Sunday, 27 January 2008

Lagos Stifado (Λαγός στιφάδο - hare stew)

Hare in Crete has always been considered a delicacy, because it isn't in plentiful supply, poachers are always hunting them illegally, and small-fry village folks basically enjoy bragging about how many they caught or ate (or both) in a year. A big deal is also made about how to cook hare. It is said that only a traditional cook can know how to do this, and who, may I ask, cooks traditionally in this day and age when most hunters are young souvlaki-eating peasants, while their mothers have abandoned the upkeep of hearth and home in search of paid employment to pay off the modern tradition of building and furnishing homes for their children before they get married? The idea of a Mediterranean diet holds true only in certain classes of people in Crete; most have moved far away from the regime of very little meat and a lot of fresh green vegetables and pulses (beans). You need only look around Hania and the villages which make up its environs and you will discover that there are as many souvlaki diners and cake shops as there are bakeries and corner stores (selling chocolates and cigarettes, as well as newspapers and magazines) in each village or neighbourhood. And if you take a look at the people, you'll notice that they are stout (stout being the euphemism for 'fat').

Hare (as opposed to rabbit) is considered a luxury, true decadence. It is served only in private homes; especially in Crete, there are more hunters than there are hares. Hare is served as a calebratory meal. I cooked this one as part of a children's birthday party where adults were invited. We only cook hare in the company of close friends. You can tell whether the cook has substituted rabbit for hare by the colour of the meat; rabbit is white, whereas hare is bloody brown when cooked. Even though my husband is a hunting fanatic, I generally cook kouneli stifado rather than lagos, as there just isn't enough lago to go round; my husband usually catches birds no bigger than partridges most of the time, as there isn't really much in the way of game in Crete, apart from wild goat, which is forbidden due to its being an endangered species, and hare, which is permitted only during certain periods of the year, and never at night with large flashlights. He always gave them to his mother to cook, because, as he says, his wife "doesn't know" how to cook hare. "But I cook rabbit all the time," I'd complain. "Ah," spoke the wise man, "it's not the same."

One year, when his 80-year-old mother admitted that she wasn't up to cooking game any longer, he gave the hare to a neighbour - another old lady - to cook, and we ate the hare at her place. Wonderful, I said to my co-vivant, when your mother passes away, and the neighbour has other things to do (or she passes away too), there'll be no one to cook the hare for you, and since your wife was never given a chance to learn to cook hare, then the tradition will die out in your house, and what do I care, as that'll be one less job for us to deal with.

He took the point. The first time he asked me to cook hare, he told me to consult his mother, which I duly did, although I knew that there would be no recipe involved: it would all just be hints (cook the hare in its own juices), and tips (cut the hare into small pieces because its meat is tough and won't cook easily), and secrets (you should never add any water while cooking hare), and advice (cook the hare in plenty of wine). I went back upstairs, and told the mister that his mother told me just what to do, so will he let me get on with it. I consulted my recipe book by a well-known husband-and-wife team of Cretan cooks (Psilakis), and found out that there were just as many ways to cook hare as there are cooks. I picked one, and cooked the hare accordingly. The recipe is very similar to one that I found on the web for stifado rabbit, except that you will need more cooking time in the second phase, due to the nature of meat that has been reared in the wild: rabbit needs less time than hare to cook, and it tastes lighter.

Because the average hare is usually too small to make decent servings for a meal for many people at a dinner party, baby onions are added to make the dish more substantial. In this way, each person attending the dinner party can take one piece of meat, along with 2-3 onions and some sauce onto their plate without feeling coy about eating this rarity. If you want to omit this step, it is perfectly possible to simply add the salt and all the liquids just before the first time you seal the pot. I always add the onions because I love onions (and garlic); I add more than is necessary in any dish. And because this is a rather heavy meal on the stomach, I would never cook it in summer. If you are manage to catch a hare in the summer months, skin it and freeze it for later. Believe me, it'll be worth it.

For the marinade: you need:

1 hare (or rabbit)
1 litre of wine
2 medium onions
6 cloves of garlic cloves
5 bay leaves
a teaspoon of carnation cloves
a tablespoon of peppercorns
Marinate the hare overnight in enough wine to cover it, along with the chopped onions, sliced cloves of garlic, and the spices. This is important because hare tends to be heavy on the nose and the gut, so it needs to be tenderised as much as possible in order to make it more palatable and digestable.

For the stew, you need:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
5 bayleaves
1 teaspoon of carnation cloves
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
1 small glass of wine
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
20-24 small firm onions
ssalt (cumin may be added, but NOT chili - hare is a Mediterannean delicacy, not an Asian takeaway)

The next day, you can choose to discard the marinade OR set aside the spices and onion to re-use them in the stew. I prefer to use a new set. It sounds wasteful, but this is just a matter of psychology; the wine takes on a floury appearance as the meat sits in it, and it puts me off. Suit yourself.

Place the hare, chopped into small pieces in the same way that you would chop chicken or rabbit, in a large pot with the olive oil and roughly chopped onion. Over medium heat, brown all the pieces of hare. When the meat has lost its raw look, pour a small glass of wine over the hare, along with the bay leaves, peppercorns and carnation cloves. Place a lid on the pot, and turn down the heat to its lowest point. Forget about the hare for the next hour. Don't even think of opening the pot.

After the hour is up, open the lid. The kitchen will now take on the most alluring aroma; think open fields, country cottages, autumn weather and fireplaces. Now add two dozen small onions (peeled with a cross cut carved into the pointed - top - part of each onion) into the pot. Pour in the tomato paste melted into a small glass of wine and add the salt. Give the whole thing a stir, and place the lid on the pot once again. Let the hare cook for another hour on low heat. When the cooking time is over, the hare will have turned dark brown in colour.

Hare is served classically with fried potatoes - I can't think of a better way to ruin the wholesome flavour. Try this meal with rice - the sauce from the stew is a perfect dressing for it. I have used exactly the same recipe to cook rabbit, and it worked well for it, too, although it needed much less cooking time - the stage of overnight soaking in wine is optional.

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Rabbit on a crockpot
Fried rabbit