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Flaming rabbit sausage needed to be tamed

My love of a good grocery deal only slightly outweighs my distaste for waste in the kitchen.

So my penchant for purchasing items priced too low to pass up occasionally sees me scrambling to salvage said food. It takes some brainstorming. It takes some persistence. But it can be done — with delicious results, to boot.

Rabbit is among those meats that make many people leery. Put rabbit in a sausage, and it becomes many times more approachable.

Put rabbit in a sausage labeled cheddar-flavored but really laden with ghost chilies — denoted only by an 8-point-font-size admonishment “here comes the heat” — and it’s destined for a 75-percent markdown in the close-dated meat case at Food 4 Less in Medford. Apparently, I was supposed to interpret the graphic of a tank discharging a fiery missile as these sausages being too hot to handle.

Why pick them up in the first place? First and foremost, rabbit is one of my favorite meats — healthful, sustainable yet highly underappreciated and underrepresented in mainstream grocery stores. And these sausages happen to be locally produced, or as near as this product gets, according to my research. The only source of rabbit for retail sale that I’ve found at Food 4 Less hails from Wagonhoffer Meats, near Glide in Douglas County. So I bought three packages, intending to stash them in the freezer until mealtime occasions arose.

The first such occasion was lunch with my mom and sister, visiting for the weekend and bringing a few dietary demands. Amid their individual preferences and dislikes, they both appreciate bratwursts served on buns with sauerkraut. Score one for the rabbit brats!

The first two bites, however, elicited surprise at the sausages’ spiciness. The third bite required half a glass of water to swallow. The fourth bite concluded with the sausages’ return to their plates, where they remained unfinished. I tried heroically but fell short by a couple of bites from polishing off my portion. Pity.

The fourth sausage in the package went into the chicken food bucket. And the remaining two packages bided their time for a couple of months in the freezer until I started rummaging around for something to enrich eggplant and spinach in a lasagna filling. Usually, I choose Italian-spiced — not nuclear-spiced — sausage. Could I make a successful swap if a light hand prevailed with the other seasonings? I started strategizing.

First, I selected two sausages, not all four, and stripped away their casings. The meat’s texture wasn’t as soft as I anticipated, so I had to exert some effort to break it up into small chunks in the skillet. The smaller the pieces, the more I could distribute their flavor among other ingredients. When the meat had caramelized a bit, I removed it from the pan.

To the pan, I added a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a small-diced eggplant. The eggplant cooked for 10 minutes or so until it had softened and absorbed some flavor from the pan. Enter my first spice-tempering strategy: deglazing with sweet apple cider. Any cook who’s adjusted a too-hot pot of chili with brown sugar knows sweetness helps to tame spice.

As I scraped the brown bits from the pan and simmered off the cider, I added a package of frozen and defrosted, chopped spinach to lend its beyond-bland persona. By this time, I ordinarily would have added any number of seasonings, including salt, but I was playing it safe, as the sausage’s spice seemed heightened by bits of cheese and some other salty ingredients. And I had cheese remaining in my lasagna recipe’s roster.

For tomato sauce, I chose one of the sweetest, plainest brands. Still no seasoning as I added it to the baking dish and laid down some no-boil noodles. Next was ricotta cheese, its sweetness enhanced with freshly grated nutmeg. I skipped the usual grinds of white pepper but stirred in a beaten egg and a half cup of grated mozzarella.

I layered the ricotta, sautéed vegetable-sausage filling, more noodles, another layer of cheese and filling, topped off by more sweet tomato sauce and some slices of mozzarella cheese. The finished dish was seasoned solely by those bizarre bratwursts and, against all odds, pretty spot-on.

My 4- and 6-year-old sons gulped their water just a couple of times after chewing one of the larger pieces of meat but otherwise gobbled up their portions. Explaining my motives, I quizzed my husband more than usual on his reaction to the dish, which he pronounced very enjoyable.

And I had just been hoping for edible.

Pasta e Ceci

I adapted the following recipe for pasta and chickpeas — from “Jamie’s Italy” by Jamie Oliver — to include sausage. A single super-spicy rabbit-pork bratwurst transformed this fairly unremarkable stew into a dish with much more character.

Depending on type of sausage, select a quantity that will yield a moderately spicy finished dish. This may be up to 1/2 pound loose, ground, Italian-style sausage or maybe just a few ounces of something like spicy chorizo. If sausage is in casings, either snip off ends and strip off casings, or squeeze out softer sausage from casing’s end.

In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, add a tablespoon olive oil. Brown sausage in oil, breaking up any large chunks. Remove sausage to a paper towel-lined plate.

In same skillet, add 1 peeled and diced yellow or white onion, 1 diced rib of celery or stalk of fresh fennel, 1 peeled and minced garlic clove and 1 teaspoon finely minced, fresh rosemary leaves. Cook over medium-low heat, without browning, for about 15 minutes or until vegetables have softened.

Deglaze pan with 1/2 cup white wine or sherry and scrape up any browned bits. Add 2 (14.5-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained, or 2 cups cooked-from-scratch chickpeas. Pour in 3 cups chicken stock, cover pan, bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes until ingredients are very tender.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer about half of cooked chickpeas from pot to a bowl; set aside. Using an immersion blender, puree soup in pot until smooth. Or if you don’t have an immersion blender, transfer soup to a blender jar or bowl of a food processer and — venting with a kitchen towel over feed tube — puree and then return soup to pot.

Bring soup back to a simmer and add 3 ounces ditalini or other small soup shape, such as stars or orzo. If soup is too thick, thin it with a little chicken stock or water. Simmer gently, covered, until pasta is cooked.

Adjust seasonings with salt, pepper and a dash of apple-cider vinegar, if desired. Stir in reserved sausage and chickpeas. Serve drizzled with good-quality, extra-virgin olive oil and garnished with some chopped, fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley. Makes 4 servings.

Tune in to Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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