Hopping on Thanksgiving meal option
Rabbit butcher 'can't keep up' with the demand.
Of course, turkey is the normal entree for the annual Thanksgiving feast. But there were other good things to eat as well that aren’t always considered part of traditional holiday fare.
One example is rabbit — available at Bunny Hop Ranch in Solon Township.
“I started monkeying around with them and then I went crazy and built a state-inspection slaughter facility,” said Julius Bugai, who is licensed to slaughter rabbits, poultry and wild game. “A year ago, I wondered if I was going to be able to make it. Now I can’t keep up.”
Bugai, 68, worked as a building contractor for many years, but poor economic times allowed him more time to dabble in a hobby that he and a cousin had tried years earlier. His rabbit enterprise includes 75 pens in two outbuildings filled with a food commodity that is regularly eaten in Europe, but hasn’t had much of a market in the United States.
“I have 30 (rabbit) does and they’re bred five times a year,” said Bugai, whose breeds — California, New Zealand and Florida White — read like an atlas. After a gestation period of 31 days or so, the doe “kindles” or gives birth to kits (bunnies), born without hair and with eyes closed. They remain in their nesting boxes, which the does have lined with their own fur. Bugai butchers the animals at between eight and nine weeks of age, or when they’re at four to five pounds live weight. The meat is vacuum-packaged and can most often be found at Oleson’s Food Markets in Traverse City and Hansen Foods in Suttons Bay. It is also served at Amical, a French restaurant in downtown Traverse City.
“They about cleaned me out last summer,” he said.
Bugai has also discovered a market for smoked rabbit, which is featured in Amical’s Cook’s House smoked rabbit salad. The Traverse City eatery is well known for the menu item.
“There was someone who flew up from Chicago and went to the restaurant just for the smoked rabbit salad,” Bugai boasted. “Then he flew back.”
His fresh or frozen rabbit meat fetches $4.50 per pound in stores, while the smoked meat goes for $6 per pound. That’s a far cry from what the meat brought during his first rabbit venture.
“When I was a kid on the farm, we were lucky to get 60 cents per pound,” Bugai said. “But it costs a lot more to feed them now. Feed is up to $416 a ton now.”
Rabbits are fed a special blend of 40 percent alfalfa hay and 60 percent grain (oats, wheat, barley, sorghum and soybean) formed into pellets.
According to a study from Alabama A & M University, the cholesterol level in rabbit meat is much lower than chicken, turkey, beef or pork. The USDA has found that rabbit is lower in the percentage of fat than chicken, turkey, beef and pork, and is the highest in protein among domestic meats. Rabbit has 795 calories per pound, which is lower than other meats including chicken (810), veal (840), turkey (1,190), lamb (1,420), beef (1,440) and pork (2,050).
Last week, Bugai’s freezer was pretty much empty with the exception of two small packages that held a half a rabbit apiece. He also had dozens of packages of internal organs —hearts, kidneys and livers for which he hasn’t developed a market.
“My cousin likes these,” he said, holding a package of tiny hearts. “But we’ve got so many. I’ll have to see if I can get my wife to pickle them or something.”
The pelts of the rabbit are discarded.
“We can’t find a market for the hides either,” he said. “I hate to throw them away, but I have to do something with them.”
Bugai and his wife, Necia, slow cook their rabbit in a crock pot or bake it in the oven.
“We tried to cook it on the rotisserie, but it doesn’t have much moisture,” Bugai said. “They don’t have any fat.”
Further information about the Bunny Hop Ranch is available at 228-5102. Two recipes that utilize rabbit meat appear below.
Rabbit in Cream
1¾ pounds rabbit
juice of one lemon
1 tsp. grated lemon rind
4 cloves garlic
salt & pepper
2 tbls. butter
1 tsp. flour
1 cup thick sour cream
1/2 cup stock
2 Tbls. chopped parsley
Macerating: 1-2 hours
Preparation: five minutes
Cooking: 40 to 45 minutes
Sprinkle the rinsed and dried meat with lemon juice, rub it with a mixture of finely chopped garlic, salt and lemon zest and leave in a cook place for an hour. Melt the butter in a skillet and brown the rabbit, sprinkle it with some stock, cover and cook, adding pepper towards the end. Mix the cream with the flour, pour into the meat and simmer for a while. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with macaroni or rice.
– Recipe from the Encyclopedia of Polish Cuisine
5 lbs. cut up rabbit
1-6-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate, thawed
3 Tbls. brown sugar
3 Tbls. ketchip
1 tsp. cider vinegar
2 Tbls. cold water
2 Tbls. cornstarch
Brown rabbit in oil on all sides and put in a crock-pot. Stir together lemonade, brown sugar, ketchup, vinegar; pour over meat. Cover and cook on high 3-4 hours. Remove meat and pour liquid into a saucepan. Return meat to crock-pot and cover to keep warm. Slowly blend cold water into cornstarch, and then add to broth. Heat and stir until thickened and bubbly. Serve meat with gravy over the cooked rice.
–From Country Lines Magazine