Disclaimer: I have never been one of those people to shy away from eating animals just because they’re cute. And while bunnies may be adorable, fryer rabbits are not. They are mean little suckers who are not fluffy and cuddly. But, as I learned at a fairly young age, they do make for some good eating!
DB and I needed a project and since we were having a hard time coming up with something new, we decided to recreate a dish we hadn’t had in years: Braised Rabbit with Spaetzle, Créme Fraiche and Dill. I first had this dish at a restaurant in Portland called 23 Hoyt, back when my husband was the sous chef there. I instantly fell in love and forced many of my friends to join me at the restaurant to share a plate of it.
One of those friends was, of course, DB and we both became equally obsessed with it. Long after my husband (and the original executive chef) left the restaurant and the dish was no long on the menu, we would reminisce about how good it was. The spaetzle was firm yet tender, browned in butter, and the sauce was creamy but balanced. The braised rabbit added a little something different while the fried shallots on top were just an added bonus. It really was a dish to crave, especially in this cold rainy weather.
First up was securing our rabbit, which was easy since I work as a meat distributor and we process local rabbits every week. Second was breaking down the rabbit, which I had never done before. Though I was eager to watch the process, it just worked out easier to have my husband do it while I was at work. So I came home Friday afternoon to two bowls. One contained my now cut-up rabbit — which consisted of two boneless hindquarters, two bone-in frontquarters, one boneless saddle and the liver and kidneys. The other bowl was full of bones to use for stock.
To get the best flavor, I planned to braised the rabbit a day ahead to let it have time to sit. I used just the bones, celery, onions and garlic in the stock, simmering it for about two hours, skimming often. As Chef David Chang says, “crystal clear stock is baller” and I believe him. Once the stock was cooked and strained, I seared the hind and front quarters until golden brown on all sides and then braised them in the rabbit stock, Riesling and more onions and garlic.
Since I’ve never actually cooked with rabbit before, I was a little paranoid about the braising process. Unlike many things, rabbit can actually get stringy (instead of more tender) if you braised it for too long. Apprehensively, I cooked it just until the hindquarters were tender, though, in hindsight, I should have let the frontquarters go longer. No matter though — since we only needed the hindquarter meat, they were really just there to give extra flavor to the sauce.
That was the extent of my prep. The rest I wanted DB and I to figure out together. That way the burden of blame could be equally shared if our version didn’t taste as good as the original.
The next day we started fairly early, beginning our project by making the spaetzle. Upon my husband’s recommendation, we used the recipe from the Zuni Cafe cookbook and it worked perfectly. Once the batter was a made, we used an actual “spaetzle maker” which was a first for both of us — I have only ever used perforated
hotel pans or (with less success) a colander. Spaetzle makers look a little like a cheese grater but with bigger holes for the batter to fall through. Our little dumplings of love turned out great, a little small but still the flavor and texture was spot-on. A recipe to remember and reuse for sure. We also added some minced chives to the batter to give it a little oomph.
Helpful hint: After they are cooked, just spread the spaetzle out on a cookie sheet to cool. You can drizzle them with a little olive oil if you want to prevent any sticking, but it’s not necessary. They will separate pretty easily in the sauce.
Then we arranged the rest of our ingredients: a couple of handful of small button mushrooms (cut in quarters), minced chives and garlic, roughly chopped rabbit meat, créme fraiche and stock, our crispy fried shallots and a little dill. Oh yes, and some Riesling, because more wine is never a bad thing. Trust me on this.
Oh wait, you’re wondering about the fried shallots which I forgot to mention making? Oops. Thinly slice one large shallot, dredge in flour, fry in oil, remove once a light golden brown and sprinkle with salt. We were drinking a little too much beer at this point and ours got a little dark, but they were still tasty. It’s hard to mess up things that are fried!
Anyways, back to our bunny. We put a big heavy sauté pan on medium high heat, threw in some oil and butter and started by cooking the mushrooms until they were browned and tender. Once they were done, we removed them and added more butter/oil and threw in the spaetzle. By this time my mouth was seriously watering. Browned butter does it to me every time.
After the spaetzle had a nice golden color, we added back the mushrooms as well as the chives, garlic and braised rabbit. Once everything was sizzling away, we deglazed with some wine and let that reduce. Next came enough stock to get things nice and loose, letting the sauce cook down a bit. The final step is adding a dollop of créme fraiche to make the sauce rich, a little tangy and slightly creamy. I won’t even mention salt and pepper because I figure that’s a given right? Right.
Then plate up this deliciousness and garnish with some chopped dill and a generous helping of fried shallots. That is if your cooking buddy hasn’t managed to eat them all while you weren’t looking. Ahem.
Then you are ready to eat and enjoy. I will admit that our dish was clearly made by first-timers but we did a damn good job. It tasted so much like we remembered and after four years of longing, it really hit the spot. While it wasn’t an easy thing to make at home, I will certainly go through the effort to make it again. It’s one of those dishes that just make you happy and I think I was making creepy moaning noises while I ate because it is simply that good. I promise.