Ear-resistible: el Bulli's deep fried rabbit ears with aromatic herbs
It's hard to keep your eyes off two bloody ears joined by a strip of fur, trust me. I suppose the instinct that compels us to stare at a bag of bunny scalps is the same force that makes us slow down for a glimpse of a traffic accident or any potentially grisly scene: morbid curiosity.
I'd be lying if I didn't say I felt troubled the first time I saw them. There's something about rabbit ears. Most of us have managed to distance ourselves from the brutality behind our meals. We're so inured to the sight of a steak or a chicken breast, that we've become disconnected from the fact that an animal had to be killed and butchered to produce them. But rabbit ears go beyond even that.
The problem is cuteness. A cow is not always cute. A crimson slab of meat certainly isn't. But a pair of bunny ears is an altogether different story. Not only are rabbits cute, their ears are an essential part of their cuteness, perhaps even its essence. Looking at steak calls to mind images of summer barbecues; looking at big, floppy rabbit ears conjures up happy childhood memories of Bugs Bunny or the Easter Bunny.
By turning adorable into dinner -- or at least a surprisingly delicious snack -- el Bulli's deep fried rabbit ears with aromatic herbs (click here to see the el Bulli catalogue photo), from the el Bulli 2003-2004 cookbook, challenge our assumptions about food. Eating game, and doing so respectfully by being frugal and eating as much of an animal as possible, is a deeply rooted tradition in most parts of the world. Spain is no exception, and Rachel and I vividly remember the arresting sights of the butcher stalls specializing in offal and game meats in Barcelona's La Boqueria market.
North American butchers are not nearly as open. "You're kidding, right?" is not the answer I was hoping for when I asked my local butcher about rabbit ears. His expression clearly communicated his doubts about my sanity and taste. Few butchers sell rabbit, and those that do buy pre-butchered rabbits from outside sources. That makes rabbit ears the specialest of special orders. Nonetheless, he promised to see what he could do. Sure enough, I got a call to pick up my ears about two weeks later. They were free, too, though the butcher requested I not ask for rabbit ears a second time. Apparently getting them requires calling in some favours. Why this should be is a mystery to me. The rabbits at St. Lawrence Market always come with the head attached and the fur and ears removed, so unless there's a clandestine market in bunny scalps, this is the only known use for them.
I was leery about the prep for this dish. Parts of it are simple: I used kitchen shears to remove the ears from the scalps, and I then soaked the ears in two changes of cold water for a total of twenty-four hours to leech out any remaining blood. So far, so good.
With the easy part done, it was time to put aside any remaining inhibitions and channel Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction by blanching, then boiling the ears for thirty minutes. This filled my kitchen with a slightly offputting scent -- think meat meets gym sock -- that I can only compare to that of boiling pigs' trotters (a scent you're no doubt all familiar with). At this point, the ears can be skinned and cleaned. This is surprisingly easy as long as the ears are hot. The fur slips off effortlessly, and the only hard parts are not burning your fingers, cleaning out the inner ear, and removing the extensive network of veins, some of which are pitch black and no wider than a hair. I found this last task quite difficult until a little experimentation revealed that gently scraping a serrated knife along the ear completes the task efficiently. What's left is a pearlescent exclamation mark of cartilage.
After drying the ears in a warm oven, it was time to skewer and fry. I heated up my olive oil and dropped in a few ears. "Splat! Thwack! Ptooey!" I was being attacked by a hot olive oil insurgency, so I promptly sought refuge in a corner of my kitchen. In a moment of kitchen bravery, the likes of which may never be seen again, I scurried through a hail of olive oil to retrieve the splatter guard I had stupidly forgotten in the opposite cupboard -- the one less than a metre from the pot of oil in which I was frying the ears, unfortunately.
The ears are rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with Maldon salt and homemade, dried, powdered thyme and rosemary after coming out of the oil. The result is stupendous, something between a potato chip and pork crackling, though definitely closer to the latter. The ears themselves are largely tasteless, a blank canvas for the garlic, salt, and herbs. The texture is what steals the show. Fried foods disappoint without a little crunch to them. I'd even go so far as to say that a crispiness is their primary allure. Rabbit ears deliver this snap in spades.
Before preparing it, I must admit to wondering whether deep fried rabbit ears represented a victory for gimmickry over taste. The very concept of eating bunny ears panders to the notion that molecular gastronomy is more about jumping the shark than preparing delicious food. Even Rachel, a woman who has put up with more than her fair share of gastronomic stuntwork, had her doubts about this dish. She ended up a convert.
Tasting puts any such fears to bed. Deep fried rabbit ears are delicious.
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