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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

No One Ever Wrote A Song About Life In The Slow Lane

Pa'paw was the odd man out.

My mom use to warn me that if I didn't stop making bad faces, my face would "get stuck" and end up like his. Pa'paw's face seemed forever stuck in grumpy, and the term curmudgeon seemed forever stuck to him. Naturally, as a child, the thought of my face ending up like his terrified me enough to stop acting like a brat, at least for a short time.

Pa'paw was an old Navy man who, perhaps, saw more despair in the South Pacific than anyone ever should; definitely more than he would ever share with us. Once discharged, he drove big-rigs for a living, and in his spare time raised cattle, as well as doing some light farming. On the weekends, we would sometimes drive down to Pa'paw's to help bale hay, but mostly we just went to visit. He lived in a small area called Startown, which lays on the outskirts of Hickory, North Carolina.

Behind Pa'paw's home was a decrepit farmhouse and a barn that sat on several acres of prime NC farmland; acres that included small tufts of forested land. It was here that I first saw (then tasted) a fruiting persimmon tree growing in the iron-gated, 19th century yard of the farmhouse. Here that my Dad and I shot beer cans off of a wooden fence, saw a calf being born, and then later ran from the angry mama cow. Behind Pa'paw's field was another, owned by a friend of his, which we would walk through picking up baseball-sized quartz crystals that had been plowed up. Of course, who can forget the long, hot weekends spent walking behind a trailer, picking up 50-pound bales of hay; later coming away with hands chapped and sore and forearms red, raw, and with thousands of tiny bleeding cuts.

That was fun.

One day, while walking around the edge of the field, Pa'paw showed me the rabbit traps he had laid out. They were simple pine boxes, rectangular in shape, and had a swinging door on the front. Think of 'em as rabbit hotels, where Thumper checks in, but doesn't check out.

On this particular occasion, one of the "rooms" was occupied.

Now, my memory is kind of faded here, but the next thing I remember was Pa'paw sitting under the carport getting ready to skin the rabbit. I remember how easily the rabbit skin came off, as if one were unzipping and taking off a coat. I remember the rabbit flesh as being lean, yet muscular. I remember being in awe that Pa'paw had actually caught a rabbit, was skinning it, and was about to eat it. Part of that awe, I'm sure, was just the natural perversity of young boys who get giddy whenever seeing dead things and helpless animals caught by some other predatory animal.

Unfortunately, that is where my early rabbits-as-food memories end. I don't even remember if we ate the rabbit. Skip ahead a couple of years, finding me in my early teens, and by then I could give a crap about farming, rabbit hunting, and definitely not baling hay, which I avoided like the plague. Pa'paw's rabbit boxes seem now like such a tiny kernel of trivia, stuck in the memories of my youth like the eternal grimace stuck on Pa'paw's face.

It's funny (or not) how food can conjure up such memories; memories that lay dormant only to be awoken by a certain smell or a certain taste or a certain ingredient.

Memories of Pa'paw, who has long since passed away, and the farm and his rabbit traps were all stirred up recently when I decided to launch into a new recipe for a Tuscan-style rabbit sauce, found in Joyce Goldstein's new cookbook called Italian, Slow and Savory.

I'd like to think that someone faxed Joyce Goldstein a two-page memo declaring that Slow Food was "in", but somehow the second page that explained the Slow Food movement in detail was lost by some scatterbrained temp. In otherwords, I think she takes the "slow" part a little too seriously. Not that I'm complaining. I mean Joyce Goldstein is freakin' awesome. I saw a cooking demonstration she gave once and immediately fell in love with her. Besides, we own several of her classics such as Back To Square One and The Mediterranean Kitchen.

It's just that this rabbit sauce recipe was so damn slow, it's no wonder that damn tortoise won the race!

And excuse me, but "slow food"? Maybe I'm missing something here, but in elementary school, it usually wasn't a "great thing" to be in with the "slow" kids. Or be put into the "slow" class. Maybe translated from the Italian into English we lost a little bit of the social significance, because "slow" only means one thing in this country and it isn't very nice.

And "slow food" as an answer to "fast food"?

That's so reactionary.

If I could drive up to the Chez Panisse pick up window, I would. BELIEVE ME!

But before I get into the recipe, first let me say: Whole Foods at 4th and Harrison probably has the worst meat department for an upscale supermarket in the whole city. No, they don't sell rabbit, and trying to find anything other than chicken breasts, whole chickens, a few sausages, and certain cuts of beef and pork is a goddamn exercise in utter frustration. Shame! Shame! Also, what's up with the high turnover of workers in the meat department?

Hecka Bad.

Instead, I called up Tower Market. They had just sold out of rabbit. We ended up going to Mollie Stones in San Bruno (which is out of the way, but we hit the peninsula on the weekends anyway), where we bought a Rabbit Barn Fryer Rabbit for $8 a pound (total $21). The rabbit was frozen and came with most of the organ meats. Later, after I made this dish, I walked into Hing Lung on Stockton Street and found the same rabbit for sale for $4.50 a pound.

Why do I even consider shopping outside of Chinatown?

So, this recipe is first the rabbit sauce. Then I use the rabbit sauce, and in addition make a bechamel sauce, and then make a baked pasta casserole. All three of these recipes are from Joyce Goldstein's new book (although, anyone can make a damn bechamel sauce).

Sugo Di Coniglio alla Toscana
Rabbit Sauce from Tuscany

1 rabbit with liver, about 3 pounds
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons of fresh rosemary, minced
1 cup of dry red wine
2 tablespoons of tomato paste, dissolved in ¼ water
2 cups of chicken stock
1 ounce of dried porcini mushrooms

Cut the rabbit into small pieces and reserve the liver (stick in the fridge). Pat dry. Best to use a heavy cleaver for this part. By the way...have you ever heard a rabbit scream? No. Well, besides being crazy, psycho screamers, they are also vicious little bastards. A wolf, which is a pack animal, is kinder than a rabbit, yet who gets the great lead spots in Disney films? A wolf would never do to another wolf what a rabbit would do to another rabbit, yet our Western culture demonizes the wolf and cannonizes the bunny.

So unfair. That is why we must cook the rabbit with glee, and an underlying sense of fuck you.

Anyway, in a large saucepan with tall sides, heat the olive oil over med-high heat, then add the rabbit and brown on both sides. It's best not to overcrowd the pan, and use one of those grease screens while you're at it. Once they are all brown, set aside.

Have you chopped everything? If not, you better do that now.

Once everything is chopped, return the pan to medium and add the carrot, celery, and onion, sauteeing until everything is soft and slightly carmelized. Then add the garlic and rosemary and heat until fragrant (Oh, Joyce is going to kill me for butchering her directions! Don't worry, just follow me and you'll be fine).

Now add the wine and scrape the bottom, getting up all of the love. Reduce in half.

Now add the rabbit, the tomato paste, and the stock and bring to a gentle boil. At this point, cover and simmer for about an hour and a half. Some of the liquid will evaporate, but I doubt you'll have to add a lot to replace it. However, you'll need to add some just to make sure the rabbit braises fully in the liquid. You can use stock or water. I use water.

While watching the pot, soak the porcinis in hot water for about 30 minutes. Soak in only enough water to cover. After 30 minutes, strain through a coffee filter, reserve the liquid and chop the mushrooms.

When the rabbit has finished cooking and is tender, remove from the braising liquid and let cool enough to be able to pull the meat from the bones. Unlike Joyce, I strain the braising liquid to remove the veggies and then add back into the saucepan. Yes, that was a dig.

When the rabbit meat has been removed from the bones, chop finely and then add it, the mushrooms and the chopped liver to the pan sauce. Simmer over medium to medium high heat to reduce until thick. At this time you can season with salt and pepper, plus more rosemary if you wish.

Friends, our recipe class is half finished, but let me share with you some advice.

Sometimes, in the midst of our excitement and determination in the kitchen, harm befalls us. That harm can be of our own making, it can be accidental, or it can be the result of some dumbass getting in your way when you have a pot of boiling water. Insomuch as it is someone else's fault, certain precautionary measures can be taken in advance.

Tasers come to mind.

Whereas the responsibility lies squarely on our own shoulders and disaster strikes, some of you would refer to it as an "act of God", then nothing can be done and milk cried over will not turn into Crème Anglais.

It is referring to the latter than I must break some rather sad news to you. In the midst of preparing this rabbit sauce dish, I accidentally broke one of my most favorite dishes, mentioned previously in another entry. Yes. The Mikasa saucer is no more.


It cannot be replaced.

Well, ok, it can. But the circumstances, the thrill of the find, and the day that plate represents to me can't, and you know what, try auctioning all of that on Ebay.

It can't happen.

Thus, I am resigned to kicking myself once again for having a kitchen with concrete floors. But don't worry, I don't beat myself up over it.

I usually save that rage for strangers I pass on the street.

Getting back to the recipe:

Next let's get our pot of water boiling for the pasta that we are going to first cook al dente. For this dish, I used Rigatoni, which is a tubular (like, totally!), ridged pasta shaped to adhere well to sauces. And I used Barilla, because it's good and it's usually about a buck a box at Safeway and that is your bargain-shopping tip of the week.

Remember, always use a large pot with plenty of boiling salted water when making pasta. I also usually stand by the pasta while it cooks, because it can go from al dente to al limpay pretty quick.

Once the pasta is cooked and drained, add it to the meat sauce and stir. At this point, turn your oven on to 350 degrees.

Next make a bechamel sauce by heating 4 tablespoons of butter in a medium hot pan until melted. Once melted, add ¼ cup of all-purpose flour while stirring wildly to incorporate into the butter. Don't let the roux color; reduce the heat if you must.

Oh. You have to add milk next. But the milk should be hot, so put it (2 cups) into a microwave safe dish and heat it for 2 or 3 minutes. Now, slowly, add the hot milk to the roux, stirring like a madman/madwoman all the while. As you slowly add the milk in stages, the sauce will begin to build and when all of the liquid is added, it should be a pretty thick and consistent sauce. If it is too thick, which I doubt, but if it is, add some more milk.

Remove from heat and add some freshly grated nutmeg. How much? I'd say at least half a teaspoon. I think the nutmeg flavor is crucial to a bechamel.

See that lonely pasta in rabbit sauce that has patiently been waiting for you to make the white sauce? Put it into a 13x9 cassarole dish and then top it with the bechamel sauce. Next add some freshly grated Parmigiano Regiano (about ¼ to ½ a cup) on top and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and serve immediately.

As you see, my plating isn't fancy. And that rosemary sprig. Well, I just pulled that out of my ass (figuratively!). No, this isn't El Bulli. Plating be damned, it's still an excellent dish and thanks to Joyce Goldstein for the slow recipe and the recovered memories about Pa'paw, baling hay, plus all of the drama with breaking my favorite dish.

I'll send you my therapist's bill.



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