By Joe Dizney
By nature of its enthusiastic fertility, the rabbit has been a symbol of rebirth and spring for millennia. In 18th century Germany, edible bunnies fashioned from sweet pastry and hidden around the house were a spring custom. The Easter bunny further multiplied and evolved in America when in 1842 Whitman’s introduced a chocolate version.
But let’s look at the chocolate-rabbit convergence from another angle. More than 3,000 years ago, in Mesoamerica, the seeds of the cacao tree were milled into “bitter water,” a fermented drink purported to be an aphrodisiac. This is the genesis of a culinary history that developed to include both the confections we know but also Mexican moles, savory sauces of chilies, spices, fruits, seeds and nuts — and chocolate — served over meats (including rabbit) and known as Conejo en Mole.
The story doesn’t end here. Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, chocolate served as a beverage and sweetened with honey or sugar and flavored with vanilla became a favorite of the Iberian court.
Mexican chocolate today remains close to its Aztec roots: unlike the more civilized European versions, Mexican chocolate is “cold processed,” which preserves more of the complex flavor and nutrients. Mexican chocolate is noticeably grainy due to milling in stone mutates made from the volcanic lava stone of Mt. Aetna. Flavorings are typically limited to single notes such as cinnamon, chiles or almonds.
The Sicilian town of Modica, once occupied by Spain, is to this day renowned for its cold-processed cioccolato. The indigenous Sicilian version of Conejo en Mole is known as Coniglio ‘Nciculattatu. Wild fennel and pignolis or pistachios are local additions, golden raisins (or sultanas) and black or white pepper are vestiges of Persian occupation and influence. The addition of wine vinegar belies the Sicilian taste for sweet-sour agrodolce condiments.
Lacking a Sicilian nonna, the version of Coniglio ‘Nciculattatu presented here is the most authentic I could find. Alternate recipes suggest straining the braising liquid once the rabbit is cooked and incorporating the chocolate afterward for a smoother consistency. The finished dish is served over pasta or mashed potatoes. Coniglio ‘Nciculattatu is also — unsurprisingly — a special item on Sicilian spring or paschal menus.
Mexican chocolate is typically sold in hexagonal cardboard boxes or tissue-wrapped discs and sometimes labeled “drinking chocolate.” Abuelita, Ibarra and Taza are brands to look for, and Go-Go Pops on Main Street in Cold Spring stocks the latter. Rabbit can be ordered from Marbled Meats (chicken, pork or lamb can be substituted).
Sicilian Braised Rabbit in Chocolate Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
3 to 4 lbs. rabbit, cut into serving pieces
1 cup dry white wine (plus some for reserve)
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
6 bay leaves
2 onions, diced
3 ribs celery, sliced fine
3 carrots, peeled, sliced fine
8 to 12 cloves tied into a cheesecloth sachet
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, lightly toasted and coarse ground
1 teaspoon (or more to taste) dried red chili flakes
1½-cup chicken broth (plus some for reserve)
½ cup white wine vinegar
6 to 7 oz. Cioccolato di Modica or Mexican chocolate broken into pieces*
1 to 1½ cup pine nuts or chopped pistachios
1 cup naturally sun-dried golden raisins
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
(Fettuccine or pappardelle pasta or mashed potatoes for serving)
(Grated Parmesan or Romano optional)
Marinate the rabbit in the wine, ¼ cup of the olive oil, bay leaves and ½ teaspoon of salt and freshly ground black pepper for at least 3 hours (up to 8), turning it occasionally.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove the meat from marinade; drain well, reserving the marinade for braising. Add the reserved olive oil to a large frying pan or Dutch oven (with lid) over medium-high heat. Uncovered, sauté the meat until browned; remove, drain and set aside.
To the same pan, add onions, carrots and celery; sauté until soft but not colored. Add to the vegetables two of the bay leaves, the fennel, cloves sachet and chili flakes. Reduce heat and add the reserved wine marinade, chicken broth and vinegar. Scrape pan to incorporate browned bits and simmer all for 10 to 15 minutes.
Return the rabbit to pan. The braising liquid should just barely cover the meat. If not, add broth or wine as necessary and bring all back to a simmer. Cover pan and place on middle rack of preheated oven. Braise for 2 to 2½ hours checking occasionally that it hasn’t dried out, adding more broth or wine as necessary until meat is tender but still holds its shape.
With tongs, remove the cooked rabbit to a platter or bowl and cover to keep warm. Remove the clove sachet and the bay leaves and discard. Add the chocolate, raisins and half of the nuts to the braising liquid, stirring to incorporate the chocolate. Simmer on low heat for 30 minutes to thicken, adding more liquid if necessary. Adjust seasoning and return rabbit pieces to the sauce to heat through. Serve hot over fettuccine or pappardelle (or mashed potatoes). Garnish with the remaining nuts; top with a grating of Parmesan or Romano if desired.
* Alternatively, replace each ounce of chocolate with 1 tablespoon cocoa powder and 1½ teaspoon butter, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon and a pinch of sugar. An additional drop of almond extract is suggested but entirely unnecessary.