My wife, L, swears that she hates rabbit—to eat, I mean. I don’t quite believe her, because rabbit meat is so not weird in terms of flavor and texture. Even a whole, raw rabbit looks vaguely like an elongated chicken, the texture of the meat is almost identical, and the taste only varies insofar as rabbit has more flavor than most chicken (and she eats plenty of chicken). Rabbit is good for you, too, and its upscale image in this country is silly. Good, organic rabbits are only expensive here because of some ridiculous bureaucratic issue with the FDA, and with how much it costs to get the inspectors to visit your rabbit-slaughtering plant. (Someone explained the details to me once, but I’ve forgotten them.) Anyway, rabbit would be dirt cheap otherwise; I even know a guy who runs a preschool here in the Bay Area who’s constantly trying to give away succulent little bunnies because the ones he keeps for his preschoolers breed like, well, you know. But his only takers are in a nearby barrio, where the local Latino community doesn’t share the mainstream American squeamishness about eating Bugs.
All this matters because I’m a man who cooks his way through cookbooks—I love doing that, getting an author you trust and then diving in headfirst, for months—and my current favorite is Lulu’s Provençal Table, from Ten Speed Press. It’s a fabulous cookbook, written by the great Richard Olney, about the home cooking of one of his best friends. The book makes you realize that most of our great cookbooks are based on restaurant food; when you learn from a master of the home hearth, everything makes much more sense. Nothing elaborate, no impossible ingredients, and a deeply intuitive feel for the great and simple flavors present in our most everyday foods.
Rabbit, however, is an everyday food to Lulu—I guess bunnies are common in Provence. I don’t skip recipes when I take on a book. I hang tough, and knock ’em all out, counting on a certain coherence in the unified oeuvre; as if, by cooking every recipe Lulu chose to teach Richard, I might absorb certain underlying lessons that would escape me if I cooked only what struck my fancy in the table of contents. This means that L has been subjected to quite a few rabbit dishes recently, and that she has had occasion to decide that maybe she prefers chicken.
She’s a very direct person, and over the last few months, she’s become especially direct about bunnies: “Rabbit grosses me out, honey. Sorry. It just does.”
But recently, I pulled off a miracle. Our friend Clara Jeffery was coming over, she offered to bring groceries, and I tapped her for some Niman New York steaks and a bag of salad greens. This is L’s idea of heaven: high quality, and very, very simple. Better still, the cooking would happen on the grill, meaning I would have only limited opportunity for mess-making while I got our dinner together. Once I’d slipped the steaks over the fire, though, and dumped the greens in a wooden bowl, I dashed inside, whipped a rabbit out of the fridge, cut it up with kitchen shears, and, following the next Lulu recipe I wanted to knock out, slathered the pieces with Dijon. Then I laid them on a rack set over a roasting pan, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, drizzled on olive oil, and snuck them into the oven just as the steaks came off the grill.
The steaks went beautifully, and I had a lot of wine on the table, so we all got pretty drunk while trying to decide on a perfect pairing. A Seghesio Zinfandel happened to win that night—not sure why, but it lit up the red meat and sang with the pepper crust and danced with the fire’s char and just when L had finally yielded to a little wine-and-food nirvana, I dropped a piece of rabbit on her plate, swapped out her Zinfandel for a glass of bright, acidic Barbera, begged and pleaded with her to take a single bite, and then, when she had, I thrust forward that Barbera and cried, “Oh God! Please! One sip while the rabbit’s still in your mouth!”
“Wow,” she said. “That’s delicious!”
You heard it here first: L, my utterly beloved wife, confessed out loud with a witness in the room that a rabbit I had cooked paired with a Barbera I had chosen was delicious.
A grand night indeed.