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A healthy alternative High-protein, low-cholesterol rabbit meat is turning up in local markets and restaurants

In 2005, Don George's heart surgeon asked his wife, Bonnie, how much red meat their diet contained.

Not much, Bonnie told him, just some chicken. Considering Don's heart problem, the doctor said, "I'll tell you what's far better for you: rabbit."

Bonnie had eaten rabbit growing up, but the suggestion still made her a bit queasy. The Georges had rabbits hopping around back home at their Franklinville farm -- her children's pets.

But the surgeon's point about the relative healthfulness of rabbit -- high in protein, low in cholesterol, fat and calories -- made her reconsider. The surgeon's advice was blunt, George said. "Don't name 'em, and butcher the ugly ones."

So the Georges added meat rabbits to the turkeys and ducks they raised at Painted Meadows Farm, and started eating more rabbit. Don's cholesterol went down, and the Georges kept at the rabbit business, becoming the best-known source for fresh rabbit in Western New York.

Interest in rabbit, long found largely on Italian menus in the Buffalo area, has been breeding like, well, you know. With more meat-eaters showing they'll pay a premium for local,sustainably raised meat, many are giving rabbit a second look.

Painted Meadows sells rabbit at farmers' markets and directly to a small group of local restaurants, including Bistro Europa, Shango Bistro and Carmelo's in Lewiston. Other places that regularly feature it include Ristorante Lombardo, Rue Franklin, San Marco Ristorante, Sea Bar and Trattoria Aroma.

Executive Chef Michael Obarka of Ristorante Lombardo, 1198 Hertel Ave., features rabbit in his "Tagliatelle con Coniglio," which sees tagliatelle, pasta twice as wide as fettuccine, tossed with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms, Picholine olives and flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Obarka acknowledges that despite its place as a standard Italian entree, lots of American carnivores are uneasy about rabbit. "Too bad it's a double-threat animal: cute and delicious," he said.

When Obarka tries to tell potential customers about rabbit, he says "it's like chicken with flavor." Add the fact that it's really lean, and relatively healthy, and "there's no reason people shouldn't be eating it."

At Bistro Europa, 484 Elmwood Ave., Chef Steve Gedra has offered a clutch of rabbit dishes, including rillettes, a spreadable pate; rack of rabbit; and rabbit meatballs with raisins and pine nuts. The rack of rabbit was too much work, but the others return to the menu from time to time.

"I've always just liked it," said Gedra. "I've been cooking it for 14 years, at pretty much every restaurant I've worked at." For people considering cooking with it for the first time, he suggested making meatballs with ground rabbit.

"Or you could take your time and braise them, and bring out a really rich, deep flavor," Gedra said. "It's really tender and moist, I would say unctuous? It picks up the flavor of the braise very well and stays moist while cooking."

Obarka also suggested a rabbit braise, simplified from the one he uses for Tagliatelle con Coniglio, as another good way to start.

"Picking the bones after it's cooked can be a little tedious, but that's still the best way to do it," Obarka said.

Cut a whole rabbit into five pieces, separating legs from torso. Season the rabbit with salt and pepper, and brown slowly in olive oil or vegetable oil, over medium or medium-high heat. "Brown them slowly," he said. "The browner they are, the more flavor there will be."

Some recipes call for rolling the rabbit in flour first to help the browning process, but Obarka said you should probably leave that to the pros. "It also makes it easier to scorch, so home cooks should be careful, because they're not doing it three days a week."

Put the browned rabbit pieces in a single layer in a baking dish. Add chopped aromatic vegetables -- Obarka uses carrots, onions, celery -- and a little tomato, preferably San Marzanos. He adds cremini mushrooms, and you could add garlic or rosemary.

The Picholine olives in Obarka's restaurant dish are because rabbit goes well with some brinier, saltier flavor, Obarka said. It's entirely optional, but olives, or a few anchovies, might suit you.

Then add the braising liquid, chicken stock and dry white wine, like Chablis or chardonnay, in a 3:1 ratio of stock to wine. "You want the liquid to come near the top but not cover it," Obarka said. "Later, you can reduce the liquid if you want a less soupy sauce."

Put the pan, covered, in a 350 degree oven. "You want a slow oven. A nice gentle braise."

After about two hours, when the meat flakes easily with a fork, remove from oven. Let the meat cool in the liquid until you can handle it, and strip meat from the bones.

Here's one downside to rabbit, Obarka said: "After you pull the meat off, you have to check it, because they're bony animals," he said. At Lombardo's, "at least two people go over it."

Reduce the liquid by boiling, if necessary, and add the cleaned rabbit meat.

Cook up some pasta -- "a rigatoni or something wide that'll hold up to the hearty sauce, not spaghetti or capellini," Obarka said.

Drain the pasta when it's just short of al dente. Toss it in a pan with meat, fresh parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, a little peppery extra virgin olive oil, and serve.

> If you're interested

Painted Meadows sells rabbit and other meat at the Winter Market inside Lafayette Presbyterian Church (Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 875 Elmwood Ave.) as well as summers at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market. Whole rabbits (1 to 2 pounds, serving two, $20 each, or $5 a pound for six or more) and legs are available, as well as ground and bulk breakfast sausage ($12 a pound).

The Georges also sell from their Painted Meadows Farm in Franklinville, about an hour's drive south of Buffalo. Call 676-3401.

D'Artagnan brand fresh rabbit is also carried in many Wegmans meat departments. It was $10.79 a pound when we asked recently.

Julia Reed of the New York Times made the following with George Jones pork sausage, but Painted Meadows' rabbit sausage works just fine.

> George Jones Sausage Balls, Rabbit Style

1 pound rabbit sausage or George Jones country-style sausage

3 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated

2 cups Bisquick

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix with your hands so there are no dry crumbs. Form into balls about an inch in diameter and place on a baking sheet. (Can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen.)

Bake until the meatballs are golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes (a bit longer if refrigerated, and longer still if frozen). Serve hot or warm.

Makes about 6 dozen.

> Bonnie George's Basic Creamed Rabbit

1 whole rabbit (1 to 2 pounds)

2 quarts chicken broth

1 or 2 chicken bouillon cubes (optional)

1 small onion, chopped

Parsley, to taste

5 to 6 sticks celery, chopped

1/2 stick butter

Frozen carrots, peas or corn, thawed

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup corn starch

1/2 cup flour

1 cup milk

Simmer rabbit in broth (and bouillon, if using) for about 90 minutes, until meat flakes easily.

Remove rabbit to plate and retain cooking liquid. Add vegetables and butter to liquid. When rabbit is cool, remove meat from bones.

In bowl, stir together flour and corn starch. Add milk and stir to combine.

Slowly add flour-milk mixture to simmering liquid, whisking to avoid lumps. Stop adding flour mixture when it's thick enough.

Add cleaned rabbit meat.

This recipe can be used three ways, George suggests. Rabbit a la King: top with Bisquick biscuits and bake in dish. Rabbit pot pie: put creamed rabbit into pie plate and top with crust, bake. Or just spoon over mashed potatoes.