In the winter, games on for rabbit at local restaurants

In Season: Rabbit
by: Vegar Abelsnes Photography, Rabbit now has an air of highbrow rarity, but it used to be much more commonly raised and eaten.

During the winter, when local seafood options are slim and produce often is of the starchy and tuberous ilk, farm-raised game gets more attention. But most home cooks think of venison or elk when they're contemplating game meat, rather than making a stew of Peter Cottontail.

Plenty of people are squeamish or opposed to eating rabbit (especially if they know someone who keeps bunnies as pets), but now is the time when you'll find it braised, roasted and stewed in many of the best restaurants across town.

Rabbit often is considered a highbrow, gourmet meat (the price tag often pushes $13 a pound in local markets). It wasn't always that way.

During World War II and into the 1960s, rabbit meat was easy to source and affordable, until the cost of commercial feed increased substantially and several major meat processing plants shut their doors.

Since then rabbit meat has been relegated to a niche market with a price that excludes many Oregonians.

Since 1990, Geoff Latham, owner and president of Nicky USA, the Portland-based, wild- and farm-raised game company, has been doing his best to bring rabbit back into local kitchens, one farm at a time.

One of the seven rabbit farms that Latham works with in Oregon and Southwest Washington is Dutcher's Christmas Tree Farm in Boring. The 40-year-old, 15-acre family farm specializes in Christmas trees but also raises animals and grows organic vegetables.

Rollo Dutcher raised rabbits for the local meat market for several years in the 1960s, until the cost of feed became prohibitive. With the help of her father, Michele Dutcher recently returned to those roots by raising rabbits.

Dutcher currently has 160 rabbits. Although she has plenty of common breeds, such as California and New Zealand white, she also raises several heritage species, including the rare American chinchilla rabbit.

Farm-raised rabbit is a tender, slightly sweet white meat that often is prepared the same way as chicken.

Rabbit fryers, usually nine to 12 weeks old and weighing about 2 pounds, generally are roasted or grilled while older rabbit typically is braised.

The Western Culinary Institute has used Nicky USA rabbit for several years to teach students how to prepare the versatile meat.

Latham says: 'They do a lot of education there on our rabbit as well as some of our specialty poultry. Today, we had 30 rabbits come in, and this afternoon we will deliver all of those processed to them. We usually don't ship the same day, but we are completely out of fryers for the first time in five years.'

According to Latham, one of the biggest reasons there aren't many rabbit farms in Oregon is that very few local facilities process the meat.

Sometime in the future, Latham hopes to buy his own farm within 30 miles of Portland. Once he does, he plans to build a state-of-the-art processing facility at the farm where he could offer custom-processing days for local farmers so that they can process their less common, often heritage, meats.

'Now that Nicky USA has done the best that we can in sustainable, humanely raised animals, the next thing is to try to bring back different breeds that might not be used as much anymore. You know, heritage turkey was really a big deal this Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for Oregon, nobody has a major packing plant, so we can't really capitalize on what's being raised here,' Latham says.

Many local restaurants serve Nicky USA rabbit throughout the fall and winter, including Castagna, Clyde Common, 23 Hoyt, Navarre and Paley's Place.

You also can purchase its whole rabbit fryers as well as other fresh and frozen rabbit cuts at many Portland-area markets.

Roasted rabbit with mustard sauce

Serves 4

• 4 rabbit hindquarters

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 large onion peeled, halved and sliced thinly

• 1 large carrot peeled, and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

• 4 sprigs fresh thyme

• 1 bay leaf

• 3/4 cup white wine

• 3/4 cup chicken stock

• 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

• 3 tablespoons crème fraîche

Preheat the oven to 375° F.

Season the rabbit with salt and pepper. Melt the butter and oil together in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Place the seasoned rabbit in the skillet and turn it a few times coating it in the butter and oil mixture.

Scatter the sliced onions and carrots over and around the rabbit. Place thyme and bay leaf into the pan as well. Cover tightly and roast for 1 hour. Uncover the skillet and roast for another 30 minutes to give rabbit a bit of color.

Transfer the rabbit and vegetables onto a serving platter. Cover with aluminum foil to keep warm while finishing the sauce.

Pour the wine and the stock into the skillet and simmer over medium heat until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the mustard and crème fraîche. Bring the sauce back up to a boil. Pour the sauce over rabbit and serve.

Reprinted with permission from the upcoming 'Paley's Place Cookbook,' by Vitaly and Kimberly Paley with Robert Reynolds (Ten Speed Press), available fall 2008.

Nicky USA

223 S.E. Third Ave.