At long last, my Latvian hare trio is complete! I started this project when I discovered those mysterious recipes for hare cheese. If you run an internet search for hare cheese in English, Russian, or Latvian, you probably won’t find much; for one thing, you won’t see a single picture. This in itself required further investigation.
Because I don’t spend my time dining on wild Scottish hare from D’artagnan, and because my own attempt at hare hunting could easily replace “wild goose chase” in proverbial parlance, it took me a couple of years to reach a point where I was satisfied with my result. Early on, it became clear to me that a whole hare yielded way too much hare cheese, and so I looked for other dishes of Latvian inspiration that could use hare. In particular, I determined that cooking the leg meat in fat ensures that it doesn’t get dry, and hare loin really shouldn’t be cooked more than medium-rare.
This curious dish — which has very little to do with actual cheese — was actually what first motivated me to start my Latvian Hare Trio. The final result may look like a traditional pâté, but the preparation is quite different. Lesley Chamberlain’s Food and Cooking of Russia and Pokhlebkin’s Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples both contain fairly similar instructions: take a hare, roast it, braise it, grind it, then cook an omelette, grind it, and mix everything together with mushrooms and butter before baking in a dish, optionally wrapped in pastry.
I found that the result of this procedure had an unpleasantly dry mouthfeel, so I made several changes to improve it. In particular, cooking the leg meat as a confit was a big improvement, and it made little sense to use the precious hare loins. I also got rid of the bizarre ground omelette and used raw eggs to bind the forcemeat like a normal person. Finally, the onion jam and cornichons bring welcome touches of sweetness and acidity.
After last week’s hare loin, this post features the hare legs with another group of typical Latvian winter flavors: potato, sauerkraut, and animal fat. The recipe is pretty short, because most of the work has been done during the hare preparation.
The only non-trivial element left is the potato pancakes. I’ve already talked about deruny here, but I’m taking a different approach today, simply slicing the potatoes and relying on the starch and salt to bind them all together.
Finally, if you want to make the dish a little bit healthier but still recognizably Latvian, you could prepare a wine reduction to drizzle on the meat, instead of the fat!
Black Balsam is a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur. Its recipe, created by a pharmacist living in Riga, is based on a composition of 24 different plants, flowers, buds, juices, roots, oils, and berries prepared in oak barrels. The drink itself is black and very bitter, but with a distinct sweetness to it. Admirers of chartreuse and the early novels of Poppy Z. Brite will love it. Others, maybe not so much.
Legend has it that Catherine the Great became ill during a visit to Latvia and was cured after drinking Black Balsam — one sure has to hope that such a harsh-tasting beverage has some medicinal virtues to justify consuming it. Nowadays, however, a smoother version is available, mixed with blackcurrant juice. If you have trouble finding it in the US, try mixing regular black balsam (check availability here) with crème de cassis instead.
What does this all have to do with today’s recipe, you might ask. Well, balsam and hare have more in common than it seems: they’re both consumed in Latvia, and both can be acquired tastes. Because Latvian cuisine gravitates around a somewhat limited number of ingredients, it made sense to me to try to pair them together — and I think the association works quite well. Barley, another staple of the region, was a natural accompaniment.
Of all game meats, hare is one of the most full-flavored, and one of the most vilified. After all, not only are you eating a rodent, but the critter’s constant running suggests a tough hunt and even tougher meat. To make matters worse, nothing screams dead animal nearly as loud as hung hare meat (at least among the meats available for sale); the smell and taste really need to be acquired.
In New York State, you’re allowed to hunt hares, but not to trap them. As a beginner, my first hunting attempt was totally hopeless, even with the help of a guide and a couple of pointer dogs. Whether you entertain the foolish idea of catching your own wild bunny, or you prefer to let professionals do the hard work and you purchase it (e.g. from D’Artagnan if you live in the US), hare remains a rare and expensive treat. You’ll want to prepare it right. And even if you’re a game lover, you might want to take the gaminess down a notch.
This post will explain how to prepare hare in two different ways, which you can use as the bases for your own recipes (I’ll give you my own Eastern European version in the coming weeks, of course). The wine marinade may not really tenderize the meat as was once believed, but it certainly makes the hare flavor more… accessible. The transglutaminased loins yield two superb medallions to enjoy lightly seared, and the slow-cooked leg confit prevents the meat from getting dry or tough. Both could taste pretty good with a wine reduction.