By LAURA McCANDLISH Special to The OregonianI used to wrinkle my nose at the thought of eating rabbit. How could I eat the grade school classroom pet?
Some vile rabbit patties I sampled as an exchange student in France only confirmed my aversion, and the meat stayed off my radar for several years -- until a menu at Portland's Simpatica Dining Hall compelled me to try it again.
There, a toothsome rabbit sugo (or ragu), flecked with fennel pollen and spooned over fresh-cut pappardelle, proved so revelatory I vowed to try cooking rabbit at home.
Fortunately, thanks to Oregon's handful of far-flung rabbit breeders, I wouldn't have to raise, slaughter and skin it myself, although these days intrepid D.I.Y. folks -- like their Depression and World War II-era forebears -- are doing just that.
Oregon once boasted a much larger industry, with trucks transporting some 35,000 rabbits a month to California for processing. But in the early 1990s, budget cuts shuttered the nation's leading rabbit research center at OSU, and now less than 2,000 a month are shipped, says Don Higgins, who has raised rabbits on his Gold Hill farm since 1979.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a market for the meat. At Bay Area restaurants, "they're crying for rabbits," says Higgins. "The demand has always been there. It's just that the supply has gradually gone down."
Portland chefs don't have that problem, with wild game supplier Nicky USA in town. Two decades ago, Nicky owner Geoff Latham started peddling rabbit out of the trunk of his Ford Escort. Now he's the region's top source, buying wholesale from area farms and processing the meat at his certified facility. He keeps adding new customers, most recently Bluehour and Lucy's Table (think rabbit paella). Last year, rabbit sales in Oregon were higher than they'd been in a decade.
But I, like many diners, had wrongly pigeonholed rabbit as a winter meat. In fact, fresh rabbit is most plentiful come summer.
Each spring when the does and bucks start breeding, litters of six to 12 babies -- called kits -- are born after just one month of gestation. The tender young fryers are then processed at eight to 12 weeks of age. Older rabbits yield cheaper, tougher meat (think stewing hens).
But there's no reason why rabbit can't be a great choice for summer menus. Latham enjoys it stuffed into sausages or doused with teriyaki sauce and grilled.
Grilling is also Sunkler's favorite preparation for rabbit ....
Peering into the hutches at My Pharm, you feel less guilty about eating the quivering rabbits when you consider how quickly they reproduce. ......
The labor-intensive work makes rabbit meat expensive. Although Sunkler sells direct for $5.85 a pound, it often retails for nearly twice as much. Sunkler wholesales to Nicky what she can't sell herself.
"Wholesaling, I barely cover feed expenses, and then if some catastrophe happens, I lose money," Sunkler says.
So is rabbit a sustainable food? Well, free-range ones are rare, since they're so vulnerable to predators like raccoons, coyotes and owls. However, Braeside Farms in Estacada soon plans to start pasturing rabbits in a mobile enclosure similar to a chicken "tractor," which will give the animals access to grass but protect them and prevent them from digging holes to escape.
The alfalfa that makes up the rabbits' antibiotic-free feed thrives ....... Gardens also love odorless rabbit droppings, a ready-to-use fertilizer that doesn't burn plants the way chicken manure does. The only thing that is thrown away are the once-precious pelts, which are no longer marketable thanks largely to the anti-fur movement.
As for the meat, rabbit is delicate and easy to digest. In fact, Sunkler says a customer with cancer swears that after chemotherapy, rabbit is all she can stomach. It's also lower in fat and calories than chicken. However, without the skin and fat to protect the meat, rabbit requires moist cooking -- such as stewing or braising -- to prevent it from drying out.
At Simpatica and spinoff Laurelhurst Market, it's nose-to-cottontail cooking. .... braise rabbit in stock made from the carcass and serve it in the aforementioned rabbit sugo. Ketterman also grinds the hindquarter meat into sausage ......