Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Waiter, There’s a Hare on My Plate

...a waskally wabbit...

I am not a stranger to rabbit. I’ve hunted them, actually, long ago when my distaste for guns was not what it is now. And I was a pretty good shot, too. Nevermind. It was my dad who brought them home from the field and hung them from their hind legs against the wall of the barn and pulled their furry coats off in one mostly whole piece. What a picture that brings to my mind – my dad in his red and black checked hunting pants, his square-cut, exceedingly capable hands wielding the knife. My mother must have cooked them, but I don’t remember eating them. She must have told me it was chicken and, the way my mother cooked, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. We ate squirrel, too, with the same lack of differentiation. Gravy – red, brown, or, in my mother’s case, possibly white – covers a multitude of sins.

Jeff and Cathy McMurry sell rabbit, chicken, and sometimes eggs at their Sunset Farm booth at the Winter Farmers’ Market. Gazing down at the McMurry’s beautifully dressed, wrapped, and displayed rabbits brought memories to mind – the most recent, a walk up to the Victorian Inn at Wallingford a few years ago, and Soo whispering to Leo that Stanti had a limited amount of rabbit stew in the kitchen, which he had made for the family but was willing to serve Leo. Leo loved it – he savored the stew but he was no less pleased to be offered something ‘special’! And I was grateful, too, that the McMurry’s are offering us something different to go on our plates. A carnivore can get weary of the same ole, same ole – pork, beef, chicken, and sometimes lamb, although the fresh, free-ranged, grass-fed products of the Winter Farmers’ Market vendors offer revelations of full-bodied taste to anyone who is used to industrial, feed-lot meats.

So I bought a rabbit to experiment with. I knew I would be approaching Stanti for a rabbit lesson sometime in the future, but first, I wanted to try out my own rabbit intuition. I mistrusted my own ability to try out Jeff McMurry’s suggestion to grill it, and as I gazed down at the little pink body laid out on my kitchen counter I remembered the Red Brick Grill’s dish of rabbit ragu with porcini and their own house-cured pancetta. On the other hand, a strand of words in a NY restaurant review popped into my mind, suggesting that “cinnamon sweetens the delicate strands of pulled, braised rabbit,” and that was my inclination, too – a dark sauce, deep with the sweeter spices, perhaps sherry, possibly raisins. While I thought about the best way to proceed I discovered the liver and heart in the cavity, glossy and reddish brown.

The McMurrys are highly responsive to their customers’ ideas, desires and needs. When I expressed dismay that a glorious little chicken I bought from them did not have the giblets in the cavity, they immediately changed that practice. The livers are large, dark mahogany and evenly colored, healthy and extremely tasty. When I asked for some chicken feet the McMurrys came up with a ton of them, nicely cleaned. I spent an hour clipping toenails and paring off calluses afterward, and scrubbing them a little more, but now I have several packages – six yellow legs and feet per package – to add to my chicken bones when I make stock. And what a wondrous stock it is: from one 4 pound chicken, roasted, I simmered the bones and 6 legs and feet for possibly 4 hours, and ended up with a quart of very flavorful chicken jelly.

I was surprised to find the liver included with the rabbit, but I was glad to eat the whole of that little fella. Taking a life in order to eat, I feel, calls for wasting as little as possible. I put it, along with the heart, in a small frying pan with butter over very low heat for a short time, turning it once, salt and pepper, the same way I cook a chicken’s liver, and found it was delicious.

... in a chef’s kitchen...

Sure enough, there was Stanti, at the WFM one Saturday, bent over the case of frozen rabbits and chickens on ice, while Cathy and Jeff looked on. I’d known I’d see him at the Market, and I’d suspected he wouldn’t be able to resist the rabbits.

Since he first came to town – could it be almost 20 years ago??? – he’s searched out local foods, from cheeses to turnips. He attends markets, visits farms, and receives deliveries from local farmers. It’s the way he was raised and learned his trade in Switzerland, with the family inn and restaurant, the farm and the store. At first, when I saw the aerial photograph of that distant village, I’d thought it was Wallingford.

He selected two rabbits and said, “Yes. Certainly,” when I asked if I could watch him prepare them.

When I walked in the kitchen door at the Inn, the two rabbits were laid out on a cutting board. Several small pans were lined up with the other ingredients. In a row, mise en place, were flour, butter, salt and pepper, chopped flat leaf parsley, garlic, chopped onion, diced carrots, diced celeriac, tomato sauce, and glace de veau (reduced veal stock). A container of white wine stood on the shelf above.

He speaks American with a Swiss or at least European accent, and so we haggled over the name for the pan he took down. It turned out to be a braissier – “how would you say it in English,” he mused – for braising, natch, and he put it over the fire and melted some butter in it. Placing the rabbit pieces on a flat pan and strewing them with salt and pepper and then flour – “You don’t have to drench them in it,” – turning them and treating that side to the same, he then placed them into the butter, pointing out that the side that would show on the plate – the smoother, outer side – should be lightly browned first and, turning them when they were, he began to add the prepared vegetables in turn, “about a cup of the onions, carrots and celery (celeriac) for one rabbit. Half a cup of parsley for a nice taste. It doesn’t have to be tomato sauce, but maybe concassee,” he said as he emptied the sauce over the vegetables. Just chopped tomatoes, or cubed, if you’re meticulous. He reached up and pressed the button for white wine and poured it over the vegetables, then tipped the glace de veau over – about a cup of each for one rabbit. “The nice thing is,” he said, glancing at me, “everything you can get at the Winter Market.” I considered this and realized he was right. “Right down to the wine,” I said. He nodded, pleased.

While we chatted, the mixture simmered and, after we tasted and found the sauce very pleasant and vibrant – marinara-like, with the almost metallic taste of white wine and tomatoes – I left, promising to return for a photo when it was plated for that evening’s diners. As I took the photograph that evening, three orders for rabbit came into the kitchen. Looks like the menu at the Victorian Inn at Wallingford may have a new and possibly frequent ‘special’.

...or please, take my duck...

It’s Sunday afternoon now. I have a duck sitting in the fridge. I got it at the Winter Market, of course, entered through the Rutland Area Food Co-op on Wales Street in Rutland on Saturdays from 10 to 2. I’ve prepared duck perhaps once in my life. I’m already thinking about its preparation, the tastes, the accompaniments, how to get as much duck fat as possible to save for frying other things... And then I wonder – perhaps I can interest Stanti in doing duck!

...Tell Tale Heart...

An article by Gordon Dritschilo in the Herald on January 12 was brought to my attention by one of our farmers. Entitled Census counting on Vt. farmers, it quoted the spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, who said, regarding the penalty for not completing the census form, “I’ve heard different terms... I saw at one point you can be arrested...” Not only is this incorrect, but it is significant that the first thing this spokesman for the Agency comes up with, off the top of her head, is punitive in an authoritarian kind of way. OUR Vermont Agency of Agriculture should consider themselves the farmers’ facilitator, should be helping our farmers to be more successful and creative in growing and raising food for their customers. Instead, this statement, while being more than a little wishy-washy, also contains an aura of threat, of authoritarianism and of paternalism.

In fact, what the article or law or whatever it is DOES say is: “(2) Refusal or neglect to answer questions: A person over 18 years of age who refuses or willfully neglects to answer a question, which is authorized by the Secretary to be submitted to the person in connection with a census under this section, shall be fined not more than $100.”

An often-forgotten fact about the government, its employees, and the political establishment, is that they are all public employees, that is, OUR employees – we pay their salaries and, in the case of elected officials, elect them – and their main job is not to be threatening and authoritarian but to work with the us – in this case with the farmers – in a partnership for everyone’s well-being.

Although farm census is not a new thing, and while it can be effective, it has always been a controversial action among farmers who do not wish to make themselves vulnerable to the long arm of a government that they might view as punitive. This is particularly true among present-day small farmers who rightly fear the partnership of the government with industrial-strength mega-farmers who wish, some think, to put small farms out of business. Control the food chain and you control the people.

That said, it’s encouraging that the Agency is working with farmers to get a mobile fowl slaughtering facility up and running, and a stationery slaughterhouse in southern Vermont. Rutland needs one, too, to replace the one that burned a couple of years ago. And hopefully they’re working closely with Rural Vermont on promoting a hemp industry and making farm fresh unpasteurized milk more available to people who want it. As a matter of fact the agency seems to be extremely active promoting local foods from our small farmers lately, which only makes a throw-away patronizing remark the more regrettable.

...on the subject of real food...

“But if real food – the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food – stands in need of defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other. Both stand to gain much from widespread confusion about what to eat, a question that for most of human history people have been able to answer without expert help.” From www.MichaelPollan.com

this column originally published in the rutland (vt) herald 01/22/08

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