Snowshoe hares are plentiful in my neck of the woods and hunting them is one of my favourite sports, which begins in late fall and runs through the winter. But I must admit, when a hare lands in my kitchen, I automatically dub it a rabbit, which sounds more appetizing on the plate.
Even though rabbits and hares are closely related (belonging to the Leporidae family) and their names are often used interchangeably, there are a number of differences in the species. Snowshoe hare, named so because of their large hind feet which act like snowshoes allowing them to scoot over the snow, change their coats to camouflage for winter, whereas rabbits do not change colour.
Another thing that sets them apart is hares are born fully furred with their eyes wide open and ready to fend for themselves shortly after birth, and rabbits are born blind, furless and do not leave the nest to gain their independence for several weeks.
Rabbits are more common in southerly regions, where they thrive in low-growing shrubs and bushes. Snowshoes, on the other hand, are better suited to northern living, where they inhabit coniferous forests offering them lots of thick undergrowth that supplies both food and a safe place to hide from predators.
My favourite time for hunting snowshoe hares is when there’s snow on the ground, which makes tracking easy, although it takes a few hunts, or maybe even seasons, to train your eyes to spot their camoed outline against the snowy backdrop.
Just like any other game animal, big or small, the secret to good eating lays in proper field dressing. The sooner the fur (or hide) is off and the innards emptied, the faster the meat can cool down because retention of body heat is the number one cause of sour or gamey-tasting meat.
To field dress a snowshoe hare, I simply gather a handful of fur on the underside (belly), grasp it tightly, tug until it tears and then peel the fur off, up and over the head like a sweater. After removing the head, gut by slitting from the vent up through the ribs to the neck, grasp the front legs in one hand and hind legs in the other and, with belly-side facing downward, give it a sharp bounce and the innards will drop to the ground. The liver, heart and kidneys can be retrieved and saved for the stewpot.
After the entrails are emptied, cut off the feet and discard — or pocket one for good luck! In the winter, you can use snow to sop up blood from the cavity. If there is no snow on the ground, moss, leaves or other greenery will do the trick.
Once home in the kitchen, wash well under cold, running water and pat dry with paper towels. Unless you intend to cook your prize whole, butcher the hare into serving-sized pieces (as shown in photo) using a heavy cleaver.
If you have bagged more bounty than needed for one meal, the best way to preserve the meat is by vacuum sealing, which prevents freezer burn. Vacuum-sealed meat has a shelf life of one year, but once you taste my delicious recipe below for crispy buttermilk fried rabbit, your freezer will never be overpopulated! The recipe is geared for two snowshoes (serving four to six) but it can be cut in half if one hare is all you bagged.
2 snowshoe hares, cut into serving-sized pieces
2 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed celery seed
1/2 teaspoon each of dried thyme and oregano
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic (or powder)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed chili pepper flakes
2 cups flour (seasoned with salt and pepper)
Mix the seasonings in a bowl, stir into the buttermilk. Dip meat in the mixture and place in a flat dish. Pour remaining buttermilk marinate over top, ensuring each piece is saturated. Cover and marinate in the fridge for 24 hours or overnight.
Pour enough oil to measure at least one inch deep into a skillet large enough to accommodate the hare pieces without crowding. If you must, work in batches. I always use a large cast-iron frying pan, as it produces a super crispy deep golden crust. Heat oil to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove meat from marinade, one piece at a time. Do not shake off the excess marinade. Drop into a paper bag of seasoned flour, shake to coat and slip into the hot oil. Fry for 15 minutes. Turn the pieces over and continue to fry for another 10 minutes or until meat is cooked through. Internal temperature should reach a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which kills tularemia, a disease that is susceptible in both rabbit and hare. Smaller pieces can be removed from the pan before they overbrown. Drain on paper towels to absorb excess oil. Serve with a sweet chili dipping sauce.
Cleaning & Butchering Your Catch
After you have been successful and have bagged a rabbit, you need to clean it properly. The easiest way is to make a small cut through the hide of the rabbit in its back width ways. Once you make the small cut, you can grab each side of the hide and evenly pull one side towards the head and the other side towards the back feet. The hide should come off like a sock. When the hide gets to the feet and the head, you can easily separate the head and feet, taking the hide off with it. To remove the guts, make a cut from the base of the neck, cutting through the ribs and all the way down to between the legs, being careful not to puncture the guts. Reach inside with your hand and grab the guts and pull them out. Once as the guts are removed, you can now quarter the rabbit. To remove the front quarters, cut in the arm pit of the front leg and go towards the back until the leg comes off. For the back quarters, you want to cut along the hip bone to where the legs connect to the hip and you’ll have to cut between the ball joint and hip to separate it. Once you have separated all four quarters, you will be left with five pieces of meat: two front quarters, two hind quarters and the back, also called the saddle. You can eat them right away, but the best way is to put them in a bowl of water and place them in the fridge overnight. The next day you will be able to remove the thin membrane on the rabbit’s meat. It’s not necessary to do this, but it makes the meat much better to eat, not having to chew through the thin sinew-like membrane.
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