Saturday, August 11, 2012

Strawberries and Rabbits

... for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth!

I was watching a random cooking show the other day and the host was traveling around Spain, and the local chefs showed him how to make a traditional rabbit paella with snails and garlic and roasted peppers, and for some reason that sounded really, really good. I remembered seeing rabbit in the case of the mobile meat market, so yesterday when I heard the distinctive squawking horn of the small truck as it pulled up outside the apartment complex, I grabbed my camera as well as my wallet. The woman in front of me bought a chicken (with head and innards, but no feet) and a dozen eggs, after discussing with the vendor whether she'd need one large chicken or two smaller ones for her Sunday dinner ("parce que nous serons quatre cette semaine"). Then it was my turn, and after buying four thin smoked-duck sausages - I'd gotten them last week and they're absolutely fantastic - and two escalopes of chicken breast marinating in olive oil, lemon, and mint (I'll cook those on Monday with sautéed zucchini), I asked for rabbit. And a picture of it before it was cut into pieces. The butcher straightened his coat and buttoned it up ("je dois être bien habillé") and solemnly held out the toothy carcass. The rabbit was a bit large, though, so I ended up buying its back legs only, plus one more. Rather than a paella, I decided to cook it in the oven with new potatoes and fresh tomatoes that I'd picked on Wednesday evening, plus bacon and onions and herbs and garlic and white wine. Here's the recipe:

Roasted Rabbit with Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Herbs

2 Tbs olive oil
3 small red onions, peeled and chopped
1 cup of diced pork belly (lardons) or unsmoked thick-cut bacon
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
3 nice fat rabbit thighs (bone-in)
8-10 small new potatoes, scrubbed and halved lengthwise
4-5 small ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered
3 bay leaves
1/2 Tbs dried thyme
3-4 branches fresh tarragon
salt and pepper
1 cup white wine

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

If you have a covered roasting pan that can go on the stove, use that to sauté the onions and bacon; otherwise, use a skillet. Heat 1 Tbs of the olive oil in the pan or skillet and add the chopped onions and diced lardons. Cook for 3-4 minutes until the onions are soft. Add the garlic and remove from the heat. If you're using a skillet, transfer the contents to your roasting pan now.

Arrange the rabbit thighs on top of the sautéed onions and fit the halved potatoes and quartered tomatoes around them. Scatter the bay leaves, thyme, and tarragon on top. Drizzle with the second tablespoon of olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper (note: if you've used smoked bacon, use less salt). Pour the cup of wine over everything, cover the pan, and cook for 45 minutes covered, then 15 minutes uncovered. Baste the rabbit every 15 minutes with the liquid in the pan.

Serve with a crusty baguette to sop up all the delicious juices.

I got a ride back after the hike on Wednesday with two of the women I'd met that day, one about 10 years younger than me, I'd say, and her mother. About fifteen minutes from Nouzilly, we passed a large field where people were walking about picking strawberries, and they asked if I'd mind if we stopped and got some. Not at all, I replied, thinking of the lack of fruit in the refrigerator. We turned around and went back to Les Jardins de Meslay, and got our baskets and bags, and headed out into the fields. The strawberries are cultivated at shoulder height in long troughs with automatic watering systems, which makes it very convenient, and it was nice to not have to stoop over after the 9-mile hike that morning. There are also plastic-covered tunnels with hot-weather plants, and a field of lettuces, and I picked a handful of tomatoes and a few small eggplants. Aline pulled up a nice big head of red-leafed lettuce, and her mother wandered around in the field of zinnias near the shop. They dropped me and my picnic bag and vegetables back home, with promises to get together again soon.

I had purchased endive and arugula the day before, and was thinking that a salad with endive and strawberries might be nice. It's not an original combination, as you'll see if you Google "strawberry and endive salad," but my take on it involves pistachio halvah. I'd bought a square of it at a small shop on Rue Grammont but hadn't eaten it, and I thought that the combination of the bitterness of the greens with the earthy sweetness of the halvah might be interesting. I thought it turned out quite well, actually. A refreshing summer salad, whether you're exhausted from a hike or just enjoying the evening breezes on the balcony.

Endive, Arugula, and Strawberry Salad with Halvah Crumbles

1 pint strawberries, cleaned and quartered
2 tsp white wine vinegar
a good grinding of salt
1 Tbs olive oil
1 medium head Belgian endive, cored and cut into ribbons (about 2 cups)
1 large handful of arugula, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
about 3 Tbs crumbled pistachio halvah

Toss the strawberries in a salad bowl with the vinegar, salt, and olive oil, and let sit for five minutes or so. Add the endive and arugula and mix gently. Just before serving, stir in the halvah crumbles.

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