Food for the road: rabbit legs and Vitelotte potatoes

A few days ago I left the Alpine Lys Valley, where I visited my friend Federico’s new business Paysage à Manger, with some kilos’ worth of potatoes of four different types, species that have been unavailable from our tables for quite a long time. This is what I’ve come up with in order to use them.

Brits are among the choosiest people in the world when it comes to food. Only certain varieties will do, and only if cooked in certain ways; everything else is looked at with suspicion, for fear of eating something – God forbid – foreign. Meat is no exception, as even the quickest of the tours in a supermarket will confirm: only beef, pork, lamb, turkey and chicken are usually to be found, and only in selected cuts. So this is why rabbits can be bought to be found either at a farmers’ market or, if you’re lucky enough, at a butcher who hasn’t been replaced yet by an estate agent or a franchised café. And, even there, your order for four rabbit’s legs will cause a moment of silence amongst the other customers, a long second of suspension during which fellow shoppers will look at you with the same expression of horror and disbelief they’d rewarn you with had you, for instance, placed an order for four baby’s legs. Rabbits aren’t to be eaten, in the UK; they are to be looked at and aww-how-cute‘d at, and the same goes for horses, chamoises, deers and so on.

However, one fine day I entered my local butcher – well, the only butcher left, to be precise – and exited a few quids lighter and in possess of four rabbit legs in a plastic bag, feeling murderous like Hannibal Lecter. But I had a good reason for buying them, for I intended to cook them with my precious Vitelotte potatoes, straight from the Alpine fields of my friends at Paysage à Manger.

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Vitelotte, also known as Truffe de Chine, is a French variety rooted in the country’s history, for it has been considered as a traditional species back in 1817. It was widely used in the Alps but, with the passing of time, has fallen out of favour. There are many reasons for that: to start with, it’s rare to yield large potatoes, with the average one not longer than one’s thumb. Secondly, as you can see in the picture, it’s so gibbous to make peeling an uncooked one a pretty decent Chinese torture.

The recipe for their preparation is quite simple. Meat and veggies are cooked together, both gaining taste thanks to the juices of the other. But let’s start from the beginning.

Ingredients (for two commensals)

Two rabbit legs, or rabbit meat in chunks; if eating fluffy creatures is not your forte, then pheasant, duck or particularly flavourful chicken will do as well; a large onion; 0.5 kg of Vitelotte potatoes; two large carrots; garlic; spices (pepper, salt, oregano, rosemary); 3/4 lt of vegetable broth; one glass of wine.

Instructions

Wash the potatoes carefully, then put in abundant water and set to boil. Allow a few minutes and then add the carrots as well, after having peeled them. Be careful not to leave the Vitelottes in for too long: after some 5 minutes at boiling temperature prod one with a cocktail stick. If the stick penetrates the potato’s skin with ease it’s time to drain. Peel while still hot (be advised that, during this particular operation, swearing is allowed and actively encouraged).

Wash the rabbit, ensuring it’s been properly skinned. Rub in pepper and salt and leave under a cloth, while you proceed to chop the onion and garlic in tiny pieces (once again, swearing and crying are encouraged). Put a couple teaspoon’s worth of extra virgin oil in a pan and fry the onion until it’s turned golden. Don’t let it turn brown, or it’ll spoil the flavour! Pick up the onions and leave the oil in the pan, we’ll use it later (oh, take the pan off the fire, please).

Meanwhile, re-heat a little the oil and, topping up if necessary, and once well warm add the rabbit and, following, the vegetables: carrots, potatoes and onion. Pour some more spices and leave to roast on a lively fire. Dampen down with the wine – the secret is to pour it at intervals, leaving it to evaporate before one and the other – and once roasted lower the fire’s intensity. What we have done is to prepare a crispy  crust which, theoretically, should remain until the cooking is done.

Add a little bit or the broth at intervals, allowing the meat and vegetables to absorb it. The purpose is to soften everything while, at the same time, enriching the flavours. This is a procedure that I find highly empirical, for it can last from as little as 20 minutes to one hour depending on many factors. Generally, however, the lesser the food – and the fresher the meat – the shorter the time. The important bit is not to damp the food too much: the meat should never float about in the pan.

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Eventually, when the carrots will be soft enough and the potatoes tender on the inside and roased enough on the outside, it’ll be time to put the pan off the fire. Serve immediately and enjoy. Please be aware that rabbit has the tendency of becoming quite hard and gummy if microwaved, so it’s advisable to finish it in one go.

 

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