From The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (William Morrow, 1992). Copyright 1992 Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Perhaps the most succulent rabbit I have ever eaten was made by Giovanna, the cook at Villa Gaidello, the guest farm just outside Modena. Moistened with bastings of wine, lemon, and butter, the meat crisps to a deep golden brown while sealing in every bit of its juices. For those who need to forego butter in this recipe, it can be replaced with 6 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Flavors will change, but the dish is still irresistible.
Giovanna is retired now. I remember how shy she was during my first visit to Villa Gaidello. Her kitchen was tucked into a corner of the 18th century hay barn. Years before the barn had been converted into the Villa's rustic dining rooms. A few electric lights and a gas stove were the only additions to that kitchen in 200 years. Giovanna seemed to like it that way.
As she cooked, her timidness fell away, but her eyes were always sad. I do not know what troubles in her life kept that wounded look there. But if that was the dark side of her pain, her food was the light. It transcended a mere "good meal," often touching the heart. One night, tortellini from Giovanna's kitchen brought me to tears, strange though it may sound. Unlike anything I'd known, they kindled an overwhelming sense of oneness with my own Italian heritage. It was as though my ancestors, not Giovanna, had rolled that pasta and sealed each deftly sculpted little packet. And this rabbit, eaten on a bright Sunday afternoon when the hay barn was full of noisy families out for a spring jaunt, hushed my boisterousness for a moment. When people speak of soul food, I remember Giovanna's shy smile and those meals at Villa Gaidello.
Working Ahead: The rabbit is best roasted and eaten almost immediately. It will hold, lightly covered with foil, in a turned-off oven about 15 minutes, while the rest of the meal is readied.
Roasting the Rabbit: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Rinse and dry the rabbit thoroughly. Rub it all over with the split garlic and reserve the garlic. Slather the entire surface of the rabbit with the butter or olive oil.
Place the rabbit in a shallow roasting pan, just large enough to hold it comfortably. Sprinkle on all sides with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and rosemary to the pan.
Slip rabbit into the oven and roast for 30 minutes before pouring the wine and lemon juice over it. Spoon the pan juices over the meat, cover loosely with foil, and continue roasting l hour.
Every 15 minutes give the rabbit a quarter turn and baste with the pan juices. Then turn heat up to 450 degrees and uncover rabbit. Roast another 15 minutes, or until deep golden brown. Baste often with the pan juices to keep meat succulent, and turn once or twice for even coloring.
Serving: Have a serving platter warming. Use poultry shears to cut rabbit into serving pieces. Arrange on the platter with sprigs of rosemary. Drizzle the rabbit with its pan juices, if desired.
Wine Suggestions: Drink a white big in character and body like a Gavi dei Gavi, or Arneis dei Roeri from Piemonte, or a red Dolcetto d'Alba.
Menu Suggestions: Serve the rabbit as at Villa Gaidello, accompanied by wedges of steamed red and yellow peppers, or for casual meals with potato salad dressed with olilve oil and vinegar. In winter the rabbit is good with garlicky mashed potatoes and roast fennel.
Cook's Notes: Whole rabbits may have to be special ordered through your butcher or market.
Doubling: The recipe doubles easily with 2 whole rabbits. Make sure the roasting pan is large enough to hold them without touching so meat can brown easily.
Jekka McVicar is a gardening legend in her native England, and she tells Lynne about her latest project, a herb garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London with a heartfelt purpose.