Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Quickie Cassoulet

My husband is kookoo for cassoulet. Therefore, it has long been my goal to make a cassoulet completely from scratch. Before I got really into cooking, I used to pick recipes based on what looked easy/do-able. But now I just make the things that I (and a few lucky loved ones) really crave, effort-be-damned. We tapped my father-in-law for the deets, since he's from cassoulet central, aka Castelnaudary. He told us that the selection of meats doesn't really matter, but we had to make sure to get lingot beans, which are skinnier than normal white beans. Sadly, we failed to find the one critical ingredient, but I tried my best nonetheless.

Cassoulet definitely involves some ingredient hunting, which is a marvelous excuse for me to drag my husband down to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. We bought some beautiful dried cannellinis from Dirty Girl farms, and duck confit from Boulette's Larder. There was only one lonely-looking Toulouse sausage left at Golden Gate, so I made a supplementary trip out to Andronico's for some garlic sausages. The breadcrumbs came courtesy of a long-term project involving me, my Cuisinart, and my freezer. I've finally figured out what to do with all the stale bread that accumulates in our house. (Blitz in the food processor, place crumbs in a freezer bag, and freeze for future cassoulet and/or meatball making occasions). They're basically free, and one hundred times better than the weird store-bought breadcrumbs, which appear to be made of sawdust.
I worked mostly off of this recipe by Paula Wolfert, except—true to form—I neglected to take into account the 6-8 hour cooking time and I'd already soaked the beans overnight. What follows is a highly compressed version of her timeline, the results of which passed muster with my French husband. Interpret that as you will. I choose to interpret it as a free pass to make cassoulet in two hours instead of six. I wasn't sure that I'd be able to recreate that unctuous, savory sauce that the beans swim around in. Turns out that melted carrots + salt pork = slightly sweet/slightly salty/total deliciousness.

Quickie Cassoulet
(inspired by Paula Wolfert and Saveur Magazine)
1 lb dried white beans (lingot if available, flageolet or cannelini if not)
Duck fat (from the confit) and/or olive oil
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and smashed
2 medium onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 smoked ham hocks
½ lb salt pork (in one piece)
1 lb pork shoulder, cut into chunks
1 box (4 cups) of low-sodium chicken broth
4 pork sausages
1 plum tomato, chopped
2-4 duck confit legs
1 cup homemade bread crumbs
½ cup parsley, chopped

Bouquet Garni
4 sprigs oregano
4 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves

Previous Night: Soak a pound of white beans overnight in enough water to cover.

1. Heat about two tablespoons of duck fat (or olive oil) in the bottom of a Dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the pork shoulder cubes in the fat and set aside. Add the carrots and onions (and more olive oil if necessary) and cook until onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Then add the smashed garlic to the pot.

Meanwhile, in a separate pot, boil the salt pork and the ham hocks for about 10 minutes. This will rid them of some of their saltiness.

2. Now, add back the ingredients: browned pork, boiled salt pork and ham hocks, soaked beans (drain them first), chopped tomato, and bouquet garni (in a metal mesh strainer or cheesecloth) into the Dutch oven containing the carrots, onions, and garlic. Add the box of chicken broth and a cup or two of water. Bring the entire pot to a boil and then turn down to a simmer for about an hour, or until the beans are cooked but still have some bite to them.

3. Roughly 15 minutes before the beans are cooked, take the duck confit and fry it in a pan, for a few minutes on each side. Set aside. Now take the sausages and grill them in the duck fat for a few minutes per side, until cooked through. The stew should be adequately salted from the salt pork and ham hocks, but if not, salt to taste.

4. Preheat the oven to 350° F.

5. Once beans are cooked, remove the bouquet garni. Cut the meat from the ham hocks into bite-sized pieces and discard the bones. You can also throw out the salt pork, unless you are very cavalier about your cholesterol levels. Arrange the pan-fried duck and sausages on top of the stew. Then mix the breadcrumbs with the chopped parsley and cover the entire surface of your cassoulet with the breadcrumb mix. Drizzle the remaining duck fat (from the pan) on top.
6. Place the cassoulet (uncovered) in the oven for about 45 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned. You can turn the broiler on for a few minutes at the end to help the browning process.
Now let's pretend for a moment that you are not French. And that your tolerance for eating a bowl full of pork products cooked in duck fat is limited to maybe...once a week, tops. The good news is that cassoulet freezes very nicely. I popped the leftovers into individually-sized Snapwares and created perhaps the fanciest tv dinner ever. Which means that some of us can get back to eating soup noodles for virtually every meal, as God intended.

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