Get in a conversation about which wild game is best on the table, and you’ll hear some varied and strong opinions. Deer, duck and squirrel all have their advocates in Arkansas.
That is, when folks slide past quail because of scarcity. Quail, hands down, is the best of Arkansas wild game for eating — in most opinions.
Our nomination for No. 2 behind quail is rabbit.
Yes, the familiar cottontail and its bigger cousin the swamp rabbit are the basis for fine wild game meals, and, in general, simplicity is a factor. Dressing out a rabbit is easier than handling larger game like deer. Rabbit meat is mild-tasting meat. An old adage that you can use any chicken recipe and just substitute rabbit isn’t far from being accurate, but some Arkansans will demur and tell you that rabbit is better than chicken.
Care needs to be taken in handling wild rabbits taken in hunting. There is a danger, although slight, of tularemia, also called rabbit fever. Cooking eliminates this, but the wearing of latex gloves is recommended when dressing out wild rabbits. If there are white or yellow spots on the skinned carcass, discard it.
The dressed rabbit can be taken to the kitchen whole or cut into pieces. If the rabbit appears to be an old one, parboiling is suggested. This is simply boiling the rabbit, whole on in pieces, in a pot of salted water for a half hour or so. Drain, let cool then move ahead with a recipe.
Keep in mind that a wild rabbit is extremely lean, with little fat, so care needs to be taken in not letting it dry out in cooking. Using moist cooking recipes is the way around this, although frying rabbit like chicken is fried may be the most popular method among Arkansas wild game cooks.
Nutritionists say that rabbit is near the top of the list for healthful meat — low in fat, low in cholesterol, no chemical additives.
Here are three basic recipes for cooking rabbit, with simplicity a yardstick in their selection:
Rabbit with Apples and Onions
1 rabbit cut into pieces
3 large onions sliced
3 large red apples, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp. vinegar
1/4 tsp. cloves
1 bay leaf
Use a heavy pot and brown the rabbit in oil or butter. Cover with the apples and onion, add vinegar, cloves, salt, pepper and bay leaf. Add about 1/4 cup of water and let simmer about 1 1/2 hours. Stir occasionally, adding more water if needed. The apples and onions will make a thick sauce. Remove bay leaf and serve with rice or pasta.
Italian Rabbit Cheese Bake
1 rabbit cut into pieces
2 cans Italian stewed tomatoes
2 tbsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. oregano, crushed
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Parboil the rabbit in salt water, let cool and remove meat from bones. Put the rabbit in baking dish, cover with foil, bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes or until tender. Remove foil. Combine tomatoes, cornstarch, and oregano in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. Poor sauce over rabbit and top with cheese. Return to oven and bake uncovered for five minutes.
2 rabbits, cut up
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons thyme leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon onion salt
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup cooking oil or olive oil
1 cup water
Put flour and spices in a plastic bag. Add rabbit pieces and toss to coat well. Heat oil in a skillet. Add rabbit, turning to brown on all sides. Add water, cover and lower heat to simmer until rabbit is tender. Remove the rabbit and thicken the cooking liquid with a little flour for gravy.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.