed a ring of fennel oil, spooned the sauce to fill the centre of the ring, centred a slice of fennel on the sauce, stacked a piece of saddle, rack, and kidney on top of each other, and garnished with a fennel sprig.
With all the prepping done from last night, it still took me more than an hour to cook and put everything together. But it could have been a lot shorter if I had the poached fennel and fennel oil done the night beforehand.
Mom loved the dish, as the rabbit was so tender and delicate, and bacon added great flavours to the meat, as well as the fennel contributed sweetness to the whole dish as well. The ‘rabbit’ sauce was so flavourful! And I only had to use 1/3 of of it. And I saved the rest in the freezer for another special occasion.
Oh dear Mr. Rabbit,
thank you for you sweet tastiness and kindness of showing me how to prepare a real meat dish!!! I have certainly learned a great deal from you!