Agrodolce – literally bitter-sweet in Italian – is a big feature of Sicilian cuisine. And it works superbly in this beautifully balanced Sicilian braised rabbit recipe, where red serrano peppers add sparky heat to the herby, Mediterranean flavors of juicily tender rabbit.
The culinary concept of sweet ‘n sour is one I associate mostly with the cooking of China and Southeast Asia – and not immediately with the sunny cooking from the southernmost part of Italy.
So, how does this combo of opposites work in a dish that has its roots in Sicily? Well, the salty sourness comes from capers, green olives, and white wine vinegar. Those distinctive, sharply tanged flavors are countered by the sweetness of red and yellow bell peppers, carrots, celery, red onions, and a little sugar.
The two sets of contrasting flavors are then melded together by yet more bold, classically Mediterranean savors – garlic, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, and olive oil. And chilies. Typically, those would be the pretty hot and smokily fruity Calabrian peppers that hail from southern Italy.
Now, beyond European shores, these peppers are not widely available. If you can’t find them, fresh red serrano peppers would be a grand alternative – and that’s what I used. They work well here, giving a crisp focus to the bright, sunshiny flavors that are a hallmark of cooking in the agrodolce style.
Cooking rabbit – gently and slowly
Because its fat content is so low, it pays to cook rabbit gently and slowly – otherwise it easily tuns dry and a loses its inherent succulence and subtly rich flavors. In comparison, even a relatively delicate meat like young-ish, free-range chicken is more robust and can happily be cooked faster and at much higher temperatures.
That’s why rabbit is so well suited to being braised. In this case, that means starting with some slow, medium-heat frying in plenty of olive oil to give the meat an appealing, lightly golden color. That’s then followed by about 45 minutes of gentle simmering in a big pot with a covering, herby broth of bell peppers, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, and serranos.
Let the flavors flow
Once the rabbit’s finished braising, you want to let the whole lot sit and cool in its big pot for a few hours – so the flavors can relax, mingle, and reveal the best of their individual character.
By the time I served mine, it had rested for about four hours and although the tastes had mellowed, they’d each become more confidently distinct.
The effect put me in mind of how lovely it is to sit under dappled shade on a hot summer’s day – enjoying the very best that sunshine has to offer.
Seriously smoky, fruitily tart, abundant heat from Sicily. That’s pilacca sauce
In his cookbook, Sicilia: A Love Letter to the Food of Sicily (affiliate link, folks), chef Ben Tish praises pilacca as a wonderfully versatile, “Sicilian-style roasted chili sauce”.
First up, it’s hot. The heat in ours comes from a dozen fresh, red bird’s eye chilies. These are scorched in olive oil over high heat until they get a dark, blistering char. That accounts for the pilacca’s big whack of fiery smokiness. The scorched chilies then get finely chopped and mixed with generous amounts of garlic, red wine vinegar, salt, more olive oil, and some flavor-rounding sugar.
Add plenty of orange zest to give a tangy fruitiness, and you’ve got an exceptionally vibrant sauce to go along with your Sicilian-style rabbit. And with some very fine potatoes.
Rosemary roasted potatoes
It may be one of the most versatile herbs, but rosemary’s complexity of fragrance and flavor puts it in a class of its own. It’s great at giving sultry, bass-note savors of pine, citrus, mint, and pepper to foods that are cooked with it.
And that’s particularly true of potatoes – especially when they’re roasted in a hot oven along with some olive oil, whole cloves of garlic, and chunky pieces of red onion.
When the potatoes are slightly crisped and golden, their wafting aromas and infused flavors embody so much of Mediterranean cooking’s immense appeal. So much so, in fact, that as the potatoes were roasting, a friend who shared this meal with me said she felt my urban kitchen had been fragrantly magicked into her vision of rural Sicily.
Choosing your rabbits
To satisfy four good appetites, I’d go for two rabbits to give you a total weight of about four, bone-in pounds of meat. This is where it really helps to have a good butcher who will do the prep if you explain the type of rabbit dish you’re planning.
Alternatively, you could go for a couple of ‘whole’, frozen rabbits, each weighing around two-and-a-half pounds. They’ll typically come skinned and gutted, and it’s really easy to handle the prep yourself once they’re defrosted. Now, I’d never done that before, but there’s a great instructional video from one of Jamie Oliver’s team that gave me all the straightforward guidance I needed.
Sicilian Braised Rabbit, Rosemary Potatoes, Fiery Pilacca Sauce
For the braised rabbit
- 4 fresh red serrano peppers sliced into 1/8-inch thick rounds, seeds and all. The ones I used were each about 2 ½ long.
- 4 pounds bone-in jointed rabbit
- 1 yellow bell pepper medium-sized, de-seeded and cut lengthwise into 1/3-inch thick slices
- 1 red bell pepper medium-sized, de-seeded and cut lengthwise into 1/3-inch thick slices
- 4 celery sticks medium-sized, leaves removed, and all the rest cut into ¾-inch slices
- 2 carrots medium-sized, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 3 red onions medium-sized, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch dice
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 ½ ounces green olives I prefer unpitted because they keep more of their flavor as they cook.
- 12 capers roughly chopped
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 heaped teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 heaped teaspoon dried thyme
- ½ cup white wine vinegar
- 4 tablespoons caster sugar
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice approximately the juice of one lemon
For the rosemary roasted potatoes
- 2 pounds small waxy potatoes Unpeeled and cut into more or less 1 ½ inch chunks. Choose a waxy, thin-skinned potato. These are often tagged as new potatoes, and often have a reddish skin.
- 4 sprigs fresh rosemary The sprigs I used were each about 8-inches long.
- 2 red onions medium-sized, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
- 8 cloves garlic un-peeled and slightly crushed
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt plus a level teaspoon for par-boiling the potatoes
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
For the Sicilian-style pilacca sauce
- 12 fresh red Thai bird’s eye chilies stalks removed, but otherwise left whole
- 4 cloves garlic very finely chopped
- 1 cup olive oil
- 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- 2 tablespoons orange zest approximately the zest from one orange
Cooking the braised rabbit
- Add the rabbit to a mixing bowl that’s easily big enough to hold all the pieces. Pour the white wine vinegar over the rabbit and use your fingers to give the pieces a thorough coating of vinegar. Let the rabbit sit for ten minutes with an occasional mix in the vinegar. Then drain the rabbit in a colander and keep as much of the vinegar as you can – it’s going to join the rabbit a little later when you start to braise it.
- Once the rabbit has drained, use some kitchen towel to pat the pieces dry.
- Time now for some gentle frying of the rabbit. For that, I used a big cast-iron Dutch oven, and fried the rabbit in two batches. It makes sense to use a big pot like that right from the start because that’s where all the rest of the ingredients are going to braise the rabbit.
- Set your big pot on a medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Let it heat for a minute or so and then add your first batch of rabbit in an evenly spaced single layer. Drop the heat to low-medium and fry the pieces to give them a pale gold color on both sides. That’ll take about 5 minutes at a slow sizzle on each side.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove the rabbit and set it aside on a big plate. Try to leave as much oil as you can in the pot and repeat the gentle frying process for the second batch of rabbit.
- Now add the onions, carrots, bay leaves, and salt to the pot and set the heat to medium-low. You’re aiming to fry the mix so that the onions soften, and the carrots pick up a little browning color. That will take about 7 minutes with a few watchful stirs on medium-low.
- Turn the heat to medium, and stir in the serrano peppers, garlic, celery, bell peppers, oregano, and thyme. Let the mix fry for 3 minutes with a couple of stirs. You want the peppers and celery to soften a little, but not to start picking up any color. That’s important because you want the peppers to keep their bright colors, and, along with the celery, to retain a fair amount of their body.
- Stir in the vinegar you kept from the rabbit and turn the heat to high. As soon as the vinegar starts to bubble, drop the heat to medium and add the water, sugar, capers, olives, and black pepper. Give the lot a good stir and then carefully add your rabbit and all the juices from its plate. Don’t stir the pieces of rabbit into the pot, but rather set them on top of your braising mix.
- Keep the pot on that medium heat and let it come up to a slowly bubbling simmer. As soon as that happens, drop the heat to low, cover the pot and let it simmer away gently for 25 minutes.
- Now carefully – and I mean carefully – stir the pot so that the rabbit gets covered as much as possible by its braising mix. Good. This is a good time to check for saltiness and adjust to suit your taste. Cover the pot and give it another 20 minutes of that slowly bubbling simmer on its low heat.
- Turn off the heat and let your covered pot sit and cool for a few hours. Once that time’s up, all you have to do is stir in the lemon juice and warm the pot for a few minutes over a medium heat – so that it’s all nicely hot for serving.
Cooking the rosemary roasted potatoes
- Start to finish, these take about 45 minutes to cook. So, it’s a good idea to get them underway about an hour before you want to serve the rabbit.
- Set your oven to 350F / 180C. Add the olive oil to a baking dish that’s big enough to hold all the potatoes in a single layer, and set the dish in the oven while it’s heating.
- Put the potatoes in a saucepan with a level teaspoon of ground sea salt and just enough cold water to cover them.
- Set the pan on a high heat and bring it to the boil. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and allow the potatoes to simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, drain the potatoes and return them to their pan. Cover the pan and let the potatoes steam there for 5 minutes.
- Remove the baking dish from the oven, and quickly add the potatoes, red onions, garlic, 2 heaped teaspoons salt, and black pepper. Stir the dish so that everything gets well coated in the sizzling oil.
- Now slide in the sprigs of rosemary so that they sit underneath the potatoes on the bottom of the dish.
- Cover the dish with a sealing sheet of silver foil. Return the dish to the oven on a high shelf and increase the heat to 425F / 220C. Roast for 15 minutes. (That tight foil covering matters because it ensures the potatoes become infused with the wonderful flavors of the rosemary, garlic, and onion.)
- After that first 15 minutes’ roasting, remove the dish and give all the potatoes a quick turn in the oil. Return them to the oven – uncovered – so they can roast to a fine golden color for 15 minutes or so. Done.
Making the pilacca sauce
- I’d make this while the braised rabbit is resting in its big pot. Once all the pilacca’s ingredients are mixed together, it certainly pays to let the sauce stand for a couple of occasionally stirred hours and allow its flavors to really meld together.
- Start by heating half the olive oil in a heavy skillet over a high heat. Once the oil just begins smoking. stir in the whole chilies. You now want to give them a scorching, blistering char by stir frying them over that high heat for about 3 minutes. Take a bit of care here – as the whole chilies expand in that very hot oil, they can burst and cause the oil to spit, so it’s wise to bear that in mind as you’re charring them.
- As soon as the chilies are darkly scorched, remove them from the heat and lift them out of the skillet with a slotted spoon. Let the oil cool and then turn it all into a pretty serving jug that will hold all the rest of your sauce’s ingredients.
- Once the chilies have cooled enough for you to handle them, chop them very finely, seeds and all.
- In your serving jug, thoroughly stir the chilies together with the other ingredients – that’s all the olive oil, garlic, vinegar, sugar, and orange zest. Make sure to stir thoroughly so the sugar dissolves completely. And give it few more stirs as it sits and waits to be served alongside the braised rabbit and rosemary roasted potatoes.
What’s also great is that your pilacca will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for several days. I think you’ll find it really is very versatile – and might not last that long.