Little Bunny Food Food 

Rabbit meat is on the menu at Hen and Hare Microfarm

click to enlarge chelseaharada3.jpg

Chelsea Harada

The heat came in through the windows I'd left open to keep the house cool, and a box fan I'd set up blew only hot air. It was the dog days of summer, but I was in the kitchen cooking a heavy soup. It was, I thought, out of season, but my curiosity nagged and I had to try it: On the menu was rabbit stew.

For more than a year, I'd been speaking with Jessica Harrold of Hen and Hare Microfarm about her rabbit operation. Only in the last few months, after contracting with USDA-certified Northwest Premium Meats for butchering, has she been able to sell slaughtered rabbits to her customers online, at the Boise Farmers Market and, starting in September 2019, at the Boise Co-op. Cooking the meat, which is a delicacy pretty much everywhere but the U.S., had long been on my wishlist, and when I bought mine from her at the market, she handed over a card with a bare-bones recipe, which I used as a starting point for my own rabbit-cooking adventure.

"If you cooked a chicken, you shouldn't be scared of it, as long as you follow the recipe, you'll be good to go," Harrold said.

The similarities between rabbit and chicken end with the color and ease of cooking. Rabbit is a low-fat white meat with a pillowy, porous texture and a surprisingly mild flavor that takes on the hues of what's around it. In the stew, it was delicious, to the point that like a picky eater, I had to restrain myself from spooning around the potatoes, celery and carrots to get at the pale cuts of meat.

click to enlarge CHELSEA HARADA
  • Chelsea Harada

In America, the taste for rabbit meat waned as mass agriculture favored beef, chicken and pork. Today, Idahoans are as unlikely to be familiar with the 1981 mass killing of rabbits in the Gem State as with the animal's culinary possibilities. That should change, and for reasons beyond taste. Rabbits are easy to raise, they mature quickly, and compared to many other animals raised for meat, they're environmentally sustainable. The amount of water required to grow one pound of rabbit meat is one-sixth that required to grow a pound of beef; the small animals require considerably less acreage to raise; and there's little risk of herds compacting the soil or releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gasses. What's more, rabbits, well, breed like rabbits.

"Quicker turnaround time means more feed efficiency for the animals. And overall, they have a smaller footprint, literally. There's less water, [and] less feed cost going in," Harrold said.

Harrold began with a breeding trio—two does and a buck, which she and her husband, Ammon Judy, named Janet, Chrissy and Jack after the main characters in Three's Company—on a quarter of an acre in the Boise Bench neighborhood. Over the last two and a half years, they've expanded their operation both in acreage and the number of rabbits they tend. Today, they support four bucks and 30 does on two acres. Their breeds of choice are New Zealand satins and Californians.

Rabbit meat is also regarded for its high levels of protein and notoriously low levels of fat. It has 50-100 grams of digestible fat per 2 kilograms of live-weight rabbit, making it approximately 8.3% fat. Compare that to beef and pork (32%) and lamb (28%). In some instances, people subsisting entirely on rabbit for extended periods of time have fallen ill from protein poisoning, also known as "rabbit starvation," which comes from a diet too high in protein and too low in fat.

"They take a lot less and they're the highest protein—they're all-white meat," Harrold said.

click to enlarge CHELSEA HARADA
  • Chelsea Harada

There's little risk of rabbit starvation, however, with traditional preparation methods—i.e. with plenty of butter. Hen and Hare sells its meat on the bone, and after trimming it, I dredged it in flour and lightly browned it in a pan with butter, at which point it stopped looking like chicken and began to emit a pleasant aroma. The fat and minimal salt revealed the flavor of the meat almost immediately.

"The texture is really similar to chicken overall. It's more flavorful than chicken overall, but it's the same kind of taste. It's just as easy to cook," Harrold said. "The stew is a really nice way to get a fall-apart piece of meat."

It wasn't until the next day, after cooling it in the refrigerator overnight, that the stew began to really blossom in appearance and taste. A lot of wintry soups get their heartiness from fat leaching out from the meat. Beef is especially good for this, since the fat (literally) renders a lot of the flavor as it's absorbed into the stock and veggies. The fat in rabbit stew doesn't come from the meat, so I had to quickly learn to be conscientious about how much fat and salt I added to the dish. In the end, I supplemented Harrold's recipe with celery, carrots, red potatoes, extra butter and plenty of Worcestershire sauce, and was very happy with the still-very-light stew.

From Harrold's back porch, Hen and Hare Micro Farm doesn't look so "micro," but it has a stillness that can only be found in the country. Neither Victory Road, which runs almost adjacent to the property, nor the Boise Airport a couple miles away, seemed to make much noise compared to the anxious murmur of turkeys, guineas and chickens coming from the small pasture. In between was the wire enclosure where Hen and Hare keeps its hares, including approximately a dozen does in cages.

click to enlarge DAVEN MATHIES
  • Daven Mathies

Hen and Hare is small for a farm, but it manages to do big things. At the lot next door, a horse munched grass lazily. A few acres is barely enough for larger animals, but Harrold and Judy raise scores of rabbits and poultry, have enough room for a sizeable garden and hold down non-farm jobs: Harrold works for the Ada Soil and Water Conservation District, and Judy is a local attorney. The rabbits have already made something of a public debut—when LED, The Modern and Txikiteo threw the Red Hare(ing) progressive dinner in late August 2019, the rabbits served for dinner came from Hen and Hare.

There are also big things in store, starting with conducting rabbit-centered cooking classes at the Boise Co-op. On the farm, Harrold has plans to build a hay barn to keep her animals cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

"That'll improve our care of the rabbits. They'll be better protected from the elements. We try to have the highest quality of life, so having this barn in place will make their lives a lot more comfortable," Harrold said.

As the palates of Boise shoppers grow more adventurous, and as they consider the impacts of their decisions at the grocery store on the environment, Harrold said she expects the demand for rabbit to increase, but so far, interest in the meat has been modest. Still, because of her work it's available for people to experiment with and discover, and in the end, that's just what she wants.

"I think it's just an important, sustainable option to have in our community," she said.

The Hen & Hare Rabbit Stew Recipe:

Ingredients:

• 3/4 cups flour

• 4 tbsp. butter or lard

• 1 small rabbit

• 2 sliced onions

• 2-3 cups sliced mushrooms

• 2 cups red wine

• 4 cloves garlic

• 1 tsp. thyme

• 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

• Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

1. Piece out the rabbit and dredge it in flour.

2. Melt the butter in a Dutch oven, brown the rabbit pieces and set them aside.

3. In the Dutch oven, saute the mushrooms and onions, adding more butter or lard as needed.

4. Deglaze the mushrooms and onions with red wine and bring the mixture to a simmer.

5. Add the browned rabbit pieces, broth, thyme and garlic. Make sure the rabbit is mostly submerged.

6. Allow the stew to simmer for approximately 2 hours, until the rabbit is tender.

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