Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Braised wild rabbit with roasted artichokes, ricotta polenta, peas, pancetta and lemon

The Great British Menu has a lot to answer for. Every year I watch it religiously; I learn more from watching it than any other cookery programme, making a welcome change to yet another way to cook a shoulder of pork with apple sauce. But it doesn’t half lead to frustrated viewing, and I truly never want to see another fine dining interpretation of spam or an edible allotment. Don’t even get me started about those ration tins. I think it was a great brief this year but I don’t think that most of the chefs read it very well at all, and didn’t really address the people who would be eating the food at the banquet. Do veterans who fought in the Second World War really want to read a fabricated and contrived letter sent to relatives at home before tucking into a tiny piece of Dover sole? Surely the opposite to those meagre rations would have been a better option, four courses of overblown luxury that haven’t been arranged into the shape of Churchill’s face? 

Compulsive viewing all the same, and the thing that inspired this recipe was the amount of rabbit that was cooked. I’m almost ashamed to say that it is something that I’ve never worked with and barely eaten. It’s so strange that it has gone out of fashion these days when it used to be a staple. Not a year goes by without my dad telling that story about his neighbour eating his pet rabbits while he was on holiday, but nowadays you can barely find it, certainly not nestled in between the pork and chicken in the supermarket aisles. Our modern mainstream image of meat is getting more and more blinkered and sterilised, removing any connection between the chop on the plate and the living animal. I guess in that sense, the rather graphic image of a skinned rabbit on a chopping board doesn’t stand a chance. So thank goodness for the independent retailers still championing less popular meat. I was surprised and happy to see a rabbit displayed at a local butcher’s recently, and for under a fiver it was great value and I had to buy one.
I’ve recently been getting more and more into Instagram. Much like how Twitter compressed waffling Facebook statuses, this goes even further, and I love how you can quickly flick through and catch up on what’s going on. It is the ultimate tool when feeling a little short of inspiration or motivation; you soon want to eat a million things and are quickly re-shuffling the restaurant dining wish list. Last year for Katie’s birthday we ate at the fantastic (and fantastically local) Trullo at Highbury Corner, and I have been particularly enjoying their photographs recently. Their smart-yet-rustic Italian food sings to my soul, and one look at a polenta dish they posted had me rooting through the back of my cupboards.
I am so happy that British peas are back in season. I have often blathered for pages about my love of peas so I’ll try and restrict myself here, but all I will say is that this won’t be my last post that includes them. In this dish they add a beautiful sweetness and texture to the rich and soft accompaniments. Shelling them is a total faff but really worth it!  

Serves 2
For the braised rabbit:
1 wild rabbit, jointed with the trimmings kept 
2 carrots, roughly chopped 
2 onions, chopped 
1 leek, sliced 
4 cloves of garlic, crushed 
3 sprigs of rosemary 
5 sprigs of thyme 
1 bay leaf 
1 large glass of white wine 
2 ltrs chicken stock
For the ragu:
1 shallot, finely chopped 
4 slices of pancetta, chopped 
1 garlic clove, finely chopped 
500ml of the rabbit braising stock 
2 tbsp parmesan 
1 tbsp butter
For the polenta:
120g polenta 
750ml of the rabbit braising stock 
200g ricotta 
1 tbsp butter
For the roasted artichokes and peas:  

3 baby artichokes 
2 handfuls of fresh peas, podded and shelled. Reserve the pods for the stock 
The liver, kidneys and heart from the rabbit, chopped 
3 thyme sprigs, leaves picked 
½ a lemon, juice only, plus another for the artichoke water 
1 knob of butter
For the parsley oil:
1 large bunch of parsley 
Extra virgin olive oil 
1 tbsp white wine vinegar 
½ a lemon, juice only
To finish:
3 slices of pancetta 
1 lemon, zest only

First make the parsley oil. Fill a saucepan with water and a little salt and bring to the boil. Have a large bowl of iced water ready on the side. When boiling, blanch the parsley for 20 seconds before draining and plunging into the cold water. Drain and squeeze out all of the water from the leaves. Transfer to a food processor with the vinegar, lemon juice and a little oil and blitz well, adding more oil until the mixture has a flowing texture. Taste for seasoning, adding more vinegar, lemon or salt and pepper if necessary then pour into a bowl, cover with cling film and refrigerate. The next day, strain the mixture through muslin into a small bowl and reserve the flavoured oil. 

Next braise the rabbit. Pour a little oil into a large, heavy-based saucepan and set on a medium-high heat. Season the rabbit meat and trimmings well and brown all over in batches, transferring to a plate when coloured. Add the vegetables to the saucepan and sauté quickly for a couple of minutes before adding the herbs and the wine. Reduce the liquid by half then add the stock and the rabbit, along with the leftover pods from the peas. Bring back to the boil and then turn down for a low simmer for about an hour, or until the meat is very tender. Remove the rabbit from the pan and allow to cool slightly and then finely shred with a fork. Strain and reserve the braising stock, splitting into amounts of 500ml and 750ml.
To finish off the ragu, heat a large frying pan or skillet to a medium temperature. Fry the pancetta and shallot in a little oil for a few minutes until golden brown, then add the garlic and fry for a further minute. Pour in the 500ml measure of rabbit stock and add the shredded meat. Bring to the boil and then simmer uncovered slowly for about an hour, until the liquid has reduced to a sticky sauce that clings to the meat. Add the butter and parmesan and stir well. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed, then set aside if making in advance. 

  For the polenta, pour the larger measure of rabbit stock into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Quickly add the polenta and stir well as the mixture thickens. Turn down the heat and cook for about 20-30 minutes, until the polenta is thick and tender.
While the polenta is cooking, preheat the oven to 160⁰C.
Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and line with the three slices of pancetta. When the oven is hot, bake for about 15 minutes, or until browned and very crisp. Pat dry with kitchen paper and allow to cool, then break into large shards.
Prepare the baby artichokes by removing the outer leaves from the stem and then from the head, working around until just the softer inner leaves remain. Cut horizontally across the top of the head and scoop out the chokes with a melon baller. Trim the stem to about 5cm and peel, removing any tough bits at the top. Slice vertically into halves, and if not using straight away transfer to a large bowl of water and squeeze in the juice of a lemon to stop discolouration. To cook, heat a frying pan to a medium heat and add a little oil. Fry the prepared artichokes for 3 minutes on each side before adding the chopped rabbit offal and stirring well to quickly seal. Add the butter, peas and thyme and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Squeeze over the remaining lemon juice and season well. 

Just before serving, finish off the hot polenta by beating in the ricotta and butter and checking for seasoning. 

To serve, spoon a good dollop of the polenta onto each plate and top with some of the rabbit ragu. Arrange 3 of the baby artichoke halves on top and scatter over some of the pea and offal mixture. Drizzle a little of the parsley oil on top and around the sides before finishing with the crispy bacon shards, grated parmesan and lemon zest and peashoots.

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