The Chinese zodiac is potentially hazardous to mad culinary minds.
While Chinese New Year has an extensive, exhaustive, exhausting list of "lucky" foods - daunting even without all the regional and cultural variations - its guidelines appear to be silent regarding the fortune-bearing properties of consuming any of the twelve animals that mark Chinese calendar years. It's an unfortunate omission, one that prompts all sorts of wild speculation.
Would eating chicken at the start of the Year of the Rooster bring extra luck? Or would it be particularly unlucky? If it were lucky to consume rat at the start of the Year of the Rat, would there be a sudden spate of rodent consumption every February? And if you somehow managed to tap into an alternate universe and slaughter a dragon, would you be the luckiest of all?*
This year is the Year of the Rabbit, and lucky or not, I couldn't pass up the chance to prepare rabbit as my token nod at Chinese New Year festivities. (No dumpling-folding this year.)
You see, the Chinese New Year period is a state holiday in China, and rather than subjecting myself to a nightly symphony of firecrackers, I disappeared to Boston for a few days of real cheese, easily-acquired baking supplies, and traffic that's not quite so maniacally bent on scaring pedestrians to death.
So long as I was in Boston, I wanted an excuse to fit in a visit to my favorite butcher. Cue the rabbit.
While there are definitely sources for excellent local meat at the various farmers' markets, there's nothing like a good butcher to fashion a cut of meat just the way you want it. My favorite butcher in Boston is Sulmona's Meat Market in the North End, a family-owned business where it's not uncommon to see a little old Italian lady instructing the staff in rapid-fire Italian on exactly how she'd like beef slices cut for involtini. They make their own Italian sausages (both sweet and spicy), and sell a beef-pork-veal mixture (ground to order) that is excellent for meatballs and meatloaf. Crucial for my purposes, they also carry whole rabbit.
Early Thursday afternoon, I left Sulmona's with a neatly packaged rabbit, trimmed and cut into six pieces, plus a pound of sweet Italian sausage for later consumption. The rabbit was destined for ragu, which I planned to serve over fresh pappardelle. This was my token nod at Chinese New Year: noodles are popular because they symbolize longevity, and pasta, after all, belongs to the same family as noodles.
First, you'll need a rabbit weighing about three pounds, preferably with liver and kidneys intact. Feel free to name it if your sense of humor resembles mine. (This one was Roger. The previous one was Peter.) Ask your butcher to cut it into six pieces for you, or do the job yourself with a heavy cleaver.
Decide how you feel about offal. If it's really not your thing, place the liver and kidneys in a small pot with half an onion, a rib of celery, half a carrot and a bay leaf. Cover with water and leave to simmer. (You'll use this liquid to add extra flavor to the sauce.) If you're fine with offal, cut the liver and kidneys into small pieces and set aside.
Rinse and pat the rabbit pieces dry. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot with lid, heat a little mild-tasting vegetable oil. Brown the rabbit pieces; transfer to a plate and set aside.
Wash and julienne one large leek (or two small.) Finely dice three ribs of celery and two small carrots. In the same pot you used to brown the rabbit, sauté three slices of finely cut pancetta until the fat renders out. If you're not afraid of offal, add the cut-up liver and kidneys at this point. Add the leek and cook until it softens, then add the celery and carrots. Season with a fat pinch of salt. Add two bay leaves and a sprig each of fresh rosemary, sage and thyme.
Add half a can of tomato paste (about three or four tablespoons) and enough water to thin the mixture. Cook, stirring occasionally, making sure to scrape up any browned bits stuck on the bottom.
Arrange the rabbit pieces in the pot – make two layers if they won't fit in one. If you opted to turn the offal into stock, grab a strainer and strain the liquid right into the pot. If not, add a little more water, just enough to cover.
Bring the mixture to a simmer, then put the lid on the pot. Cook, checking back once every half-hour or so, until the rabbit is tender enough that the meat can easily be prised away from the bone with a fork.
Ready a cutting board. Remove a piece of rabbit from the pot, set it on the cutting board, and use a fork (and your fingers, if necessary) to pull the meat off the bones. Return the meat to the pot, and repeat the process with the other pieces. Rabbits have some very small bones that are easy to miss, so work carefully and take your time.
Turn up the heat slightly, and with the lid off, let the mixture reduce, stirring occasionally, until it reaches the consistency of sauce. Use a wooden spoon to break up any particularly large chunks of meat. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste.
Ladle the ragu over fresh pappardelle or buttered polenta. Serve with a dusting of finely chopped parsley, and pass grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.
*Probably not a recommended course of action. Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.