Cassoulet

Cassoulet

“The composition of Cassoulet is, in typical French fashion, the subject of infinite dispute, so much so that if you have read or heard about Cassoulet and never tasted it, you come to expect a kind of rare ambrosia rather than the nourishing country fare it actually is.”—Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I beg to differ, Julia.  As much as I love your brisk good sense and can-do spirit, we disagree on this point.  Cassoulet is nourishing country fare, yes.  But that entirely misses the point of cassoulet.  The point is that it actually is a kind of rare ambrosia.  Cassoulet is a dish that is far more than the sum of its parts.  It is days (weeks, really if you make your own duck confit!) of careful preparation of ingredients in order to serve yourself and your loved ones with a dish of savory meat and beans that first fills the room with a rich aroma, then fills tummies, then hearts.

It is indeed a rare ambrosia when, on a rainy winter night, I shed my damp coat and settle into a chair across from a friend in a favorite French restaurant, and we order a half carafe of red wine, then the waiter lists the specials and one of them is cassoulet.  I feel all hollow in my middle in anticipation.

I am reminded of N.M. Kelby’s words at the end of White Truffles in Winter, and I think that the question before us is not just country fare vs. ambrosia, but “who we…are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist—it is our most hungry self.”

My imagination was captured many, many years ago, when I had yet to taste cassoulet, the very first time I read A Moveable Feast:

 I walked in the early dusk up the street and stopped outside the terrace of the Negre de Toulouse restaurant where our red and white checkered napkins were in the wooden napkin rings in the napkin rack waiting for us to come to dinner.  I read the menu mimeographed in purple ink and saw that the plat du jour was cassoulet.  It made me hungry to read the name. –Ernest Hemingway

Now there was a man who understood hunger of all kinds.

Cassoulet

(Inspired by Mastering the Art of French Cooking and adapted from Anthony Bourdain)

  • 2.5 cups Tarbais beans or small white beans
  • 1 pound fresh pork belly
  • 1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 bouquet garni 
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup duck fat
  • 3 pork sausages, halved
  • 2 onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 2 confit duck legs

Day One
Place the beans in the large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least 2 or 3 inches of water above the top of the beans. Soak overnight.

Day Two
Drain and rinse the beans and place in a large pot. Add the pork belly, the quartered onion, and the bouquet garni. Cover with water, add salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are just tender, about 30-40 minutes. Let cool slightly, then discard the onion and the bouquet garni. Remove the pork belly, cut it into 2-inch squares, and set aside. Strain the beans and set aside, reserving the cooking liquid separately.

In a saute pan, heat all but 1 tablespoon of the duck fat over medium-high heat until it shimmers and becomes transparent. Carefully add the sausages and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside, draining on paper towels. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, brown the sliced onions, the garlic and the reserved squares of pork belly from the beans.  Once browned, remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add remaining 1 tablespoon of duck fat and puree until smooth. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350F. In a deep, ovenproof dish, arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, duck confit and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion and pork belly puree between each layer. Add enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans, reserving ½ cup in the refrigerator for later use. Cover and cook the cassoulet in the oven for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 250F and cook for another hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.

Day Three
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Cook the cassoulet uncovered for an hour. Break the crust on the top with the spoon and add about 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking liquid if it seems dry. Reduce the heat to 250F and continue cooking another 15 minutes.

Serves two plus generous leftovers for the next day, or four if you can share your duck legs nicely with others.

Duck Confit

Duck Leg Confit

Before Christmas, I was struck by the urge to serve a classic Cassoulet for our holiday dinner.  And as a building block for that savory dish, I decided to prepare my own duck legs confit.  I duly consulted the internet, my cook books, and my coworker Ira (a former chef and my go-to person for advice on big cooking projects).  Ira got all excited about this scheme, and we had several lively conversations about the best places to buy duck legs (he suggested an Asian grocery store, but I went with the upscale grocery near my house), where to buy huge quantities of rendered duck fat (I went with the Asian grocery store on that one), whether to confit an entire duck or just the legs, and several other miscellaneous conversations about unrelated duck recipes.  It was a lot of fun.

When I was ready to buy my ingredients,  I figured that if I was going to bother confiting duck legs, I might as well do a bunch, and keep the surplus on hand in the freezer for future need.  And I could give some away for Christmas presents!  In short, I decided to go big.  I made twelve.

It turns out that it actually would have been a lot less trouble to start with a more reasonable number of duck legs, like four.  For one thing, duck legs and duck fat are not cheap.  For another, working with that many legs is just unwieldy.  So maybe you can learn from my experience and start with two or four legs—truthfully, I know I will dive headfirst into my next big cooking project without sparing one second’s thought for lessons learned from the duck legs and will probably quadruple that recipe as well, then wonder what I got myself into.  It’s just what I do.

But regardless of quantity, making your own duck legs confit is not hard.  It does require planning ahead to allow time for curing, cooking, and resting in the refrigerator.  But duck legs in the fridge are like money in the bank.  There are so many delicious meals that you can make with the tender, succulent meat once it’s waiting for you, nicely preserved in an opulent bath of beautiful, beautiful duck fat.

Here’s the method for making the duck legs.  I’ll also share some ideas for how to use them in upcoming blog posts.

Duck Legs Confit

(adapted from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn)

  • duck legs
  • 8 grams of salt for every pound of meat
  • pepper
  • thyme
  • 1 sliced garlic clove per leg
  • ½ bay leaf per leg
  • approximately 8 oz additional duck fat per leg

Sprinkle duck legs with salt and put them in a nonreactive container (I used baking sheets lined with waxed paper).  Sprinkle with thyme, freshly ground pepper, and press garlic slices and broken bay leaves into each leg.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24-48  hours.

Rinse the duck under cold water, wiping off seasonings.  Pat dry.

Preheat the oven to between 180 and 200F.  I suggest checking oven temperature with a thermometer to make sure it is at least 180F.

Place the duck legs in a stockpot or Dutch oven.  You want them tightly packed, as they will need to be fully submerged in fat while they cook.  Cover with fat, bring to a simmer on stove top, then place in the oven and cook uncovered for between 6 and 10 hours (this will depend to some extent on how many duck legs you are cooking).  They are done when fat is clear, and the duck legs are very tender.

Remove from the oven and cool to near room temperature in the pot.  Move duck legs to one or more storage containers, pouring fat over legs and making sure they are completely submerged.  Refrigerate for up to a week to ten days.  Or freeze for longer.

Note that you can use pink salt (curing salt) to extend the shelf life of duck confit for up to six months—see instructions in Charcuterie or another manual for preserving meats.

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Elsewhere: Over at Edible Books, our February book selection is going to be The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister.  Join the conversation!

Eating Alone

Just the other day a friend told me she had taken herself out for a nice lunch and a glass of wine, and enjoyed them while reading a book.  All alone.  It sounded wonderful and relaxing.  And a little brave.

I don’t know that I have ever gone out for a real meal on my own.  And I’m not sure why not. Now that I think about it, there’s something irresistible about the idea.

A table for one or a solo seat at the bar in a nice restaurant.  Gleaming cutlery and sparkling glassware.  A cloth napkin in your lap.  Familiar restaurant sounds.  The pleasure of choosing from a menu.  The routine of drinks and food appearing at effortless intervals.  Your book propped in front of you.  The occasional glance around the busy room, then back to the unhurried enjoyment of both food and literature.

I have never sat in a restaurant as part of a snug group and looked pityingly upon a happy, intentional solo diner.  That embarrassed feeling at the prospect of asking for a table for one?  I’m pretty sure it’s a waste of energy.  Who’s looking, anyway?

Yes, I firmly believe in shared meals and the importance of community.  But must we always sing for our supper?  Sometimes I want to be a community of one, alone with my own thoughts and enjoying my own company.

Why don’t we all treat ourselves to the luxury of a solo meal more often?

Warm Salad

Of course, I eat plenty of peaceful, utilitarian solo dinners at home after work.  Lately I’ve been obsessed with warm salads and have been eating them every night.  The basic formula I’ve been following is this:

  • A big pile of hearty salad greens
  • A medium pile of warm roasted root vegetables (leftovers work great)
  • A hot sliced sausage, or shreds of duck meat, or leftover hamburger or steak or…
  • ½ avocado, diced
  • ½ tomato, diced

Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sherry vinegar.  Salt lightly and pepper generously.  Toss to coat with dressing.  The greens will wilt just a bit, comfortingly, and the whole meal is indescribably satisfying.

Winter Salsa

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Good stories have an arc.  We get to know a character.  Problems arise, choices are made, and there is a resolution eventually.  Sometimes that resolution is a neat answer to who killed Professor Mustard, other times it is less tidy–challenges surmounted, or coming of age.

Blogging is more about vignettes for me—snapshots that share moments in time as vividly as I can portray them, because I want you to taste something along with me, whether that is the grit in my mouth on a dusty street in Spain, or a Jamón ibérico so good it brings tears to my eyes.

Real life is messy.  It doesn’t fit into a clean arc with an intro, rising action, climax, and a satisfying dénouement.  This is one reason I am so fascinated by memoirs.  When they are done well, the seemingly disconnected moments of real life become part of a bigger story arc.  And I get to see and feel and taste right along with the author.

Book club met at Cindy’s last night.  The book was The Boy Kings of Texas, a memoir by Domingo Martinez.  We did something entirely new for our group.  We invited a guest.  Actually, we invited the author.  Yes we did!  And he was gracious enough to come spend an evening eating and drinking with us and answered about a million questions we threw at him, and even signed a few books.  It was a very lively evening, and I’d like to invite Domingo to all of my dinner parties from now on.

Maybe life doesn’t always come together like a novel in the end, and we don’t have full control over the arc it will take.  But we can write the script for the smaller moments, choosing to fill them with whatever delights our soul—friends or solitude as the moment demands, novelty, cats on laps, good books, and plenty of delicious meals.

We often have a dinner that matches our book selection at book club.  Not being authorities on full Tex-Mex, we went with a loosely Mexican food theme for The Boy Kings of Texas.  Diana brought a rich chili verde, beans and fideos.  We also had tortillas and salad and fruit and dessert and plenty of wine.

For the appetizer, I made this quick salsa.  In the height of summer, I might have made a pico de gallo type salsa.  January is just not the time for recipes that require good-tasting fresh tomatoes, so this particular salsa is perfect for winter as it relies on canned tomatoes.  I first started making this salsa (although in giant vats) when I worked as a prep cook in a Mexican restaurant during my first few years of college.  It has stood the test of time and will kick the cojones of any tub or jar of pre-made salsa from the store.  This produces a medium-heat salsa by my standards.  You can adjust the heat by increasing or decreasing the jalapenos a bit, or pouring in a little of the liquid from the jalapeno jar.  It makes quite a large bowl, so if it’s not for a party, you could scale it down by half, using a smaller can of tomatoes.  The only problem I have with it is a tendency to hog the entire bowl.

Winter Salsa

  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp diced fire-roasted green chiles (from a little can)
  • ½ cup sliced “nacho” jalapenos (the kind in a jar)
  • 5 green onions, sliced
  • ½ bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • Salt to taste (start with a small pinch)
  • Juice from the jalapeno jar if you want to increase the heat

Place chiles, jalapenos, onions, cilantro, and half the can of tomatoes in a deep bowl and use an immersion blender very judiciously—just enough to cut everything into small pieces, but not enough to fully blend.  This can also be done in a regular blender with just a few quick pulses.  Stir in the rest of the tomatoes and hit them once or twice with the blender if you want to make a few of the tomato chunks a bit smaller.  Taste and add salt as needed.  Taste several more times just for fun before serving.

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Elsewhere: We’re reading My Life in France by Julia Child over at Edible Books

What I Really Want for Christmas

Cats love Christmas too

I love the holidays.  But this can be an absolutely frantic time of year.  I was already mulling over my holiday priorities, somewhere in the back of my head, when I read a blog post by Tara at Tea & Cookies entitled What Do You Want From Christmas?  That post brought together exactly what I’d been vaguely ruminating on, and I decided to create my own list of what I want from Christmas this year, with thanks to Tara for the nudge in the right direction.

    • I want to decorate enough to feel festive and Christmasy, but not so much that I’m grumpy about having this endless task on my to-do list.  For me, that means a wreath, a Christmas tree, stockings, and a few mantle decorations.  Beautiful and sparkly.
    • I want to go to a few parties, but not too many.  I’ve learned over the years that the Christmas parties I enjoy most are the small, casual ones—filled with people I like, good food, drink, and laughter.  If I have to buy a new dress for the party, that’s a clue that I’m not going to enjoy it.  So I’m skipping the big parties—they just aren’t fun for me.
    • I want to give special presents to the special people in my life—gifts that they will rip the paper off, then gasp in delight.  I want to give gifts that say, “I love you and I thought about what you would really appreciate.”  But I don’t want to go to the mall.
    • I want to cook, but not spend all my free time cooking.  There may be some appetizers from Trader Joe’s appearing at my house over the holidays, while I concentrate on an unforgettable Cassoulet for Christmas dinner.  And maybe these Chocolate-dipped Green Tea Shortbread Cookies
    • I want really creamy milk chocolate, and lots of spectacular cheese, and White Russians mixed with a liberal hand.
  • Most of all, I want time.  Time to read in front of a crackling fire, to go on a walk and pick up smooth stones that feel good in my hand, to putter around aimlessly without an eye on the clock, to cuddle, and to daydream.

Christmas decorations

It occurs to me that the common thread running through many of my Christmas wishes is sufficiency—just enough of everything to be wonderful, but not so much as to become burdensome.  And enough is one of the secrets to happiness at any time of year.

What about you?  What do you want from the holidays this year? 

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Elsewhere: Read my post: What (else) We’re Reading at Edible Books