Yes, rabbits are cute. However, if you choose to eat meat, you should know that they're also lean, tasty, and take limited time & resources to reach market size, making them a practical and sustainable meat source.
When I was a restaurant critic, I always ordered rabbit when I found it on local menus. Why? First, because I liked it, and secondly, because it was very nice to have something different to write about for a change; there's only so many ways you can describe a steak, a chicken breast, or a piece of halibut. But, oh, the looks of pleading I got if I dared urge any of my dining companions to order it instead! Those Easter-bunny associations are strong.
There's no real reason to be squeamish about rabbit. Unlike, say, kidneys, brains, or blood sausage, there's nothing dramatic, weirdly textured, pungent or funky about rabbit. Yes, it does have a slight resemblance to chicken, but with a silky, meatier texture that's all its own.
In Italy, its mild flavor makes it a popular baby food; little jars of coniglio line the shelves at the supermercado and the farmacia. Rabbits were counted among the domesticated courtyard animals, like chickens and guinea fowl, that were one step closer to the house than livestock like cows, sheep, and goats.
A small but growing number of local gardeners are adding a few rabbits to their backyard mix of chickens and bees. However, if you're not quite up to raising (and dispatching) your own rabbit, you can still find local, humanely-raised rabbits in the Bay Area.
Being a lean meat, rabbit benefits from a little enrichment during the cooking process. You can go the Italian way, browning it in olive oil and then braising it with tomatoes and herbs, perhaps a splash of balsamic vinegar. The French prefer it lavished with mustard and cream, baked to a fragrant golden brown, and it's this version that I'm sharing with you today, adapted from a recipe in former Chez Panisse chef David Tanis's first book, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. It's rich but simple, a luscious amalgam of mustard, thyme, and cream, with bacon on top to add crispness and smoky depth.
Unless you have a sharp cleaver and a steady hand, it's wise to ask your butcher to divide your rabbit into serving pieces for you. At Marin Sun, the butcher tells me there are many, many ways to divvy up a bunny; we settle for separating out the legs (the meaty haunches and back legs, and the narrower front legs and shoulders), then chopping the rest of the body (the saddle) into 6 even pieces. Like a chicken, the more muscular legs take longer to cook; he advises putting the back legs in first, followed by the front legs 15 minutes later, and the saddle pieces 15 minutes after that. He also suggests, for my next rabbit, that I get the saddle boned out in one piece. Spread out, rubbed with fresh herbs and garlic, rolled and tied, then grilled or roasted, it becomes a kind of rabbit porchetta, easy to serve and eat.
What to accompany them? Why, carrots, of course. Tanis suggests simmering equal parts peeled potatoes and carrots in salted water, then draining and mashing them with a lump of butter, a generous pinch of saffron, and enough milk or creme fraiche to make it smooth and creamy.