Although suggested by the fact that it’s now the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, this stew is resolutely British; however, you will find similar anywhere you find a tradition of cider drinking and rabbits to be eaten. It is a hearty winter dish, but can easily be adapted for the summer months, as I will show at the end.
I give a guide to quantities here, but do consider it a suggestion rather than a writ from on high. Personally, I’d just get a good sized rabbit, a few handfuls of veg that looked good, and slosh in the cider until the meat and vegetables were just covered – I wouldn’t really be doing any precise measuring here.
Like you, I enjoy seeing bunnies going skippety-hop around the fields and meadows, but I hope you do not have issues with eating them: they are tasty, as free-range as you can get, are a pest in many areas, and breed like, well, like rabbits. If you don’t know anyone who shoots, then many butchers sell them, as do some supermarkets. Do make sure, though, that you are buying wild rabbit.
However, if I can’t convince you and you really are squeamish about eating bunnies, then you could use chicken or pork instead. Actually, this recipe is brilliant with pork; chops perhaps, chunks from the shoulder, or slices from the belly, which last will need a longer, slower cooking (so put your veg in later so they don’t turn to mush). Or you could even use good sausages. My goodness, this is a dozen recipes in one. But, for now, let’s cook rabbit.
Ingredients: serves 4
For the stew
One good sized rabbit of about 3lb/1.5kg, jointed
Four oz/110g good streaky bacon, unsmoked – cut into postage stamp sized pieces or lardons
1 pint/570ml cider – preferably not the designer kind that is supposed to be drunk over ice, but a proper still, sparkling, dry or (not too) sweet cider.
Onion, carrot and celery, plus, if you like, a mix of other root vegetables as available and in season, such as parsnips, turnips, swede, celeriac etc, all peeled and cut into good-sized chunks – about 1.5lb/750g in total, or around half the weight of the rabbit
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, peeled, cut in half
1oz/30g of plain/all purpose flour, liberally seasoned with salt and pepper
A sprig of rosemary or thyme, plus two bay leaves
A splash or two of oil for frying
You may also need a little plain boiling water or stock (chicken or rabbit) as the cooking proceeds
For the Apple Dumplings
8oz/225g plain/all purpose flour
Baking powder to the quantity suggested on the pack – different brands vary in “lift”, but it will be about one teaspoon for the above quantity of flour
4oz/110g grated/shredded suet, or any other hard fat as you prefer
Approximately 4oz/110g apple, peeled, cored and cut into slivers – splash with lemon juice or cider vinegar to stop from browning, which will also add a tang to the dumplings
Salt and pepper
Some cold water – How much is “some?” See method below.
A little more flour to dust your hands and the surface on which you roll out your dumplings.
This can be cooked solely on the cooker hob, or finished in the oven as you prefer. A cast iron pot, plain or enamelled, with a lid is ideal for the job. If using the oven, preheat to gas mark 4/180C/350F. I prefer to finish in the oven, simply because I like to get the top of the dumplings a little crusty and it frees up the cooker top, but it’s up to you.
Put the pan onto a medium heat, splash in a little oil, then fry the bacon until it starts to brown and give off its fat. Remove with a slotted spoon, and keep to one side. Dust the rabbit pieces well with the seasoned flour, and fry in the bacon fat and oil, adding a little more oil if needed. Turn once or twice until the rabbit has taken on some colour – you are not trying to cook it through here. Remove with a slotted spoon and put with the bacon.
Add a little more oil if needed, and sweat the veg, including the garlic, until they begin to soften a little and take on some colour. Return the rabbit and bacon to the pan, pour in the cider, and add the herbs. Scrape up any tasty, crusty bits from the bottom. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer, put on the lid and either continue to cook on the cooker top on a low heat, or place in the oven. The flour from the rabbit-dusting will thicken the sauce as it cooks.
Now make the dumplings. I use a mixer, but by all means do it by hand if you like. Sift the flour and mix all the dry ingredients together. Add a very small amount of water and begin to blend, adding a little more water at a time, just until the mixture comes together and pulls away fairly cleanly from the side of the bowl. You should have a fairly firm dough that is not too sloppy or sticky. Carefully mix in the apple slivers, trying not to break them up too much.
Dust your hands and work surface with flour, and separate the dough into pieces the size you like, rolling them into balls – remember they will rise to about twice their current size. I make mine about the size of goofballs in their raw state.
After the rabbit has been cooking for about half an hour, check the liquid levels in the pot, and add a little water or stock if needed. Drop the dumplings into the rabbit stew, replace the lid, and cook for another twenty minutes. If you like the tops of the dumplings to get a little crusty, now remove the lid; If you like soft dumplings, leave it on.. Continue cooking for a further twenty minutes or so.
You may like to serve your choice of green veg with this, perhaps simple greens, braised lettuce or even pak choi (with a nod to the Chinese). If the dumplings aren’t enough carbohydrate for you, serve with noodles, rice or any kind of spuds. Either way, I’ll probably want some good bread to mop up the juices (and how many recipes do I finish with those words?)
To adapt this for the summer, lose the dumplings, keep the onion (but perhaps spring onions/scallions instead), carrot and one stick of celery, diced a bit finer, and add some peas, green beans or lettuce toward the end of the cooking time.