Thursday, April 19, 2007

Eating. run rabbit run!

Eating rabbit has always put me in mind of the tale of Peter Rabbit being chased through Mr. McGregor's garden. (Particularly as it is often served with carrots). What happened to him? I seem to remember him catching a bit of his jacket on the fence as he scampered through, or catching cold and being put to bed with a pot of chamomile tea, with the promise of berries and cream later. Or else it reminds me of books I used to read, about courageous boys stranded on mountains with only a pocketknife and two matches, who built lean-tos out of tree branches and strips of sod and fish-hooks from pull-tabs scavenged from pop cans and trapped game with snares made of twigs and bits of wire and string.

Much later after the time when I read all the Beatrix Potter books (to be truthful, The Tailor of Gloucestor was my favorite) I came across a recipe in one of the Julia Child cookbooks for a rabbit pot pie (with an herbed biscuit crust). Her recipes came with photographs of the raw ingredients arranged invitingly on butcher-block cutting boards, as well as the dish in progress; the skinned rabbit (easily obtained, she tells us, from the freezer at your supermarket or butcher) surrounded by a lavish cornucopia of vegetables looked alarmingly like, well...a rabbit. How could I eat Peter Rabbit? Or the rabbits we kept in our school science room, fed on lettuce and carrots in their nests of clean-smelling wood shavings? The very idea was disgusting, like eating Bambi's mother. It made me feel cruel and heartless.

Years went by. I found another recipe in Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, for a "Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor's Salad." The rabbit - here it comes in boned portions at the supermarket - was marinated with herbs and spices, seared and then roasted, served on lettuce leaves with baby radishes and the "smallest carrots possible" and a mustardy vinaigrette. It sounded delicious, and I knew I had passed over to the dark side. Not long after that, my parents returned from Palace Kitchen (my favorite restaurant) with some leftover rabbit they'd ordered, which I reheated for lunch the next day. It was tender and richly flavored and left me, as the best things always do, wanting more. The next time I saw rabbit on the menu, I promised myself, I would order it straightaway. That was at Lola, where it came in a soupy broth, with some flat, wide noodles, plump summer peas, and morels. More recently, there was fettucine with rabbit ragĂș, the bright spot in a dinner riddled with inconsistencies.

I thought of Peter Rabbit again tonight, sitting awkwardly - I am always awkward on bar stools, which is why I try to avoid them - at the bar of La Spiga, my other favorite restaurant, where I eat as often as I can on nights when I am too tired to cook and it is all to easy to stumble in on the way home. I've ordered pappardelle al coniglio, which comes swiftly, arriving before I have even drunk half of my aranciata. (Which is just a fancy - that is, Italian - way of saying fizzy water with orange juice). There were bright little bits of carrot, sweet against the savory tenderness of the rabbit, little flecks of prosciutto adding intensity to the brothy sauce, and shreds of sage bringing the tastes of the earth. The slippery, ruffly-edged pappardelle holds up well to the richness of the sauce, yet there is a lightness to it. The cares of the day are gone; I forget how tired I am or how I have to prepare the sauce and filling for a lasagne before I go to bed (for tomorrow's party at work). I spare a passing thought for poor little Peter Rabbit, and then think longingly of home and bed, but not before eating the smooth, creamy espresso panna cotta sitting on the bar in front of me. And so to home, and the day to come.

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