Posts Tagged ‘rabbit’

I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

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No, don’t gag, and don’t click away. Today’s main dish isn’t really made with mice.

I wouldn’t call it a stew, either: It’s a delicious oven-braise of rabbit with six kinds of herbs. The recipe is called Sarmuggi a vitturisa. Sarmuggi (derived from a Persian word for mouse) is a Sicilian dialect name for a very small rabbit, almost mouse-sized, and vitturisa indicates it’s from the town of Vittoria in Ragusa province.

All this and more I learned from Sicily: Culinary Crossroads, by Giuseppe Coria, a fascinating little book of deeply traditional recipes, foodways, etymology, and folk traditions from the four easternmost provinces of Sicily. Coria says wild rabbits once so abounded there that local cooks invented many ways to vary the flavors of the rabbit dishes they prepared. This one was certainly lovely.

I, of course, didn’t have an Elmer Fudd to go out and hunt a wabbit for me, so I used a domestic one – a fresh, healthy three-pounder from d’Artagnan. I had to adjust the recipe’s cooking time because of its size, but not too much: Farm-raised animals are more tender than wild ones.

To begin, I cut up the rabbit, laid the pieces in a baking dish, drizzled olive oil over them, poured in enough hot water to almost cover the meat, and put the dish in a 400° oven for 30 minutes, turning the pieces half-way through. Meanwhile I chopped a carrot, an onion, a clove of garlic, some celery, some tomatoes, and the six herbs – mint, basil, sage, rosemary, oregano, and parsley. I’d never used so many different herbs in a single dish before. When the rabbit’s half-hour water bath was over, I topped the pieces with all that vegetation, stirred it about a bit, added more olive oil, salt and pepper.

Back into the oven it went, lowered to 350°, for 45 minutes, until the rabbit was tender.

At that point my dish diverged from the book’s. The instruction was to sprinkle the rabbit pieces with red wine and cook 10 more minutes “while the wine is evaporating.” Well, my dish was pretty much still awash with liquids, and there was no way wine would evaporate in that moderate oven. So I removed the rabbit pieces to a platter in the turned-off oven and boiled down the juices from the baking dish, along with a splash of wine. Poured it back over the rabbit and served.

It was lovely. The combination of fragrant herbs gave a hint of woodsy spice both to the rabbit itself and to its sauce, unmistakably Sicilian. A very successful recipe – and I bet it would do wonders for a chicken as well – though maybe less water in the oven dish next time.

As a first course for this dinner I made another recipe from the same book: small portions of Pasta a picurara, a simple shepherds’ pasta with potatoes. Some years ago Tom and I had a transcendent dish of pasta con patate at the distinctly non-pastoral restaurant Sora Lella on the Isola Tiburina in Rome, and we’ve been trying to recreate it ever since. We’ve tried numerous recipes of that name, none anything like what we remember. But we’re still trying, so we had to try this one too.

It’s very easy: soften a little onion in olive oil, add diced potatoes, parsley, and milk to cover. Simmer until the potatoes are tender and have absorbed most of the milk. Cook the pasta (ditalini), dress it with the potato sauce and lots of freshly grated pecorino.

It wasn’t anything like the dish of our Roman dreams, but very nice in its own way. Quite delicate, soft and comforting, with enough tang from the pecorino to keep it interesting. I wonder about that attribution to shepherds, though: I’ve never heard of sheep’s milk being used for anything but cheese; and even Coria remarks on the contrast between this recipe and the “rough-and-ready lifestyle of shepherds.” Maybe they’d sneak up to a farmer’s cow and surreptitiously milk her.

Postscript: Wine maven husband suggests that since the rabbit dish originates in Vittoria, the wine to serve with it should have been a Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which unfortunately we didn’t have on hand. A middle-weight, middle-aged Barolo was nice with the dish, but not thrilling. We’ll try for a Cerasuolo next time.

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