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Hunter's Tortilla Soup

With wild rabbit

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Late winter is the perfect time of year for enjoying a hot bowl of spicy soup. There is nothing like the warmth of the stove as a hot pot simmers and savory aromas fill the air while raindrops beat a rhythm on the redwood deck outside your door. One of my all time favorite soups is a Mexican dish that my mom made when we were growing up — tortilla soup. Conventionally this soup is made using chicken broth and chicken (which is delicious), but as a small game hunter I routinely make it using rabbit. Rabbit meat is actually far healthier than chicken since it's extremely low in fat. Rabbits are also a sustainable meat source. They can have up to three litters per year (hence the expression "breeding like rabbits"). Additionally, rabbits are abundant all over the state, offering hunters ample opportunity to bring delicious small game home to the table. As a struggling graduate student, I hunt and eat rabbit nearly once a week. There have been plenty of times where the bills piled up and my paycheck was still a few days away, and jackrabbits saved the day.

If you are not a hunter, you can still buy meat from a local producer. Foggy Bottoms Boys in Ferndale raises and sells rabbit alongside the usual sheep, goats and chickens. You can contact the farm at (720) 320-0271 or find it on Facebook. As far as wild rabbits are concerned, there are brush and cottontail rabbits, and then there are hares. The black-tailed jackrabbit, for instance is in fact not a rabbit at all, but a hare. While rabbits tend to cook up quite tender with very little effort on the part of the chef, hares require a little more TLC. Some hunters and old timers maintain that jackrabbits are simply inedible, complaining that the meat is either tough or stringy. It is true that if cooked like a rabbit, hare will be tough, and if overcooked it will get stringy. However, all meats require their own specific method of cooking to bring out their best qualities. You wouldn't sear chicken like a steak and then eat the poultry nearly raw in the middle. Jackrabbit meat is no different; if you cook it right, you will savor every bite. Both rabbit and hare turn out well in a crockpot, as in this recipe.

Wild Rabbit Tortilla Soup

Ingredients and method:

For the soup:

Meat from one rabbit with bones, quartered

1 large white onion, diced

4-5 sprigs of fresh oregano

½ bunch of fresh cilantro

2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

½ teaspoon cumin

Water

Salt to taste

For garnish:

2 limes, cut into wedges

2 avocados, sliced

½ bunch of cilantro, chopped

5 soft corn tortillas 1 cup vegetable oil

Shredded pepper jack cheese or crumbled Mexican cojita cheese

Sour cream or Mexican crema

Tapatío or Cholula hot sauce

In a crockpot, place the quartered rabbit on top of half of the diced onion. Cover it with water and simmer it on the highest setting for 3 hours (2 hours for a smaller rabbit, such as cottontail) or until the meat begins to fall off of the bones. Remove the meat from the crockpot and transfer the remaining rabbit stock to a large pot on the stovetop. Once the meat cools, remove the meat from the bones and discard the bones. Cut the rabbit meat into bite-size pieces and set it aside to be added to the soup later. Heat the rabbit stock to a low simmer and add the cilantro, oregano, cumin, diced chipotle peppers with 1 tablespoon adobo sauce and salt. Cook the stock for 30 minutes to allow the seasonings to infuse the the broth. In a separate pot or pan, heat about 1 cup of vegetable oil to 350F. Slice the corn tortillas in half, then into strips and fry them until golden brown and crispy. Set these aside on a paper towel-lined plate to cool. Next, add half of the meat back to the broth (the meat from a whole rabbit would be too much for a single batch of soup unless you are cooking for a crowd — save the rest and season it for tacos or pot pie.). Simmer for an additional 10 minutes while setting out the garnishes.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls and garnish with tortilla strips, cheese, cilantro, avocado, a dollop of sour cream or Mexican crema, a lime wedge and a dash of hot sauce

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