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Washburn: Late-season rabbit quality recreation
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Washburn: Late-season rabbit quality recreation

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Around our house, cottontail rabbit is a favored winter entrée. Obtaining those nutrition packed meals is one of my favorite forms of sub-zero recreation. There are a lot of ways to bag a February cottontail. A shotgun, bow, or .22-caliber rifle will all get the job done. But for my money, no method even comes close to matching the excitement of pursuing rabbits with a trained goshawk.

My favorite trained hawk, Attila, is a 13th-season veteran of the chase. Working as a team, our strategy is simple and straightforward. I beat the brush or plow through the brambles while the hawk rides my gloved fist. Fast and maneuverable, goshawks are best known for conducting high speed aerial chases in the thickest of woodland habitats. Wired and high strung, ‘gos are intense and focused -- ready to explode from the glove the instant prey is sighted.

But even for an experienced goshawk, late winter hunts are no slam dunk. By the time we get to February, there are no easy rabbits. Relentlessly pursued by fox, coyote, hawk, and owl; each and every cottontail has become a street wise survivor. Every rabbit is a trophy.

Goshawk with February cottontail

Goshawks and rabbits have been refining their uneasy relationship for thousands of years. Some rabbits escape. Others become Hassenpfeffer.

Once they’re put to route, cottontails move across the landscape with their own brand of speed, covering snow covered ground in spectacular six-foot leaps – I know they’re six foot because I’ve measured the tracks. In closed cover, like sumac, cattail, or raspberry thickets, rabbits choose a more erratic escape route. Regardless of cover type, the flights are always exhilarating; the outcome never certain. Goshawks and cottontails have been refining their predator/prey relationship for thousands of years. Some rabbits escape. Some rabbits are caught.

Successful chases – at least from my and the hawk’s perspective – conclude as fur and feather converge in a spray of clean snow. The rabbit is a hard-earned prize and I sit atop a nearby log while the ‘gos breaks into its meal. Steam rises into the frozen atmosphere as the hawk eagerly consumes the heart, liver, neck, and a front leg. When finished, he hops back onto my glove for a large tidbit while I place the rabbit into my game bag. Heading back to the truck, I notice several fresh tracks along an interconnecting network of well used rabbit trails. Tomorrow is another day.

On the Table: Versatile and nutritious, cottontail rabbits are the other white meat – a time-honored favorite of hawks and humans. Ounce for ounce, rabbit contains more protein, but less fat and less cholesterol than beef, pork, turkey, or chicken. It also contains less calories than any of the others – only 395 per eight-ounce serving.

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Rabbit can be baked, grilled, braised, ground into burger, or made into sausage. Pan fried rabbit is another of our favorites. Cooking the rabbit to about one degree past medium rare will ensure that your entrée remains mild, moist and tender.

Fried cottontail

A time honored favorite of hawks and humans, rabbits are high on nutrition, but low in fat, calories and cholesterol.

Hasenpfeffer – a gravy-like, full-flavored German stew dating back to the 1300s -- is the undisputed grandaddy of all rabbit recipes. Served over dumplings, potatoes, or thick noodles, the recipe represents an unparalleled stick-to-your-ribs, cold weather comfort food. Unfortunately, Hasenpfeffer is as complicated and time consuming as it is tasty. There are dozens of recipes, with the most extreme requiring four full days of preparation.

There is one happy exception, however. Perfected during the 1930s’ Depression-era by the mother of retired fisheries biologist, Lannie Miller, this Hassenpfeffer recipe is a delightfully viable shortcut to mouth-watering success. According to Lannie, the rabbit recipe remains a Miller family favorite to this day. Try it and you’ll see why. Here is all it takes to turn one rabbit and a few potatoes into a meal that will drive away the winter chill. Best of all, it won’t take four days to get the food on the table.

Grandma Miller’s Hasenpfeffer

Dredge rabbit pieces in flour, season with salt and pepper, and brown in a Dutch oven. Cover with water and simmer for 45 minutes. Add ¾ cup of vinegar. If needed, add more water to cover rabbit pieces and boil [covered] for 45 to 60 minutes.

When meat is falling off the bone tender, remove from bone and set aside. Stir in a water/flour mixture to thicken broth into gravy. Add pulled meat back to the gravy and serve over fried potatoes.