Gypsy Kitchens: Gozitan Stewed Rabbit With Green Sauce

Though it's that time of year, this isn't an Easter recipe.
The Maltese love fenek. Rabbit, that is. In the old days, when Malta and Gozo were isolated and poor, there was very little meat other than rabbit, which they used to catch in the wild. Today, it's mostly farmed, but it remains as popular as ever - there are even special parties, called fenkata, held at tiny bars. We decided to try out a traditional Gozitan preparation, stewing the meat in olives and red wine to keep it tender. It went particularly well with another Maltese peculiarity - the island's bread based, herby green sauce, which is more starchy side dish than condiment.
The butcher we bought the rabbit from asked if we wanted it pieced or whole. Initially, we told him we'd take it whole - but he was very suspicious. Eventually, he decided it would be best if the thing was dismembered and began hacking. We stopped him before the back was cut apart, but not before he'd taken the head off and neatly split it open. With the meat came the liver and two other small organs, which we discarded. Too many rabbit livers in restaurants - they're tasty, but not great stewing meat.
Rabbit meat is very lean, and so it's important to cook it carefully, as it can get tough. First, we marinaded the meat in red wine. Also in the marinade were two onions, some garlic, a handful of mint, a handful of parsley, four or five sprigs of thyme and a few pinches of Maltese rabbit seasoning (we don't use a lot of pre-made rubs or seasonings, but this local "Tiger Brand Rabbit Seasoning" was too interesting to pass up - very curry centric).
Marinade it at room temperature for about two hours, or longer in the refrigerator. Use a full bottle of wine.
While the meat is being soaked, make the green sauce. Zalza Ħadra is one of Maltese cuisine's oldest and vaguest recipes. In Apicuis' De Re Coquinaria, an ancient cookbook said to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century, the recipe simply says to take some "Alexandrian" bread, dunk in water and vinegar, put in a mortar with honey, mint, salted cow's milk and oil and then place in a container over snow. Since then, the recipe has maintained its basic method of soaking crustless bread in water and vinegar and mixing it, in a mortar, with at least one green thing.
We went with a derivation of a recipe from the 1908 Maltese cookbook Ctieb Tal-Chcina. Soak two thick slices of crustless Maltese bread (any country loaf will do) in water and vinegar. Smoosh out as much liquid as you can and then pound with two cloves of crushed garlic, a few capers, chopped parsley, mint and rocket. Add the greens in as you go so you can really get a lot in there. We wanted to use the very popular local herb marjoram - but it's so popular that it's always sold out. Once done working that pestle, cover with olive oil and refrigerate. Mix before serving.
About fifteen minutes before cooking, preheat the oven to 325° (fahrenheit) and get together the other ingredients. Cut a few good strips of lemon rind, strip (or cube, if you prefer) three or four carrots, drain olives and capers. Capers are extremely popular here, Malta's famous for them. Use the best green olives you can find - we could have found better ones. We used a spoonful of coarse mustard, but that's not really traditional. If you have a bay leaf, of course it would go well.
Remove the pieces of rabbit from the wine (but keep the marinade!) and let semi-dry while you heat oil in a frying pan. Brown the meat well and quickly, using high heat and making sure to get as much of the surface cooked as possible. Don't leave the rabbit in too long, though - this should only take about five minutes. Put the meat back into the marinade and add the other ingredients (carrots, olives, lemon peel, etc...) and salt. Cover and bring everything to a boil on the stove top, cooking for about five minutes. Then remove to the oven.
This is a picture of the pan BEFORE cooking, not after.
Bake the whole thing, covered, for between one and half and two and a half hours - ours took a little longer because the stove we were working with isn't great. The meat will be pretty firm when it's done, and will be coming off the bone. Check regularly - you don't want to overcook it.
We served the rabbit with the olives and carrots, with the green sauce alongside and none of the cooking liquid. If you'd like, you could certainly thicken the juices and wine and make a very nice, more traditional stew or sauce. The green sauce was herby and a great accompaniment, though, with a lightness and freshness that served the stewed meat very well.

Here are the recipes:
Gozitan Stewed Rabbit and Maltese Green Sauce

For the rabbit,
1 rabbit, pieced and cleaned
1 bottle red wine, uncorked
2 onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, sliced
4 carrots, peeled and stripped
3/4 cup green olives
2 - 4 tablespoons small capers
4 - 6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 handful fresh mint, lightly chopped
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon mustard
Olive oil or other good cooking oil
Ground black pepper, perhaps a bay leaf, salt

- Marinade the rabbit in red wine in a large roasting tray or a deep casserole. Into the wine, scatter herbs, onion and garlic. Grind pepper into the mix. Cover and let sit 2 hours at room temperature, or longer in the refrigerator, up to 24 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 160° fahrenheit. Assemble other ingredients.
- Remove the rabbit from its bath, retaining marinade. Let dry for a few minutes, then fry quickly in oil over high heat until browned but nowhere close to cooked. Return to marinade.
- Bring the liquid (with the rabbit in it) to a boil on the stovetop and let simmer for about five minutes, then cover and put into the oven.
- Cook between 1 1/2 hours and 2 1/2 hours, checking for doneness and making sure not to overcook. When the rabbit is nicely firm and definitely falling away from the bone, it's likely done, but check to make sure just in case.

For the green sauce,
2 thick slices crusty country bread
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups mixed herbs (parsley, rucola and mint - but feel free to add in other greens on hand)
1 tablespoon capers
Olive oil
White vinegar

-Remove the crust from your bread slices and let soak in water with a splash of vinegar for a few minutes.
-While that soaks, chop your herbs and crush your garlic.
-Remove bread and squeeze until as much liquid as possible is wrung out. This will turn into a gloppy mash. Don't get too preoccupied with getting it "dry." You just don't want it sopping.
-Put bread, garlic, capers and a quarter of your herbs into a mortar and mash.
-Continue to add herbs until they are all mixed in.
-Salt, cover with olive oil and set aside in the refrigerator.
-Stir before serving. Check out all of our recipes.
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