It's definitely fall here, and so it's hunting season. When we were riding in Italy, hunters of both animals and porcini abounded, the sound of popping guns echoing through the hills and groups of hunters eating and taking coffees at the country roadside eateries and caffes. Hunting is also popular in France, but aside from the fashionistas chasing down the latest styles, hunters don't much prowl the streets of Paris. So imagine my surprise as I rolled down the sidewalk just outside the apartment on a recent Sunday when I crossed paths with a 50-ish year old, tall, stout fellow dressed all in tweed-- knickers, sherlock-holmes hat, and cape (yes, cape)-- with high wool socks and carrying a basket and a long, vaguely triangular bag I recognized from my Italy rides as a hunting rifle. Trés aristocratic, and quite the rare sighting in the 16e.
And I felt a game craving coming on. Deer. Boar. Hare. Game birds. Unlike the US where hunted game can't be sold at butchers, hunted game is fair game in many countries in Europe. I've not yet figured out where one buys big game here; I've not seen deer hanging on hooks like at D'Angelo Bros in Philly. But I realized that I've not even cooked a rabbit since moving to France, and that seemed a shame. I like to cook rabbit at home-- it's more interesting than chicken and still inexpensive. I especially like to serve bunny on Easter. And whereas I'll admit that's a little perverse, especially when there are little kids at the table, it's darned good whenever one chooses to serve it. I've eaten rabbit out many times in Paris, as paté, saddle stuffed with house-made prunes (the dried French plums are exquisite and nothing like grandma's industrial medicinal varieties), or fricasseed with raisins and pistachios. But despite the fact that they're available in all of the butcher shops and at most of the markets, I'd never bought one.
I missed the Sunday markets while on my ride, but thankfully we have one local butcher who opens Monday mornings. The fellow behind the counter, by now accustomed my asking for weird stuff (chicken feet, veal joints, crépine), pulled out a whole rabbit, head attached, and teased me a bit by starting to wrap it up without dressing it. I take that as a good sign. I also take it as a good sign that he didn't throw out anything he cut off until checking with me. Very little wound up in the waste bin.
And good thing, too. My 3 lb rabbit cost me 20 eurobucks, which thanks to the crappy exchange rate is $30. I pay $12 for them at home, but I guess the rabbits in France dine on foie gras and chocolates before their dates with the butcher.
So, OK-- I had my expensive rabbit. What to do with it? I'd been thinking a fricassee with olives and fennel, but the high cost called for something more economical: a ragu. I love rabbit sauce for pasta. Our first experience with the bunny genre was at a country hotel in Italy on a bike trip, where Karen's serving of pasta with hare sauce came complete with lead shot-- the husband had hunted it the morning before. Rabbit produces a milder version, but it's still possible to make an extremely flavorful ragu by braising the meat in wine and stock without actually putting (any or much, depending on your preference) of the meat itself in the finished sauce; I like to include the minced liver at the end, which enhances the flavor and texture. Ragus like this are traditionally served with wide noodles (pappardelle or tagliatelle) or specialty pastas like pici. I also love making lasagne with them. To me they scream "autumn," and they're so flavorful that you don't need much on the pasta to make a delicious meal.
As for the meat, I pulled it off the bone and ran it through the food processor until it was finely ground. I combined about half of it with some russet potatoes I'd cooked and pushed through a strainer to “rice”, an egg yolk, and a tablespoon or so of the fat from the ragu and stuffed agnolotti with it. Most of the other half went into another batch of agnolotti with a base of polenta and risotto, which I'd been looking for an excuse to try out. The last bit went into a pasta sauce with winter squash. Served as first course before a light second course of veal scaloppini, it offered a varied week of dinners, with several nights of agnolotti leftover. Yea.
Here's how the meals evolved:
Mon night: Rabbit-and-potato agnolotti in rabbit ragu. One word: Bunnylicious.
Tues pasta: Chestnut pappardelle with rabbit ragu. The chestnut flour makes the pasta sweeter, and though an interesting combination, I didn't think it worked as well here as it might have with hare or other gamier ragus.
Tues main: Veal with porcini-creme fraiche sauce and sauteed spinach with garlic. Mushrooms and greens love each other, so it was hard to miss on this. I used the freshly dried porcini we bought at Mucci on our way home from Italy, and they're very good.
Wed pasta: Rabbit agnolotti with sauteed long-leaf radicchio and chestnut milk. The long-leaf radicchio, maybe the best I've ever had and wonderfully bitter, went really nicely with the savory rabbit filling, and I used the milk I'd simmered my roasted chestnuts in (with a bay leaf, the chestnuts going into agnolotti) to temper the radicchio.
Wed main: Veal with lemon and olive oil, sauteed swiss chard. Simple, but better suited for grilled meats.
Thurs pasta: Chocolate fazzoletti (handkerchiefs, or about 2" square pieces of pasta) with rabbit ragu. Though I eased way back on the cocoa compared to here, it was still too much for the rabbit. Would have been perfect with venison, oxtail, or beef short ribs, though.
Thurs main: Veal with a radicchio cream and a timbale of chestnut, celery root, and apple. Both of these worked really well. The radicchio was sauteed with whole garlic cloves, then pureed without the garlic and used to infuse a cream-milk mixture, strained, and reduced. The bitterness of the radicchio balances the sweetness of the dairy. The timbale was just a touch cakey, but the flavors of chestnut and celery root are made for each other, and the apple added a nice fruity note. I'll definitely work further on both of those methods.
Fri pasta: Tagliatelle with a sauce of rabbit, winter squash, guanciale, swiss chard, and sage. Very nice. Very autumn.
Fri main: Veal with red wine and veal stock reduction (it's kind of cheating, since it's so easy, but it's so good...), sauteed radicchio, and a timbale of lentils, which though not the prettiest of colors, had the texture of a lentil mousse and a lovely earthiness.
Sat main: Pan-seared sea bream on a winter squash timbale and watercress puree. It's not often I cook fish, as even here it's hard to find really fresh fish at the markets. But when I do find something especially good, it's hard to resist the opportunity to work with it. I'd have preferred to pair it with something earthier-- fresh cepes or girolle mushrooms, but Karen's digging the squash right now, so we went that direction, instead.
Sat desert: Gateaux from Gantier, our favorite boulangerie/patisserie. Monsieur Gantier bakes some mean breads, but his primary training was as a patissier, and the opera (dark chocolate, almond, and coffee) is to die for. The other gateau was also very good, a vanilla mousse on top of a chocolate mouse, with a caramelized genoise-like cake layer above and below. Check this out: a listing of all of the boulangeries and patisseries in Paris.
A bunnyless meal, but one of Karen's favorites: warm lentil salad with good baguette for a weekend lunch.
Though the rabbit was kind of a game substitute, I discovered that one of my butchers on rue Poncelet does have a display case with game birds and wild hare. So this weekend I bought a wild pheasant for the relative bargain of 10.50 euro-bucks. Never having cooked pheasant before, I pan-roasted the breast meat for a nice dinner with sauteed porcini mushrooms, oven-dried fresh figs, and the lovely creamy red rice from Camargue, all beautifully complemented by a soft merlot-heavy bordeaux, a rare splurge out of our usual under-5-euro-buck wine collection. Perhaps the most memorable thing about this meal was that since we'd spent a delightful evening of drinks at Karen's father's cousin's apartment in the early part of the evening, we didn't get home until after 10.00 PM, and so we didn't eat dinner until midnight. Ie, we're finally eating on Paris time!
The useless legs (pheasants are running birds, so the legs are sinewy and tough) and all of the bones went into a rich stock that formed the base of the sauce (along with chicken and veal stocks) and a second weaker stock that I used with the thigh meat for a ragu for later in the week. Whereas the breast meat was milder and tamer than I'd expected (and, frankly, hoped) from a wild bird, the thighs gave off a strongly gamey aroma as soon as they hit the oil, and the resulting ragu was wonderfully flavorful.
And of course, pheasant ragu with tagliatelle. Pasta rules in our house.
I'm looking forward to more game as the autumn and winter seasons progress.