Mama Cass-oulet

Cassoulet may just be the ultimate winter comfort food. From the way the word rolls off the tongue, to the supple mouthfeel, the subtle, warm flavours, and the nourished, soporific feeling you have after consuming it… it’s the culinary equivalent of a down duvet cloaked in silk.

Even at its most stripped-down, cassoulet is a labour of love. The one we made for New Year’s Eve was perhaps more labourious and more loved than most. Hell, we did everything but grow the beans and raise the pigs ourselves.

The work commenced about 10 days ahead of time, when the pork belly began to transform itself into bacon, along the general lines of the recipe I blogged last fall. This time, I went with a less assertive treatment, omitting the maple and the smoking. I wanted the flavour of the beans in the cassoulet to be more prominent than that of the meaty garnishes.

The duck confit came next. Around the same time, because I didn’t have enough to do, I began the 2-day process of making Thomas Keller’s veal stock from The French Laundry Cookbook. I don’t intend to make a habit of this, I just felt the need to do the “uber-stock” for the first time in my life. In short, here’s how this insanity unfolds.

  • Start with 10 lbs of veal bones and a stock pot that can hold about 16 quarts. I had to use 2 pots.
  • Slowly, slowly, bring the bones up to a bare simmer in your stock cauldron, skimming all the time.
  • Remove them from the pot, and immediately rinse them in clean, warm water to remove impurities.
  • Wash the stock pot, return the bones to it, fill it with cold water, and return it to the stove.
  • Again, with agonizing slowness, return the water to a simmer, doing what? Yeah: skimming, skimming, skimming. Always.
  • After a few hours, add your aromatics: onion, leek, fresh tomato, a surprising amount of tomato paste, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, garlic, and carrot. Skim, skim, skim.
  • Ladle / gently pour the liquid – which is now triumphantly dubbed “Veal #1” – into a new vessel, keeping the solids in the pot. Quickly bring the liquid to fridge-ready temperature in a sink-full of ice-water (50% ice). If you’re not continuing to make the stock the same day (you probably won’t), do likewise with the solids.
  • Next: fill the stock pot – which still contains the solids – with water once more, and again, bring it to a simmer. Did I mention that you need to skim?
  • Simmer for approximately ever, then (once again assuming you aren’t continuing the process the same day) bring this liquid – now christened “Veal #2” – down to fridge temp. You can now safely discard the solids.
  • Finally, combine Veal #1 and Veal #2 in a clean pot. Simmer ’till the cows come home (maybe they’re looking for the veal?) skimming…skimming… for many hours.
  • According to Keller, you should reduce this to 2 quarts. I lost my nerve and my patience around 3.5 quarts. “Good enough!” I shouted.

That is Veal #1 being chilled. The final product was essentially fat-free.

Was it worth it? Hard to say. It is a helluva stock. Maybe a bit tomato-y for me. It’s intense in a Barry White kind of way: it’s dark, smooth, and all about the bass notes.

Where were we? Oh yeah – that was a sub-recipe for inclusion in the cassoulet! Onward… to make sausage. Chef C and I chose a mildly flavoured Toulouse-style French garlic sausage. We followed the procedure I’ve blogged about before, and we used this recipe from Len Poli – I can’t say enough good things about that recipe – it was just perfect.

We made a mess by overstuffing the sausages (maybe the casings had become a bit brittle over time?) but they remained coherent enough to survive being browned in a pan and sliced into the cassoulet.

So much for the sub-recipes! On to the main event. We went more or less with Anthony Bourdain’s recipe from his Les Halles Cookbook. Our adaptations: We used the unsmoked, roasted bacon in place of fresh pork belly, and some excellent quality Italian cannellini beans in place of the impossible-to-find-except-by-mail-order Tarbais beans. We used duck fat instead of pureed pork rind. We didn’t carefully layer the ingredients just-so. And we compressed Bourdain’s “day 2” and “day 3” together into one day.

At last, Chef C combined the beans, veal stock, bacon, sausage, and duck confit in an enamelled cast iron pot and put it in the oven, uncovered, to burble away happily for a couple of hours. We had to bump the temperature up to 375’F to get the burbling happening. Finally, the cassoulet developed its characteristic crust, and was ready to serve. It was received enthusiastically, and finished with blissful sighs.

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