Conejo al Ajillo (rabbit with garlic) is an extremely popular Iberian dish with many regional variations, as you will see if you look it up online. Rabbit itself is very much considered meat in Spain, unlike the UK where most people (these days) see it as a pet. It is said that the Carthaginians, arriving in Spain (around 300 BC), named the region Ispania (from Sphan meaning rabbit), land of rabbits, which later became Hispania under the Romans and España today.
Conejo al Ajillo recipe (serves 2):
1 wild rabbit (2-3 lbs) chopped into small pieces
1 head of garlic (peeled)
6 medium potatoes (thickly sliced)
lots of extra virgin olive oil
6 pieces of thyme
2 small branches of rosemary
1 heaped teaspoon dulce (sweet) pimentón de la Vera
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 dessertspoons plain flour
sea salt and cracked black pepper (to taste)
half a lemon
Cut up the rabbit ahead of time and sprinkle some salt and pepper all over. A good butcher will chop the rabbit for you if you’d prefer. Don’t bother with the rib cage, there’s barely any meat on it – use it for making stock instead. I included the liver, kidneys and heart in my dish, but you can relegate them to stock too, if you are not keen.
Heat about 1 cm extra virgin olive oil in a large frying pan – it needs to be quite hot, but not smoking. Give the rabbit pieces a light dusting of flour (just before cooking) and fry them until golden (about 10 minutes). Remove the rabbit while you cook the potatoes.
I like to thickly slice the potatoes raw and bring them to the boil in water (plunge into cold water and allow to dry) before frying. This gives them a nice fluffy center. Don’t crowd the slices in the pan – they can be cooked in batches. Remove the cooked potatoes to a plate and add salt to taste.
Meanwhile, squash (slightly) and peel, an entire head of garlic (some recipes call for two heads – your choice).
Put the garlic and the leaves from the thyme and rosemary into a mortar and give it all a good grind with the pestle to make a herb and garlic paste (a pinch of salt helps in the grinding process).
Pour most of the olive oil out of the frying pan, then (on a low heat) stir in the garlic paste and red wine vinegar (use a small glass of dry white wine if you prefer) before combining the rabbit and potato in the pan. Sprinkle on the pimentón de la Vera and mix that in too. Give the conejo al ajillo about 10 minutes more on low, to allow most of the vinegar to cook off – you will need to keep stirring so it doesn’t stick. Add a little water if it tastes too strong for you. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the rabbit before serving. Reserve the remaining olive oil for cooking roast potatoes – it should keep for a few days. Potatoes cooked this way, without rabbit, are called Patatas al Ajo Cabañil.
Serve with salad and lots of allioli (see my recipe here). It has occurred to me that the potato and rabbit would also work well with the allioli poured on top (like this recipe) then cooked in the oven for 20-30 minutes.
This smelled and tasted so good that I had to stop myself eating the lot in one go! Pair the rabbit with a robust Spanish red, like Carta Roja Monastrell.