Not quite sure when this whole “popper” thing burst onto the Cajun food scene, but my hunch is it traveled across the Sabine River like so many other Texas transplants. Sometime back in the 1990s, I began hearing about hunting camp cooks serving up jalapeno peppers stuffed with all sorts of wild things wrapped in bacon. Today, I can’t go to any supermarket, neighborhood grocer or restaurant and not see it offered.
Some years ago, I gave in to the mounting pressure to welcome this dish onto my Acadiana Table. I’ve experimented with all sorts of versions – smoked duck, ribeye steak, and even dove – but, it was a recent trip to Iowa, Louisiana and their annual rabbit festival that sparked my inspiration for this variation.
Long ago, the small town of Iowa, one hour west of Lafayette, was home to the largest rabbit processing operation in Acadiana. In 1986, the Iowa Rabbit Festival was launched to promote the industry and over the years it has become a popular regional food and music event. The cook-off was in full swing when I arrived and over 25 competitors were busy cooking rabbit dishes that defied imagination. Amanda and Luke Deville from Teet’s in Ville Platte were juggling two great dishes – a Rabbit Cacciatore and their Rabbit Sauce Picante, last year’s winner. Mike Casey from Lafayette had a tasty Rabbit and Spaghetti, and Angie Dugas was busy interpreting a Coq Au Vin with rabbit instead of rooster.
A steady line was building for one booth on the end that was turning out what proved to me to be a clear creative winner – Hopper Poppers. Sean Bourque, a local amateur, was serving up his battered and bacon-wrapped rabbit stuffed with cream cheese in a hollowed out jalapeno pepper and fried golden brown. I downed two of the bite-sized flavor bombs. This dish was a revelation as it fired on all cylinders – spicy, sweet, smooth and crunchy.
In my recipe, I am following Sean Bourque’s lead on the idea of this dish but I am creatively deviating in execution. Rabbit is a tame-tasting meat that has a certain mildness that needs to be augmented with flavor, so I am marinating the rabbit in a buttermilk and beer-infused bath. And most all poppers contain cheese – mostly plain cream cheese. This is a direction that you can easily improve upon and I am going with a creamy French Brie for an “ooh la la” classy contrast that balances out the jalapeno bite.
The prep time is the main investment in this dish since these little packages take only a few minutes to cook. On occasion, I pop open a six-pack of beer and put my friends to work in the assembly process that they always seem to enjoy doing with this dish. With all the ingredients organized and ready for assembling, it’s a cinch.
Hop to it.
- 3 whole rabbits, cleaned
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 tablespoons Cajun seasoning, divided
- 1 (10-ounce) bottle of beer
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons hot sauce
- 2 pounds thin-sliced applewood smoked bacon
- 2 dozen raw jalapeno peppers
- 1 pound Brie cheese, rind removed
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 gallon canola oil
- Wash the rabbits and dry with paper towels. Cut the whole rabbits into quarters and sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of Cajun seasoning. Place in a shallow pan and pour in the beer and buttermilk along with the hot sauce. Mix well, cover and place in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours.
- Spread the bacon strips out on a platter and stretch them out. Cut them in half to two shorter lengths. Move aside for later use.
- On a cutting board, slice open the jalapeno peppers in half lengthwise to expose the cavity. With a teaspoon, remove the ribs and seeds. Place on a platter and reserve for later.
- On a cutting board using a sharp paring knife, cut the Brie cheese into ½ inch slices or just enough to fill the inside of the jalapenos. Place on a platter for later use.
- Remove the rabbit from the pan and drain. Place on paper towels and dry thoroughly. On a cutting board and using a sharp knife, cut off 1-inch filets of rabbit meat from the bone. Continue until you have approximately 48 slices of meat. Dry the meat thoroughly. Place the meat on a platter and reserve any remaining rabbit for another use.
- For assembly, fill the cavity of a sliced jalapeno half with a portion of cheese and place a slice of rabbit meat on top. Wrap with just enough bacon to wind around the jalapeno once and insert a toothpick to hold the ends of the bacon together. Continue until all of the poppers are prepped. Cover and keep at room temperature.
- For the wet batter, crack the eggs into a large bowl. Add the buttermilk along with 2 tablespoons of Cajun seasoning and 1 tablespoons of hot sauce.
- For the dry batter, add the flour along with the remaining 2 tablespoons of Cajun seasoning.
- In a large pot, add enough oil to cover the poppers when frying, approximately 4 inches. Turn the burner to medium-high and heat the oil to 350ºF.
- For frying, add the poppers to the egg mixture and coat. Several at a time, move them to the dry mix and coat. Shake off any excess flour. Add them one at a time to the hot oil being careful not to crowd the pot and to maintain 350ºF temperature. As they begin to turn golden brown on all sides, remove them to a rack-lined pan. Continue until all the poppers are finished and serve immediately while they are hot. Some like a dipping sauce with this, but I prefer letting the complex flavors of the ingredients shine.
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