Hare fit for a king

by , under food, recipes

We wanted to eat one hare this season, but didn’t realise the hare season ends on December 31. Thanks to our excellent market poulterer Willie Kappert that didn’t mean we couldn’t get a hare at all, only that we had to make do with a frozen jointed one instead of a whole one with all the parts (it came with the heart and a thing looking like a kidney that I didn’t dare eat). I collected it when I could barely ride a bike because of a busted knee, but it was worth the pain. We had to eat it either this weekend or the next, because Lent is imminent and somehow it seems strange to eat hare at Easter.

We have several hare recipes in different books but always default to Lièvre à la Royale. That recipe is in 100 avonturen met een pollepel by J.W.F. Werumeus Buning (henceforth WB), which is literary. It gives the procedure very clearly, but WB makes an effort to give the impression that the recipe is difficult and intimidating, which it is not. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but not seven solid hours of work as WB will have it: there are at least two stretches of time when the hare can look after itself, the first time even without any stirring or turning. Also, it’s easy: anyone with basic cooking skills who can follow a recipe at all can do it. I think my daughters could have done it when they were eight or so if they’d had someone taller and stronger lift the heavy pan. There isn’t a single moment that you have to do several things at once or are in any way rushed. I don’t see how it can go wrong if your ingredients are okay.

I’ll give a commented paraphrase without all the literary to-do.

One warning: you need a seriously large thick-bottomed pan. Ideally, the hare should fit in it in one layer. The first time we had a hare we bought a 34cm Le Creuset pan, in a sale but still the price of two and a half hares. It’s called “the hare pan” and only comes down from the top shelf when we want to make a vast amount of stew, or indeed cook a hare.

Stage I

A hare, in pieces, without the head but ideally with lungs, liver, heart and blood
2 bottles full-bodied red wine
250ml red wine vinegar
butter to grease the pan
about 50g very thinly sliced smoked fatty pork belly
about 150g carrot
3-4 small to medium onions
20 small or 12 large shallots
20 cloves garlic (about a head and a half)
3-4 cloves
1-2 bay leaves
a sprig of thyme or a pinch of dried thyme
salt and pepper

Yes, it really does have all those onions. We’ll have more shallots and garlic later: about 1kg shallots and slightly more than 2 heads garlic in all. Don’t worry, they’ll all disappear, only their spirit will stay.

WB puts the hare in the pan whole but I think that’s just posturing; for one thing, you’d need a pan of a shape too awkward to fit on anything but an old-fashioned Aga. His time of seven hours is correct, though: for an evening meal you start at about noon. As the final result is technically a stew, you can very well make it partly or completely in advance.

If the hare came with blood, put that in the fridge with a dash of vinegar or brandy in it to keep it from clotting. Any organs that came with the hare go in the fridge too, covered.

Peel the onions and shallots and garlic. Grease the bottom of the pan and spread half the pork belly on it. Lay the hare in the pan, as flat as possible, with the rest of the pork belly on top. Stick a clove in each of the onions and put them in the pan whole. Add the shallots, cut into halves or quarters, and the carrot in similar-sized pieces. Smash the cloves of garlic with the flat of a knife so they break open a little, then add to the pan. Add bay leaves, thyme, a little salt and plenty of pepper. Pour a bottle and a half of wine over as well as the vinegar, cover the pan and put on moderate heat until it starts threatening to boil on the edges, then reduce the heat to slow and leave it alone for three hours.

At this stage it doesn’t need any attention: you might as well go out and do the shopping. It is absorbing, at least it has that effect on me: while it’s in progress I don’t get anything else done.

Stage II

125g smoked fatty pork belly
16 small or 9 large shallots
10 cloves garlic
heart, liver and lungs of the hare if you have them
the rest of the wine

Preparation: mince pork belly, shallots, garlic and hare spare parts as finely as you can. WB makes much of this but I do it with a machine, taking minutes rather than hours. Put the mince into a large bowl (all the pan juice should fit in it too).

Take the pan off the heat, take the pieces of meat out and put them aside. Everything that isn’t meat or bone goes back in the pan. Strain the contents of the pan into the bowl containing the mince you just made, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Throw away the vegetable matter that’s done its job. Warm the remaining half-bottle of wine. Rinse and dry the pan and put it back on the stove. Pour in the contents of the bowl and the warm wine, stir, then put the meat back in, bones and all. Let it stew for another hour and a half, turning the pieces of hare occasionally so they don’t dry out on top.

Stage III (final)

blood of the hare, if any
beurre manié: equal weight of butter and flour, mixed thoroughly

Fish all that is hare out of the pan. Take the meat from the bones — most of it will fall off by itself anyway. Leave the pan alone while you’re doing that so the fat can float to the top. Skim off as much fat as possible with a metal spoon (this is fairly hard, and it suffers badly from the law of diminishing returns; stop trying before you get desperate). You can strain the sauce to get all the little bits out, but experience has shown that it hardly makes a difference.

The sauce is now likely to be very thin and wet and it’s a good idea to boil it down a little. Not too much, though, you’ll still want it to cover all that meat. When it’s reduced a bit turn the heat down to very low, pour in the blood slowly and stir vigorously with a whisk, hoping it will thicken. (I’ve never succeeded in actually thickening hare sauce with blood, but it doesn’t hurt to try.) If you don’t have blood or the blood doesn’t thicken the sauce, drop in little bits of beurre manié, whisk to disperse and cook until the sauce does thicken.

Put the now-boneless meat back in, heat through and serve.

Success!

Vegetables and such: WB says that you should eat with a hare what the hare eats, and he’s right. In our family that means sprouts, hands down. If you’re so unfortunate not to like sprouts, have some other kind of cabbage, or turnip, or indeed any hearty winter vegetable. Boiled or mashed potatoes and bread are equally good; we had thick slices of home-baked wholemeal. Redcurrant sauce is nice with it, and I can imagine red onion chutney but we didn’t have any. I’d have liked to make apple sauce but I thought of it too late, when the market stall was all out of cooking apples.

The wine to cook the hare in doesn’t have to be extraordinary as long as it’s decent: we used just-above-cheap supermarket Douro, one of our ordinary go-to wines. We drank a somewhat better wine with it, a Château Lestrille (a Bordeaux, our wine merchant’s house wine).

A hare serves at least eight people. Round up your offspring, invite your friends, do as we did and have your student daughter take some home to share with her sister who couldn’t come to dinner. Also it makes yummy leftovers, but then my superpower is Make Food Into Pie.

And if all the delicious smells from your kitchen attract a king, there’ll be enough for him, too.

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