Rabbit stew with seasonal veggies and traditional herbs…

I have a frozen  bunny, a big, muscular bugger, shot on the Lakeland fells (allegedly), and so very reluctant to defrost in the fridge it’s had to be exiled to the kitchen. This, along with some streaky bacon – rabbit being pretty much fat-free – will go into the slow cooker, accompanied by lots of seasonal root vegetables and rather untraditional sweet red peppers – the long, pointed kind, not watery bell peppers – cut into Christmas postage-stamp size chunks.

And in case you’re wondering, traditional herbs for rabbit, in my kitchen at least, are fresh thyme and rosemary. There may well be parsley stalks too, if I can find them in the freezer.

Very much not traditional or seasonal will be a couple of dried shiitake mushrooms, deeply slashed with a knife but left whole. They’re there to add depth and flavour, not to eat. Cooked shiitake, for me, are way too leathery. I prefer field mushrooms, from button to flat and any stage in between, and raw – even the humble cultivated button mushroom has more taste eaten raw than when cooked.

The cooking liquor will be a light vegetable stock, as rabbit, especially wild rabbit, has quite an intense flavour. Indeed, some cooks suggest bringing it to the boil in water, then discarding the water, to mute the flavour. Please, don’t do that – why bother buying rabbit if you’re frightened of the taste? Buy chicken instead, that scares no-one.

I’m hoping, when mine finally defrosts, it will prove to have its liver, kidneys, heart and lungs intact (many butchers filch these, especially the liver, for their own rabbit pies – knock it off guys!). These can either be left intact, after checking for shot (the whole beast needs to be checked for shot, before use), and fished out of the finished stew as cook’s treats, or chopped and added to the dish for extra flavour (it also hides them from the squeamish).

The rabbit needs to be washed before use, and this is best done after jointing. I cut them in to five pieces – forequarters, hindquarters, both split down the middle, and saddle – and rinse them under cold, running water, checking for little holes which might contain shot, which can be picked out with tweezers or teased out with a cocktail stick. Wash off any bone splinters too, from your own cutting and from the leg-ends and neck.

I might, if I’m in the mood, separate the rib cage, as it has little meat but still contributes to the flavour, so I tend to discard it after cooking. It’s usually easier to do once cooked, though.

If you lack a hefty, and very sharp, chef’s knife, for portioning the rabbit, then I suppose poultry shears, my second choice, are unlikely too. Secateurs, well-washed first, are good, but if all else fails, ask your butcher to joint it for you.

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So, the recipe (some quantities are deliberately omitted – it depends on the size of your pot – I like loads of veg and have a big pot; it saves cooking them later):-

1 wild rabbit, washed and portioned as above

6 rashers of unsmoked streaky bacon, cut into roughly 2 inch pieces and fried in a dry pan until almost cooked and definitely not crisp, added to the stew with any fat they’ve given off – put them at the bottom of the pot, under the rabbit

Sweet Spear carrots (a really excellent, seasonal, British carrot, available from Sainsbury’s during the winter), peeled and sliced, diagonally, not too thick

Parsnips, ditto (halve and core them if they seem woody)

Half a smallish swede, peeled and cut into half-inch dice

2 sweet, pointed, red peppers, deseeded and cut into large postage-stamp pieces

6 or 8, depending on size, torpedo-shaped shallots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal, not too thin

2 sprigs of fresh thyme, the leaves stripped and chopped

2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, likewise, but finely

Handful of parsley stalks if available (discard after cooking)

12 black peppercorns

A good pinch of salt

6 juniper berries (optional)

A splash of soy sauce

2 or 3, depending on size, dried shiitake mushrooms (optional), rinsed of grit, and slashed several times with a sharp knife – discard after cooking. If you like the things, slice first and leave in

1 litre of stock made from 2 Kallo organic vegetable stock cubes, dissolved in boiling water.

Note:  Slicing root veg on the diagonal is purely cosmetic – slice it how the hell you like as long as you’re consistent and remember that carrots take longer than parsnips, and swede is somewhere in between – half-inch dice of swede cooks in about the same time as sliced carrot a little thicker than a pound coin. The smaller slices of parsnip, which is starchier than carrot or swede, will likely disintegrate and thicken the sauce a little – I tend to deliberately cut a few very thin slices for this purpose.

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Towards the end of cooking – this is something I did in my recent, abortive, return to vegetarianism – trim, remove manky outside leaves, and quarter some medium-sized Brussels sprouts (don’t trim the stalk too short, as this helps to stop them shedding leaves), as many as you like, add to a pan, cover with boiling water and boil for a minute or so (this helps prevent the entire stew tasting of Brussels sprouts) . Drain and add to the stew. Surprisingly, especially in the gentle environment of a slow cooker, they retain their shape very well.

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Put the bacon in the bottom of the pot, put the rabbit portions on top, and add everything else to the pot. In a slow cooker, root veg go on the bottom, traditionally/officially. In practice this is pointless as convection currents carry them up to the top anyway.

Add the hot stock. A litre should be more than enough but, if not, make up any shortfall with hot water.

Turn up the slow cooker to High, and when it’s showing signs of simmering (little bubbles round the edges), reduce the heat to low and forget about it for 4-8 hours, depending on your cooker – modern ones run hotter than old ones. I tend to cover the top with a towel to reduce heat loss – the container is double-walled, the lid isn’t, and can lose significant amounts of heat left uncovered.

Check for doneness at 4 hours (the meat should just barely be falling off the bones and the veg tender), and hourly thereafter. Once cooked, adjust the salt if necessary, and leave to cool, When cold, stash in the fridge for 24 hours, as you should with any stew or soup, to give the flavours time to relax and snuggle up to each other. I tend to tip it into a pan, once it’s cool, as I don’t trust my glass shelves to the combined weight of the slow cooker’s crock-pot and its contents.

Of course, if you put it in the oven, or on the hob, your timings will be different.

Reheat, removing the fat from the top first if that sort of thing worries you (tip, you’re removing flavour!), and serve with boiled potatoes, or buttery, mustardy, mash (my choice). There should be sufficient veg cooked with the rabbit.

If you plan to freeze some or all of it, I’d remove the meat from the bones, lest any sharp fragments poke holes in the foil trays/plastic bags – whichever you use. I use foil trays, they’re tidier and stack nicely.

And we’re done – enjoy!

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