or starters, and not of the food kind, let me say that the dish I’m about to describe will not be served at my table any time soon. Disclaimer aside, I will say that in the late 1960s in California, when my table often hosted anywhere from eight to however many showed up (and no one had any politically correct objections about food), holidays were celebrated with much cooking and fanfare. And Easter, which just passed us by, was no exception.
On one particular occasion, friends were invited to “bunny hop” at an Easter lunch, and I put on a pair of ears and set the table. I think there might have been 10 or so that time, all hungry students or musicians or between jobs, but all ravenous and all considered guinea pigs by me as I plowed through Volume I and II of the famous Gourmet Magazine tomes.
But this time I had found something intriguing in a cookbook that would plunge me into the wonders of Italian cooking from the North to Sicily.
My faithful friends showed up, we poured the wine and had a raucous Easter egg hunt in our garden and eventually gathered round the table for salmon canapes and little fried spring artichokes and all seemed well.
As I placed the main dish on the table, its contents resembling chicken nuggets in sauce, one or two curious eaters wanted to know the recipe. After all, it smelled outrageous perfumed with Marsala and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts, and I proudly announced we were having Easter Bunny!
Then again, who knew back then that there were food fanatics who remembered their childhood Easter baskets with little soft rabbit toys peeking out of the bright eggs? I had loved Easter, after all, and made my mother hide eggs until I was 16 so that my best friend and I could keep our sweet memories going strong.
Why weren’t my guests diving in?
We were all salivating by now, and the rich brown sauce was being considered by some, if not by those eying the little fried pieces lolling in it.
They simply did not want to eat The Easter Bunny!
A few brave souls dove in and polished off the dish along with the baked polenta (gnocchi alla romana) but I remember having to bring out the peanut butter and some leftover potato salad for the stalwart guests who just couldn’t find a reason for rabbit on Easter Sunday.
Was this a forewarning for what was to come? No one had yet plunged into vegetarian or vegan diets, but the writing was on the plate. Even on my plate.
I cannot see those raw rabbits in the butcher shops here without thinking of Loulou, my sweet kitty. And I don’t have many choices in either of my abodes now, because the piéce de resistance in both Italy and France at Easter is baby lamb!
I am confessing my hypocrisy. I won’t cook these little creatures any longer, but I still love the tastes of the past. Lamb studded with anchovies and mint and slow-cooked until tender as butter, rabbit morsels in a rich Marsala sauce, these succulent, seductive favorites have slipped into my past, but I still have a little soft spot for grilled boned quail.
After all, bird-brained is bird-brained, right?
I’m working on this.
Please give me a little more time until you send the hate mail… it’s Easter, after all.
And there is no Easter bunny in Italy!
Rabbit bocconcini alla Marsala Pignolu
- 1 fryer rabbit, cut into little pieces (bocconcini)
- 1 cup flour mixed with •1 teaspoons salt, a few grates of pepper and a half-teaspoon of paprika in a brown paper bag
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- 1/2 generous cup Marsala
- 1 1/2 cups rich chicken stock
- Small bunch of Italian parsley, chopped fine
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
- Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet. Toss the bocconcini of rabbit in the flour mixture until well coated. Shake off the excess and brown the pieces well in the oil. When all are browned, add the garlic to the pan to sauté for just a minute, making sure it does not burn. Standing away from the pan, add the Marsala, light it, and let the alcohol burn off.
- Add the stock, cover the pan, and lower the fire. Let simmer for 10 minutes, then uncover the pan, add the toasted pine nuts and cook another 5-to-10 minutes on a low flame so that the juice reduces but does not disappear.
- At the last possible minute, turn all the pieces gently in the sauce, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and squeeze the lemon over all.
- Serve with gnocchi alla Romana, firm molded polenta cut into pieces, arranged overlapping in a gratin dish, sprinkled with Parmesan and olive oil or butter and browned in the oven.
- Heat 2 ½ cups broth until simmering, add 3/4 cup polenta, a spoonful of Parmesan, a spoonful of butter, and salt, and stir until thick, which takes very little time, despite what recipes tell you!
- Pour into a mold to cool. When cool, it is easily sliced and made into gnocchi shapes. This is not the potato gnocchi at all, but oh, so delicious either with only Parmesan and butter or tomato sauce.
But remember, you didn’t hear this from me.