One of the downsides of working so close to a rather foodie area of town (well, for Cambridge, that is - so basically anywhere that doesn't have a Pizza Express, Nandos and Starbucks right next to each other) is that I inevitably end up drawn there in my lunch break. I have to get out at lunchtime, get some fresh air, walk and clear my head. These things are necessary. What is perhaps not quite so necessary is going to the butchers and the oriental grocers every time.
I can't help it. I hate walking without a purpose; even if my end goal is just to peruse aisles of weird and wonderful produce in jars, I need something to spur me on. Plus there is always something new and fascinating at the end of the tunnel: huge bunches of weird and wonderful Chinese greenery that I've never seen before; tofu in every conceivable shape, size and texture; giant bottles of soy sauce and other condiments; huge bags of rice, noodles and pulses. There's also stuff that's just downright weird, such as various undesirable bits of seafood or animal in big, bloodied bags in the freezer section. Still, I consider this my culinary education and I'd hate to miss out on it.
I'm usually drawn to the butcher on the corner as well, sucked in by signs boasting about salt marsh lamb, or something that, out of the corner of my eye, looks suspiciously like a row of neat, plucked, oven-ready pheasant on the front of the counter. I don't actually cook that much meat, especially not red meat, but I'm fascinated by all the different cuts and animals you can get from a good butcher, and I'm always looking to try something new. A couple of weeks ago it was oxtail. More recently, it was wild rabbit.
I was pretty pleased when I caught sight of the wild rabbit on the butcher counter. Admittedly not pleased because of any aesthetic reason; skinned, jointed rabbit aren't particularly nice to look at, rather resembling something that has been prematurely plucked from the womb. However, they promised all sorts of tasty delights. I've read a lot about the virtues of wild rabbit: free range, obviously, and you're also doing farmers a favour by eating a pest; more importantly, it's meant to be a lot more flavoursome than farmed rabbit. Having only eaten the farmed stuff before (one of my favourite recipes is this Thai rabbit curry) I couldn't wait to try the wild version for comparison.
I cooked my rabbit fairly simply, so as not to mask its flavour. I braised it in cider with some bacon, carrots, celery, onion, rosemary and juniper. At the end I added mustard, creme fraiche and parsley. We ate it with soft polenta, and while it was delicious, I have to say it was actually rather too rich for me. Wild rabbit really does have quite an intense flavour. The texture is reminiscent of chicken thighs and is lovely, while the taste has that rich earthiness you associate with stronger game like pigeon and hare. I really enjoyed the first few mouthfuls, but after that I was defeated by the richness of the dish. And that hardly ever happens.
As a result, there was rabbit meat left over. I decided to use it in a salad, featuring something a bit sharper, sweeter and more astringent to cut through that intensely rich flavour. This barley salad with caramelised apples was the result.
I absolutely adore pearl barley. I can't get enough of its crunchy yet tender texture and its nutty flavour. It works so well in winter salads - one of my favourites features roast squash, feta or goats cheese, chestnuts, bacon and sage. I often cook a huge vat of it and use it for various salads throughout the week, throwing in whatever is in the fridge. It's filling and hearty and can stand up to strong flavours, contributing an irresistible crunch of its own. I figured it'd be the perfect base for my rabbit salad, for all these reasons.
The apples were a bit of a whim. I had some russet apples turning soft in the fruit bowl, and there's nothing I hate more than a soft apple. Then I realised that they could actually work beautifully with the rabbit; cooking rabbit in cider with apples is fairly common, especially in France, so there was no reason why they shouldn't work sliced, cooked and stirred into my salad. I caramelised them in some butter and brown sugar first, to bring out their flavour so they'd stand up to the rabbit. Russet apples are beautiful things; I love their burnished, matt skins and their mellow, intriguing flavour. They are, I can confirm, even tastier when coated in butter and brown sugar. Then again, what isn't?
This salad was the simplest thing ever to assemble: cooked pearl barley, shredded rabbit meat, caramelised apple slices, some fresh thyme and parsley, and a little of the rabbit cooking sauce from earlier in the week. A good grinding of black pepper to lift the richness, and I had lunch.
A delicious, filling, comforting lunch, full of intriguing flavours. The apples worked really well alongside the rabbit, better than I could have expected. They provided a beautiful sweet tartness against the soft, rich meat and the crunchy, nutty barley.
I don't really need to give you a recipe for this, but here's the general idea. Adapt to suit you - use chicken instead of rabbit, if bunny boiling scares you; add extra veg if you like (spinach and green beans would be good); use wild rice or brown rice instead of barley. You'll end up with something delicious, unusual, and rather pretty.
Wild rabbit and barley salad with caramelised russet apples (serves 1):
Leftovers from a cooked wild rabbit (probably 1 leg or the loin), plus a little sauce*
50g pearl barley, boiled until tender but still slightly al dente
1 russet apple, cored and cut into thin slices
2 tsp brown sugar
A scattering of fresh thyme and finely chopped parsley
Shred the rabbit meat from the bones. Be really careful to get rid of all the bones - some are tiny and may go undetected, until you bite into one resulting in a deeply unpleasant sensation. Mix the meat and sauce with the pearl barley, then toss with the thyme, parsley and a good grinding of black pepper.
Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan over a medium-high heat and add the apples. Cook until golden brown and caramelised, turning occasionally. Toss this with the barley salad. Sprinkle with a little more thyme and serve.
*(the recipe I used to cook my rabbit was basically this one from James Ramsden, but I added carrots, rosemary and juniper, and substituted creme fraiche for the double cream)