Last fall I was in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France which is known for it's duck dishes and another odd standout - Cassoulet. It's a standout because so much of French food is elegant and fine that you'd be hard pressed to identify Cassoulet as French. The truth is Cassoulet is peasant food and is great for those cold winter months.
About two weeks ago when it was cold and wet out I got the itch to have Cassoulet. It's taken a week to get the ingredients (at any cost) and even then I didn't get them all so I had to substitute a few things. To those unfamiliar with Cassoulet it is, according to wikipedia "a rich, slow-cooked bean stew or casserole originating in the south of France, containing meat (typically pork sausages, pork, goose, duck and sometimes mutton), pork skin (couennes) and white haricot beans". I had most everything but the pork skins so I decided to go ahead with the show. As you may have noticed this is definitely a meat eaters dish with only beans being the exception to that rule. Actually in preparing it you use vegetables but funny enough you strain them out and throw them away before finishing the last cooking step. Yes, you strain the vegetables and throw them away.
The ingredients list reads something like this:
- 2 pounds ham hocks, semi-salted with 1 cup coarse salt (see Note 1)
- 2 pounds medium-size dried white haricot or Great Northern white beans (about 4 cups), soaked in water to cover overnight
- 2 pounds confit de canard
- ½ pound salt pork
- ¼ pound pancetta (replaces traditional petit salé)
- 1 pound fresh pork skin
- ½ cup duck fat from the confit
- 1 ½ pounds saucisse de Toulouse
- 1 ¾ pounds pork shoulder
- 1 ½ pounds mutton or lamb shoulder
- 2 medium-size onions, peeled, and each studded with 2 cloves
- 1 large carrot, sliced into rounds
- 1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 10 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- Bouquet garni, tied in cheesecloth (10 sprigs fresh parsley, 10 sprigs fresh thyme, 2 bay leaves)
- 2 quarts bottled imported Evian
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 cups fresh bread crumbs made from a French baguette
It does actually have 19 ingredients! One of those ingredients takes 4-6 weeks to make (confit de canard), one is impossible to get (saucisse de Toulouse) and another I had to substitute with pancetta. The hardest one to get was the confit de canard which currently sells for it's price in gold. In lieu of buying it I decided to make confit de canard except - only I did the 1 day recipe instead of the 4-6 week recipe ie. I didn't let it set in the fridge for 6 weeks before using. Even cutting short the recipe by 6 weeks it still ended up being a three day process - one day soaking and rinsing beans and salting ham hocks, one day cutting, browning and cooking meat and one day of making the final product.
I had so many ingredients that I had to use two dutch ovens in order to cook it properly. Duck fat was especially difficult to hunt down (pun intended) but I ended up finding it in Chinatown (er, I mean the International District) at Uwajamaya Market. Armed with duck fat, lamb shoulder, ham hocks, duck legs and breasts, pork shoulder, pancetta, salt pork and one or two vegetables I set out to make Cassoulet. The recipe calls for cutting up all the meats and browning them in the Dutch oven, once that's done you add the vegetables and bouquet garni and bring it to a boil. Then add all the meats back in and simmer for about 90 minutes. Doesn't seem too bad quite yet until you realize you spent several hours cutting all the meats, dismembering a duck, browning sausages and cutting vegetables. At this point you're invested about 4 hrs. After 90 minutes of simmering I let both Dutch ovens cool (it took hours thanks to the heavy cast iron they're made of) and put them in the fridge. Four hours working on a recipe and I don't get to eat it yet.
That was yesterday. Today I figured I just had to put it back in the oven to warm through and I remembered something had to be done with bread crumbs. Thankfully I checked the recipe at about 2 pm because the second stage has to cook four more hours.This section is more fun because I took my new clay pot that I bought from TJ-Maxx specially for this purpose and laid down salt pork in the bottom, added a layer of beans then a layer of all the various meats - duck, lamb shoulder, pork shoulder and so on then covered it with another layer of beans. I poured the broth reserved from the vegetables until it covered the beans then layered the bread crumbs over it. A sprinkling of the bread crumbs with duck fat completed the process and it went in an oven at 275 degrees F for four more hours. Every half an hour the crust needed to be cracked and turned so it became thoroughly soaked in juices. When done we let it cool for a bit before digging in.
You're probably expecting an OMG!! This is soooo good! right? If so you're lost - you should have taken a left back there at the off ramp to MySpace. Cassoulet is a very subtle dish and I can remember my impressions of it in France (both Toulouse Cassoulet and Carcassonne Cassoulet) - the beans are boring. This is my first impression here too as well as both Jade and Piper's impressions. Jade said "it just tastes like meat and beans". Maybe that's because it IS meat an beans. As you take your second bite you notice some depth then you take your third and so on. This is a dish that you have to eat when it's cold and rainy (or cold and snowy) and it grows on you. The juice is very flavorful and the meat tastes wonderful as does the breadcrumb crust. The beans stay boring but I guess they're an important traditional element.
Is it worth it? No, of course not but then making a lot of French food isn't worth the time but I still do it because there's something else to it, something that's intangible. I don't know what it is but to have good food it takes good effort. If we look at the amount of time involved in preparing food in relation to the amount of time it takes to eat it to determine if it's worth it then we probably shouldn't be discussing food should we? Food is art. Food is experience. Food is a family spending time together talking without the distractions of technology. Food draws people together and provides a common point of reference. I think I'll be making this again and I'll definitely be making confit de canard even if it takes 6 weeks.
June 10th 2012,
I thought I'd update this item since I now make Cassoulet several times a year. It's interesting to read my first hand opinions above. Cassoulet started out as a "checklist item" where you do it once just to say you did. Then I decided to make it again and did a better job, then I went to a French restaurant and realized mine has flavor as good as theirs my beans stunk. I returned to the beans and continued working with dried beans and eventually nailed them. They're now as smooth as butter and very flavorable. I've also doubled the amount of duck, cut back on the pork shoulder and realized that pig skin is a necessary ingredient. I've also learned the hard way that this is a 3 day dish, not a 2 day dish. One day making the confit, one day cooking the cassoulet ingredients and one day cooking the combined cassoulet. After trying to squeeze it into 2 days I realized that I lost a lot of flavor. Such is life. Now that I've cooked this about 8 times I've darn near nailed it. IMHO my cassoulet tastes better than the stuff in the restaurants. This fall when I make it again I'll put up a proper recipe.