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June 21, 2013

Grazing: Rabbit, Rabbit Everywhere?

At first, I thought it was just me. Lots of places — Italian, French, 'nouveau Vermont,' whatever — seemed to suddenly have a rabbit dish on the menu. Braised rabbit. Fried rabbit. Oatmeal-crusted rabbit with mustard demi-glacé and guajillo-rosemary aïoli (at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, though I didn't get to try that).

Was rabbit creeping onto menus with stealth...and butter? I asked fellow food writer Alice Levitt if she'd noticed anything. "Juniper has it in hazelnut gastrique with a flaming sprig of juniper. El Cortijo has had a ton of it lately in salads and tacos. I had it at Hen of the Wood in the pasta dish I wrote about this week," she says.

Happily, the rabbit wave is not an illusion. I've had a long kitchen love affair with rabbits (as well as those who hunt them): a longtime boyfriend of mine used to shoot them in the English fields with his air gun, then skin them outside our door. I'd stew them with mustard, garlic, cream and rosemary, then spoon the whole thing over egg noodles. Even if he didn't tote home dinner, rabbit was easy to find at the grocery store, where the low-fat meat is something of a staple. Here in Vermont, I was thrilled when I met a woman at a party who raised and sold rabbits on the down-low. I got a steady supply from her — that is, until she moved away a few summers ago.

What might be dubbed my 'blue rabbit period' may have ended. At Trattoria Delia this week, I tucked into a bowl of velvety rabbit ragu over housemade strozzapreti, a sort of floppy cavatelli. The meat was shredded from the bone and succulent — no small feat when it comes to rabbit, which can dry out if overcooked. Tumbled with plump, blistered cherry tomatoes, olive oil and herbs, it was heavenly.

Turns out, that dish is about to land on the regular menu. "It's something a little lighter for the summer," says Lori Delia, who co-owns Trattoria Delia with her husband, Tom. "We had it on the menu years ago but it didn't sell that well."

The couple gets their rabbits from Vermont Rabbitry in Glover, though they also buy rabbits for their own home cooking from Shelburne Supermarket. Delia is surprised it's not more commonly available here. "You see it eveyrwhere in the grocery stores in Europe. Hopefully, people here will start to realize it's a healthy meat," she says.

When I reached him, Philip H. Brown, who started Vermont Rabbitry in 1987, seemed perplexed by rabbit's up and downs in the marketplace. "It's definitely the best meat out there. It's high protein, low cholesterol, low calories."

My theory that rabbit was on the rise ended abruptly at his door; despite being sold in Healthy Living, City Market, and to places such as Trattoria Delia and Hotel Vermont (aka, Juniper), sales are sluggish compared with last year. "I chalk it up to 'Easter bunny syndrome,'" says Brown, who sells mostly New Zealand Whites.

Brown says more and more people are entering rabbitry, and he's also seen a bump in under-the-radar producers, such as the woman I used to buy my rabbits from. It makes the going tough for a certified producer such as his, but he's staying the course — especially since he believes wholeheartedly in the power of rabbit.  "Ever had the liver? Its the best liver you could ever have, nice and moist and rich with flavor. Dredge it in flour and fry it in a pan with butter, onions and mushrooms, and give it a nice crust," he says, before making an "mmm" sound.

Sounds like a plan. 

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