Monday, July 14, 2014

Watch me pull this rabbit out of my hat

A backyard grilling competition yields a rabbit recipe worth sharing with a crowd.

This weekend, Kevin and I competed in a local, queer grill-off, in which each team is given a "mystery protein" to make the centerpiece of a grilled dish. The game's host imported this event from the midwest when he moved to the Valley; this was our first time playing. 

Kevin and I like to watch "Top Chef" while we eat dinner. It's light entertainment, lightly interactive: we both feel free and qualified to talk back to the TV. The repeated exposure has improved my home cooking. I'm less likely to serve an entirely beige meal, more likely to think about plated food as something other than flat.

For this event, we felt prepared for anything. I had a short list in mind of proteins I would probably screw up: anything I had to shuck, eel, and anything amphibious. We were ready to grill mussels, trout, or tuna. I figured I could handle anything that walked or flew, that could also be obtained from the local Whole Foods. (I've never seen gator or frog legs for sale there, have you?)

A representative from each team stepped forward to draw a number, and then we were given our platters, covered in foil. When we pulled off the wrap, a new twist revealed itself: this year, each team got the same protein to work with.

"It's rabbit," I breathed.

Kevin is my grill master. He had the coals ready for competition in the half hour before we received our proteins and were turned loose on the sparse pantry. There were many kinds of fresh herbs, several fruits and vegetables, but there were few other ingredients: a couple kinds of vinegar, oil, some fish sauce we brought. But no dry spices: no cumin, or coffee, or cayenne. We were allowed to bring as much equipment as we wanted, but no notes, and no Googling on our smartphones.

It had been years since I ate rabbit. Now that I think of it, I can't recall when I have ever eaten it. I'm sure I must have. I've had squirrel, and that is the closest to rabbit that comes to mind. Butchering a rabbit is less like taking apart poultry, much more like a tiny, tiny lamb, though I started off as if with a chicken, taking off the rear legs, then the front ones. Once I had the legs off, which continued to remind me of chicken parts, in their size, shape, boniness, and flavor, the remaining meat was a very thin loin roast, which Kevin grilled on the bone, and then I took off and sliced to serve with the rear legs. We ate the front ones ourselves: they were like chicken wings. Rabbit loin is much finer than chicken, but the comparison holds: it's white meat, and when done right, juicy, yet fairly lean.

The meat is mild, to my palate. It's also exceptionally tender. Because it's got some flavor of its own, and is also tender, it makes for fine grilling. A young rabbit like this one would have also been good fried. Although a rabbit is roughly the size of a chicken, it has no breast to speak of. There's not much meat on one. Two light eaters can share a rabbit for dinner. 

Kevin made a couple of side dishes, one sweet, one savory. The savory one was a mix of light summer vegetables: zucchini, onion, and tomato, with a touch of fish sauce and lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper. The sweet one was my favorite: foil packet sweet potatoes with apples and blueberries, some sugar, thyme, and mascarpone, and a finish of lime zest.

We didn't win the competition. But the judges liked our costumes and said our rabbit was their favorite of the three. And we got to meet a lot of really cool, queer foodies, so in the end, everybody won.

Grill the Rabbit

Serves 2

One whole rabbit, skinned and butchered (about 3 pounds)
1 T coarse salt
Zest of one lemon
Sprig of rosemary
1/4 white peach, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 red onion, diced
1 T rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup peanut oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp ground black pepper

Remove the legs from the rabbit. Sprinkle salt on all surfaces of the rabbit pieces. Place the salted rabbit and all remaining ingredients in a ziplock bag and shake and massage to distribute the marinade. Hold at room temp (or in the shade) for about 30 minutes.

Build a small charcoal fire. When the coals are ready, grill directly, turning as needed, until the outside is golden brown and the internal temperature is 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from grill and rest five minutes before serving.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Miracles in the starving time

It's maple sugaring time in western Massachusetts

Late winter, early spring, in New England, is a time of wild confusion. It starts when the trees begin to glow red with sap at their tips. Then I notice the return of bird noise: the whole world is waking up. Some of us wake up confused, aroused, foul tempered, or hungry, or all of these. It's not just me.

The way to get through the starving time in western Massachusetts is by laying in reserves: not just of provisions but of personal vitality. I move, and gather sunlight, while I can, every day, even if a short march through burning sleet is the best I can manage. Only now, as my world thaws, does my faith in the natural world---to feed me again, next spring---quicken. It is not so much that I doubt as that belief is suspended for the winter: dormant, not dead.

This weekend, we had our friends Julie and Reggie over, so we got to see them for the first time since we married them, last year. I make gooey vegetarian lasagna. We eat every kind of forbidden junk food, get a little tipsy, and talk about our families. It's very therapeutic.

Reggie asked me whether I believe in miracles. My answer was full of cultural relativism---that's what you get when you come to me with your pastoral issues. I told her that when I was in the hospital, just after back surgery, it helped me to bring to mind the faces of the people who wished me well. Does it work to ask? Yes, but not in the way you might think.

It's been just over three months since I went through spinal fusion surgery: my full and speedy recovery is timed to arrive with the longer and warmer days. Friends coming for dinner tomorrow, have gotten me here, one week at a time, by showing up, even on the Thursday nights that I couldn't cook for them. When Kevin had his hands full, caring for me, they brought food and company. Last week when they came in the door, I realized how important this was, this gathering of four guys to eat sandwiches once a week and check in. Even on the weeks when I felt hopeless. Especially those.

Some miracles are hard to bring about, but some of them happen without our having to do anything at all. I'm certainly run down on vitamin D stores, and I'm positively craving fresh spring greens, but the sun is returning. I have my practices in place for capturing the goodness while it lasts, making it last. No human sacrifice necessary.

Not that I want to continue coasting on zero effort. I'm moving past the couch bound stages of healing into active trudging, and occasional artistry. Tomorrow, for dinner with the guys, I'm making a mojo criollo from leftover orange juice and fresh oregano, to marinate a ham steak, and roasting potatoes in freshly rendered suet; I've still got lots of kale in the freezer. I might even make a pudding. It's how I like to say, I'm glad you've come back.

Image credit: BugMan50/Flickr