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Aaron Arnett of Davanti Enoteca makes peace with green peppercorns 

But first they had to be tamed.

Rabbit polpettes with morels and green peppercorn salsa verde

Rabbit polpettes with morels and green peppercorn salsa verde

Julia Thiel

The Chef: Aaron Arnett (Davanti Enoteca)
The Challenger: Tony Diaz (Maude's Liquor Bar)
The Ingredient: Peppercorns

Black pepper, one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in existence, is what usually comes to mind when people think of peppercorns. But there are several other kinds, all drupes (fruit) from the same species of flowering vine. Where black peppercorns are the unripened seeds of the pepper plant, boiled and dried, green ones, also unripened, are either brined or dried without being cooked first. Red peppercorns are ripened and usually preserved in brine, but sometimes dried; white ones, also ripened, have their red outer coating rubbed off before being dried. (Pink and Sichuan peppercorns come from different plant families altogether.)

Challenged with the ingredient—and given his choice of kind—by Tony Diaz of Maude's Liquor Bar, Aaron Arnett said he'd "always had bad experiences with green peppercorns—never liked them." He used to have to make a green peppercorn steak sauce at one of the first places he worked, and the pepper would dominate any dish. "That's all you taste, that's all there is to it," he said.

Despite (or because of) his dislike of green peppercorns, Arnett decided to use them three ways: in an Italian-style salsa verde, fried, and ground on top of a dish of rabbit polpettes with morels. "Because they've been brined, there's a salt element to them," he said. "They have a real smoky flavor, it's very acidic." The difference between green and black peppercorns, according to Arnett, is that the green ones have more acidity, a sort of brightness to them.

"At this time of year, using ramps and fennel tops and tarragon and basil and parsley—all the things associated with spring and summer—a green peppercorn salsa verde just kind of popped into my head," Arnett said. He considered steak to go with it, since that's classic, but went with rabbit because "what else says spring like rabbit? Rabbits are everywhere."

Arnett confited the rabbit in pork fat and made it into small meatballs, which he wrapped in caul fat, seared, and finished in a wood-burning oven. The salsa verde comprised parsley, basil, tarragon, mint, green peppercorns, garlic, anchovies, vinegar, lemon, and olive oil; Arnett said he substituted peppercorns for the traditional capers to "add that bright, piquant kind of smokiness."

He also fried some of the green peppercorns, which made them puff up and get crispy as well as mellowing them out, he said. "There's a little bite to them, but they're not as pungent. Raw, right out of a can, they can just destroy your palate." The fried peppercorns, along with lightly sauteed morels, charred spring onions, and ground green peppercorns (dried, not brined) completed the dish.

"You can taste the pepper, but it's not totally, completely crushing it," Arnett said of the dish. "The tarragon and all the herbs balance it out, and then the oil kind of mellows everything out."

Who's next:

Peter Coenen of the Gage, working with sun-dried tomatoes. "Sun-dried tomatoes are everywhere, and personally, I don't like them. I think they taste like chewing tobacco," Arnett said. "[Coenen] is a real cocky son of a bitch, so I'm going to see what he can do with them."

Green Peppercorn Salsa Verde

1 large bunch of flat leaf parsley
1 bunch fresh basil
1 handful fresh tarragon
1 handful fresh mint
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/3 cup brined green peppercorns, rinsed
4 ounces salted anchovies
2 T red wine vinegar
1 lemon
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

If using a food processor, pulse/chop the parsley, basil, tarragon, mint, peppercorns, anchovies, and garlic until roughly blended. Transfer to a large bowl and add vinegar and lemon juice. Slowly pour in olive oil, stirring constantly, and add salt and pepper (cracked green peppercorns) to taste.

This sauce can be prepared by hand, preferably using a mortar and pestle.

Rabbit Polpettes

2 small rabbits
12 oz ground pork
8 oz tarragon
8 oz thyme
2 oz fresh bay leaves
8 oz garlic
3 liters of olive oil
5-8 oz caul fat, rinsed and cleaned

Brine

1 gallon buttermilk
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar

Confit Rabbit

Start by breaking the rabbits down into five pieces: two forelegs, saddle, and two hindquarters. The rib cage can be discarded. Whisk the salt and sugar with the buttermilk, immerse rabbit in the brine for 24 hours, remove and rinse. Salt and pepper liberally again. Arrange rabbit pieces in a large braising pan or deep baking dish. Add roughly half the herbs and garlic. Cover with olive oil. Tightly cover with plastic wrap and foil. Keep it as sealed as possible. Place in 300 degree oven for approximately three to three and a half hours. Check it after two and a half hours to gauge its tenderness. You are looking for fall-off-the-bone texture. When done, remove from oven and let cool.

Polpettes

Start by picking meat from each section of the rabbit until you have approximately 20 oz. In a food processor or stand mixer begin whipping the rabbit. Add ground pork. The soft garlic used to cook the rabbit is delicious so get it in there. Add the the remainder of your tarragon and thyme. You will want this to get the the texture of breakfast sausage. Some of the cooking oil will need to be added if it appears too dry. How do you tell? Taste it and use your instincts. If you are attempting this you probably have some cooking chops anyway. Salt and pepper to seasoning standards you enjoy. Let this rest in the cooler for a good while until stiff and fully chilled.

Form 1 oz balls of the mixture then let them chill and firm up again. It is very important that they are very cold before you wrap them in caul fat. Once you are ready to wrap, take a sheet of caul fat and lay it across a dry cutting board. Take one ball, place in a corner and with a paring knife cut a swath of caul that will be large enough (but not too large) to wrap the rabbit. This will take some time and a few trial wraps so have some beer handy.

Once you have amassed your painstakingly wrapped polpettes, cook them in a ripping hot saute pan to seal the caul fat (put the thicker side that needs sealing against the pan). Then slide them into a 400-degree oven until brown and crispy looking. Remove to paper towels and let rest. In greasy pan with fat drippings, saute morels or any other favorite mushroom, little ramps or spring onions would be nice as well. Arrange on plate with rabbit balls and drizzle with your peppercorn salsa verde.

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