Food: A Love Story

A trip to the movies turned into a hunt for game. In this case, a rabbit for roasting


My best date ever involved hunting for rabbit.

We didn't intend to spend the date this way. The man I had been seeing for a few months initially proposed a far more ordinary activity: seeing a movie at a Columbia multiplex on a winter evening. But the movie was sold out, so we browsed at Borders while we waited for the next show.

That's when we spotted the food-and-travel book of the moment - Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes' tale of how she restored an abandoned villa in the Italian countryside while feasting on olives, nuts and pears fresh off the trees. We flipped straight to the recipes, landing on "Rabbit With Tomatoes and Balsamic Vinegar."

Mayes explained that rabbit (coniglio in Italian) was a staple of the Tuscan diet and that farm women often were seen at the Saturday market with several of the animals peeking out of their Alitalia bags. (Dead or alive? It wasn't quite clear.)

"In the butcher's case," Mayes wrote, "they're more remote, clean and lean, ruddy pink, sometimes with a bit of fur left on the tail to prove it's not cat. Unappetizing as this note is, the rabbit, simmered in thick tomato sauce with herbs, is delightful."

Now this was different. This was game. This was something neither of us, both avid cooks, had made before. We bought the book, skipped the movie and headed north in search of rabbit.

No luck in Columbia. We zoomed past our Federal Hill homes to Eddie's of Roland Park. Closed.

Then it was on to the Fresh Fields market (now Whole Foods) off Falls Road. Surely this foodie mecca would have bunny fresh for the braising.

We breathlessly approached the man behind the meat counter, who was less than sympathetic. Turned out he was moonlighting at a then-trendy (now-closed) Italian restaurant downtown. "I am so tiiiiiiiirrred of Tuscan," he thundered. No rabbit there.

Our last hope was the grocery store down the street from my date's rowhouse, where we were sure not to find rabbit, but might console ourselves with ice cream. Yet there was the elusive beast, in the freezer case.

We defrosted and roasted the rabbit and ate our hard-won, mediocre dinner far too late at night. The rabbit needed more time in the oven, but our relationship didn't. If we could have this much fun searching for exotic meat together and heroically failing to make it delicious, it seemed we were meant to be together. Nine years after that date, my husband and I tried the recipe again. The sauce was thick and lusty, but the rabbit was a little too clean and lean. Maybe the comfort of marriage has dimmed our sense of adventure; we've decided that with everyday, easy-to-find chicken, this dish tastes divine.

Rabbit (or Chicken) With Tomatoes and Balsamic Vinegar

Serves 4 to 6

1/3 cup flour, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper

one 3- to 4-pound rabbit or chicken, cut into pieces (remove any skin)

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed

1 large onion, chopped

3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

4 to 5 tomatoes (preferably San Marzano canned), chopped

1/2 teaspoon each: turmeric, dried rosemary, salt, pepper and toasted fennel seeds

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (divided use)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Flour rabbit or chicken pieces and brown in 2 tablespoons olive oil in two batches. Arrange in a baking dish, reserving oil in saute pan. Saute onion and garlic in oil until translucent, adding a little more oil if necessary. Add tomatoes to the pan with seasonings.

Stir in 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar and simmer until sauce is thick and reduced. Pour over rabbit or chicken. If using rabbit, roast uncovered for about 1 1/2 hours, until meat is tender and falling off the bone; roast chicken about an hour, until internal temperature of pieces reaches 165 degrees. Midway through cooking, baste with remaining balsamic vinegar.

Adapted from "Under the Tuscan Sun"

Per serving (with rabbit, based on 6 servings): 514 calories, 50 grams protein, 17 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 37 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 124 milligrams cholesterol, 441 milligrams sodium

Per serving (with chicken, based on 6 servings): 477 calories, 34 grams protein, 21 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 37 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 89 milligrams cholesterol, 455 milligrams sodium

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