The day before Easter I cooked a rabbit. What might be considered slightly more offensive is that I fed it to the neighbor kids... in a stew. Before then, I'd never cooked rabbit nor tasted one for that matter. Honestly, I was a little squeamish at the notion of either. I think the timing of the holiday was the exact, cheeky impetus I needed to execute (the traditional approach to) this recipe. Besides, my Easter basket arrived via the US Postal Service a few days early. Really, there was very little to lose.
Recipes for Brunswick Stew vary greatly but it is usually a tomato-based stew containing lima beans or butter beans, corn, okra, other miscellaneous vegetables, and one or more types of meat. Most recipes claiming authenticity call for squirrel or rabbit meat, but for the less adventurous, chicken, pork, and beef are also commonly acceptable. The stew resembles a vegetable soup with meat. What distinguishes Brunswick Stew from vegetable soup, though, is the consistency. Most variations are quite thick, having more meat and vegetables than broth. In fact, it's been said that Brunswick stew is not finished simmering “until the paddle [used to stir it] stands up in the middle” of the pot on its own.
This version of the stew has a distinctly smokey taste imparted by simmering with good quality bacon. The slight gaminess of the rabbit also adds an interesting spiced nuance. Rabbit is actually a fairly lean white meat, so the healthfulness factor is quite favorable. A third element integral to building the flavor of this stew is using a homemade chicken stock. It makes a world of difference, so is worth the little extra effort it entails. My new favorite stock recipe is thoroughly detailed in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and a good explanation of Judy Rodgers' tips are given here. A key difference from most other stock recipes is her preference to use a whole, fresh chicken (head and feet included, yet minus the breast meat). I'm quite proud to say I (a person with raw meat squeamishness) made this meat-laden meal, entirely on my own! ...though gratefully the chicken I purchased from my local butcher did not still have its head or feet intact.
One final stew ingredient I used that's worth mentioning is the gorgeous Christmas Lima Beans from Rancho Gordo. These chubby, heirloom beans are true limas originating from Peru. They have a distinct chestnut flavor and taste nothing like the much tinier, green ones I avoided as a kid. If you enjoy cooking with dried beans, Rancho Gordo is a fantastic resource for the more unusual varieties.
The 2010 April Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Wolf of Wolf’s Den. She chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make Brunswick Stew. Wolf chose recipes for her challenge from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, and from the Callaway, Virginia Ruritan Club.
From Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
Serves about 12
¼ lb slab applewood-smoked bacon, thickly sliced
2 Serrano, Thai or other dried red chiles, stems trimmed, sliced, seeded, flattened
1 lb rabbit, quartered, skinned
4-5 lb chicken, quartered, skinned, and most of the fat removed
1 TBS sea salt for seasoning, plus extra to taste
2-3 quarts Homemade Chicken Stock (I recommend the recipe in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)
2 bay leaves
2 large celery stalks
2 lbs potatoes, diced
1½ cups carrots (about 5 small carrots), chopped
3½ cups onion (about 4 medium onions) chopped
2 cups corn kernels, cut from the cob (about 4 ears) or fresh frozen
3 cups Christmas Lima Beans, cooked and drained
35 oz can whole, peeled tomatoes, drained
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Juice of 2 lemons
Hot sauce to taste
In a 10-12 quart stockpot, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until it just starts to crisp. Transfer to a large bowl, and set aside. Reserve most of the bacon fat in your pan, and with the pan on the burner, add in the chiles. Toast the chiles until they just start to smell good, or make your nose tingle, about a minute. Remove to bowl with the bacon.
Season liberally both sides of the rabbit and chicken pieces with sea salt and pepper. Place the rabbit pieces in the pot and sear off all sides possible. You just want to brown them, not cook them completely. Remove to bowl with bacon and chiles, add more bacon fat if needed, or olive oil, or other oil of your choice, then add in chicken pieces, again, browning all sides nicely. Don't crowd your pieces, especially if you have a narrow bottomed pot. Put the chicken in the bowl with the bacon, chiles and rabbit. Set this aside.
Add 2 cups of chicken stock to the pan to deglaze, making sure to loosen the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. The stock will become a rich dark color. Bring it up to a boil and let it boil until reduced by at least half. Add the remaining stock, bay leaves, celery, potatoes, chicken, rabbit, bacon, chiles and any liquid that may have gathered at the bottom of the bowl they were resting in. Bring the pot back up to a low boil/high simmer, over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and cover the pot. Simmer, on low, for approximately 1½ hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so to thoroughly meld the flavors.
With a pair of tongs, remove the chicken and rabbit pieces to a colander over the bowl you used earlier. By this time, the meats will be very tender and may start falling off the bone. Remove the bay leaf, celery, chiles, bacon and discard. When cool enough to handle, carefully remove all the meat from the bones, shredding it as you go. Return the meat to the pot and discard the bones. Add the carrots to the pot, and stir gently, allowing it to come back to a slow simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, for at least 25 minutes, or until the carrots have started to soften.
Add the onion, lima beans, corn and tomatoes. As you add the tomatoes, crush them carefully. Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring every so often until the stew has reduced slightly, and onions, corn and lima beans are tender. Remove from heat and add in the vinegar and lemon juice. Stir to blend in well. Season to taste with sea salt, pepper, and hot sauce if desired.