It’s a blue-sky spring morning at Creekview Ridge Farm in Minerva, where Kip Gardner keeps his rabbits.
They nestle in hay in a big open pen.
“The original male is up there in the corner." We’re in what Gardner calls the boy’s dorm.
“Rabbits are a little unusual in that they literally will become pregnant anytime you breed them. So they have to be kept separated or you will constantly have pregnant rabbits and I don’t want pregnant rabbits while they are nursing babies.”
His newest litter of bunnies is 2 weeks old. “The young ones here with their moms.”
Creekview Ridge is a small, diversified farm. “We raise a lot of produce and hay, and I also have been raising chickens for eggs.”
But not for meat. For that he’s raising rabbits, because he says they’re a good fit for his farm.
“They are fairly easy to raise, do not require a lot of space; we can raise their feed here; they eat mostly hay; and they literally do breed like rabbits.”
The sexy beasts are quick as bunnies about it.
“We started with two. Within a very short period of time we had nearly 20." How short? "About three months.”
So far he hasn’t sold any rabbits for meat because the Amish processor he found near Baltic has certain requirements.
“Because of the way they’re set up, we need to take 30 or 40 rabbits to them at a time to make it economical to be processed. So we’re still working on building up our, I don’t know if you’d call it a herd.”
In the meantime, he’s sold a few as pets and a few breeding pairs to people who want to raise their own. “Homesteader-type folks who want to have a couple rabbits to help provide meat to themselves.”
Low-fat way to help feed 9 billion
By mid-century, the world has to set the table for 2 billion more people. That’s sparking new ideas about scaling up food production, including livestock some might consider exotic.
But to Kip Gardner, rabbit is healthy, sustainable, white meat.
“Comparable to chicken in terms of their nutrient profile with a little less fat than you would even find in chicken because they don’t store fat in their skin the way that chicken does.”
He expects to clear a 25 percent profit selling rabbit at $5 a pound. That’s about twice the price of chicken, but he thinks it’s fair.
“I think that given that we’re working towards an all-natural, chemical-free, GMO-free rabbit that we’re more than justified in asking that kind of a price for it.”
He’s not sentimental about his rabbits. “I have to admit they are cute.”
But rascally, too.
“It’s almost healed, but I have one spot on my hand where I routinely get ripped by claws.”
Worker rabbits don't hop right to it
Gardner hopes to put rabbits to work along with his chickens grazing down the grass cover in his greenhouse and fertilizing the soil so he can plant his tomatoes there. But so far only one, probably not the smartest bunny in the pen, is willing to help.
“He’s the only one who will stay inside the electric fence. All the others I put down there learned that if they just ran at the fence really quickly and went right through it they could get out and not get shocked.”
The business of rabbitry
Kip Gardner recently left his herd in the care of his wife and 14-year-old daughter to learn more about rabbitry at a farmers' conference in Granville, where one of the best-attended workshops was Nick Carter's. He said his Indiana business, Meet the Rabbit, multiplied and prospered once he lined up buyers.
“Find animal rescue shelters, find zoos," was his advice. "Figure out if you can get a contract with Purina, and then start talking to restaurateurs, the food service distributors. Develop a market first."
Kip Gardner hopes most of his rabbits will be for human consumption. “It’s a very interesting flavor," he says. “And I’ve had a couple of chefs express an interest in getting rabbit from me once we fully get this up and running to the level where we could support them.”
Tastes like chicken, really
In Hudson, chef Catherine St. John of the Western Reserve School of Cooking consented to give us a rabbit-cooking demo.
“I went to one of the stands at the West Side Market, which is a good place to get them. There’s two or three stands there that carry rabbit.”
She says it’s long been popular in French and Italian cuisine.
“It is sort of making a comeback I think, like with a lot of other cuisine and meats that we haven’t seen around for a long time. It is something that I actually hadn’t dealt with in a long time. We dealt with it in cooking school in San Francisco. In fact it was our final exam.”
For us, she’s making a rabbit fricassee, creole-style.
“Another way you could do it is you could take the legs off and you could confit them, which means you’re going to cook them in duck fat which is a popular restaurant way to do it.”
Or you could bone-out the saddle to get two tenderloins. “And you can wrap them in bacon, or prosciutto, or pancetta because they do need their extra fat.”
Know the anatomy
But you’ll need to do some boutique butchering. “Obviously the layout of it is much different than chicken so you have to find where the joints are and everything and be able to pop them and be able to cut through.”
It’s a white meat, and very lean.
To keep it from drying out, she’s choosing moist- heat cooking in a heavy enamel cast-iron dutch oven.
She stirs flour and canola oil into a nutty dark brown roux. Next comes chopped onions, celery, and bell pepper, garlic, plum tomatoes, tomato paste and a few sprigs of thyme.
She has already browned the rabbit pieces after seasoning them with smoked paprika, cayenne, garlic and onion powder, salt, pepper, oregano, and thyme, and now drops them into the pot with a splash of chicken stock.
The covered pot goes into a 350 degree oven for two hours. With a little chopped parsley on top, she says it will taste just like chicken.
“If it’s farm-raised, which is most of what you’re going to find out on the market, then it’s not gamey at all.”
But in the typical 5-pound rabbit, there’s not a lot of meat.“They tend to have a lot of bones in them, so they’re not always the easiest thing to eat once it gets to the table. But they’re tasty.”
And Nick Carter of Meet the Rabbit offers an easier way to cook them. “I put rabbit in a crockpot whole, cover it with a bottle of Italian dressing, turn it on for the 10-hour cook and come back that evening and enjoy it.”
And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week we’re at the Cleveland Museum of Art for a meal Vincent Van Gogh might have enjoyed.
Fricasee of rabbit
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 rabbits, rinsed and cut into 8 pieces each
1 tablespoon Seasoning Blend (recipe follows)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups chopped yellow onions
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers
1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes
2 green onions, chopped (green and white parts separated)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups chicken stock or broth, plus more if necessary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
Cooked white rice, for serving
In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven heat the oil over medium-high heat. Season the rabbit pieces with the Essence and, working in batches if necessary, cook until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer the rabbit to a plate lined with paper towels and reduce the heat to medium. Add the flour to the oil in the pot and whisk to combine. Cook, stirring constantly, until the roux is a golden brown color, about 10 minutes. Add the onions, celery, bell pepper, tomatoes, white parts of the green onions and the garlic and cook until vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Return the rabbit to the pot and return to a boil. Add the thyme and salt, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the rabbit is very tender, about 2 hours, adding more broth or water, if necessary, if the sauce gets too thick.
When the rabbit is tender and you are ready to serve the stew, add the green parts of the green onions and parsley and cook for 5 minutes. Serve the rabbit with the sauce over hot white rice.
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 tablespoon dried leaf oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
Combine all ingredients thoroughly and store in an airtight jar or container.
Yield: about 2/3 cup