you cook good rabbit, pilgrim

I’m fairly certain that my immediate family members will agree that the title of this post was never up for debate, given that the film Jeremiah Johnson is a household staple.

In the weeks before and after, Rabbit Fest 2011 was a pretty frequent topic of conversation, both in actual and web-based life.  People were overwhelmingly curious about two main things: 1) why in God’s name was I cooking rabbit? and 2) where did the rabbits come from?  So before we hop (cringe-worthy pun intended) into the recap of the actual fete itself, let’s cover some background info on RF 2011.

There are few things I enjoy more in life than giant dinner parties.  Back in my sophomore year of college, we had fairly regular Sunday night dinners in our apartment.  Completely lacking in pretense and ambiance, these were an open invite to the same group of about 10 or 12 close friends.  The menu was usually uncomplicated and revolved around dishes that could easily feed masses – pasta, casseroles, lasagna, trays of enchiladas or chicken parmesan.  I can’t quite remember, but I vaguely recall a BYO-plate policy.  This was also the first year I ever tackled a holiday meal, and while Thanksgiving dinner with a pre-cooked turkey for only three people seems like a trifle in retrospect, I was more than a little pleased with myself that year.

Mikey B, genius extraordinaire and rabbit-fest intstigator

Over the past 8 years, both the guest lists and the particular holidays have varied.  And, inevitably, menus have become more and more sophisticated as my cooking skills have evolved.  Sometime in the past year and a half, I mentioned something in an email* to a group of friends about cooking rabbit.  Though I wasn’t entirely serious at the time, my good friend Michael (who also happens to be one of my favorite people, ever) has never let me forget this promise.  While he was impressed with Duck Fest 2010, I knew he wouldn’t be satisfied until I made good on my rabbit promise.

Which is why about a month ago on a random Saturday night, I wound up cooking rabbit for a dozen people.  As for where the rabbits were obtained – contrary to several inquiries, I was completely uninvolved in the actual hunting of said rabbits.  I was hoping to get them at the Union Square Greenmarket, but my inability to get duck on both the day before and the day of Duck Fest left me wanting a more concrete plan.  Fortunately, D’Artagnan delivers all sorts of game meat right to your door, so I was set.

With the issue of procurement settled a few weeks in advance, I had plenty of time to pour over recipes.  I was initially intrigued by a rabbit stew with saffron couscous, but wasn’t convinced this would translate well into a non-rabbit entree.  (One of my friends is a vegetarian, and I knew that at least one other friend was skeptical about the idea of eating rabbit.)  After some more perusing, I found a Sicilian-based recipe for baked rabbit and knew my search had ended.  The caponata in the recipe, when paired with fettuccine, was hearty enough to serve as a vegetarian entree, and I could easily prepare a few chicken breasts in the same manner as the rabbits for less daring carnivores.  I also wasn’t sure how much meat I could expect from each rabbit, so I figured having a couple pounds of pasta would ensure that no one went hungry.  And, as an added bonus, I very much enjoyed that the recipe was a throwback to my Sicilian roots.  My friend Eyeball** had graciously offered to bring a roasted beet and blood orange salad, and asparagus with roasted red pepper sauce (courtesy of one of my favorite cookbooks) rounded out the meal.

Dessert Fest

I’m of the opinion that any meal with “fest” in the title requires a cocktail hour (or two), so bacon-wrapped dates, homemade ciabatta, and an Italian cheese platter (taleggio, gorgonzola, and parmigiano-regiano with grapes, honey, and roasted walnuts) were the opening act.  For dessert, my friend Jax went above and beyond the call of duty with rabbit-themed sugar cookies, and Jon and his girlfriend, Rachel, made the most decadent chocolate-chip banana bread I’ve ever had.  Not surprisingly, we went through many, many bottles of wine, as well as some incredible homemade brews courtesy of Chris and Mike.

Rabbit Fest MVP

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that early in the evening, Rabbit Fest was touch and go for a few moments.  I vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take to butcher three whole rabbits, especially with a less-than-stellar set of knives.  Dinner was loosely set to happen around 7:30, but when friends started showing up at 6 for cocktails, dinner was a long way off.  To make matters worse, I had also overestimated the amount of room I had in my oven, so some last minute recipe changes were implemented.  I tend to be a bit type-A and am not great at delegating, so most of my friends know better than to brave the kitchen when I’m in full swing.  Fortunately, my friend Stephanie had recently moved to NYC and was in attendance, as well.  Steph and I go back to the fourth grade and, with the exception of my family, she’s known me longer than just about anyone.  After showing up and assessing the situation at hand – which involved me elbow-deep in rabbit and in over my head – she sensed that asking for help was a waste of time.  Instead, she poured us each a glass of wine, took the rabbits by storm, and gracefully saved the evening.

All in all Rabbit Fest 2011 was a smashing success.  Cop and I lived off the leftovers for a good two weeks, and he was especially thrilled with several mornings of rabbit-liver breakfasts.  Best of all was the fact that this dinner served as a reunion of sorts for the original Sunday night dinner club, with friends trekking back to the city from Richmond, Philadelphia, and south Jersey.  While the food was damn good, the guest list was by far the highlight of the night.

*While the reference is brief, it should be noted that the aforementioned email chain plays a very significant role for many of the friends mentioned in this post.

**Not her given name.

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