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.

Spice Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Ducks in a Tub

This year, Santa brought a Sous Vide Supreme – a “water oven” that allows one to cook vacuum-packed food at a constant, precise (usually low) temperature.

Heirloom baby carrots, butter, sugar and salt ready for vacuum-packing: cooked sous vide and then briefly sautéed to finish the glaze, they are intensely carrot-y.

There are a few reasons to get into sous vide cooking:

  • Precision temperature control means no over- or under-cooking. You can cook a perfect soft-cooked egg every time.
  • It allows you to cook and hold items at a specific temperature for a relatively long period of time.
  • Flavour is captured in the cooking pouch – items can braise in a tiny amount of flavouring, along with their own juices. You don’t  lose any of the food’s inherent flavour to the cooking environment, and you can either supplement that flavour with other tastes, or just leave the main ingredient to taste intensely of itself.
  • Being able to cook at extremely low temperatures for extended periods of time allows you to produce effects that can’t be achieved through other means of cooking. For example, you can cook tough cuts of meat like brisket or short ribs long enough for them to become super-tender, while maintaining them at a medium-rare temperature.
  • It enables you to cook things to the same temperature all the way through, without drying them out. Consider the normal way of cooking a steak: hitting it with high heat and hoping that the centre will reach medium-rare before the outside is charred. You need to work hard to avoid an over-done outside, under-done inside, and toughening or drying out. Even if you do everything right, you end up with varying degrees of doneness. This gets to be more of a problem as you cook thicker cuts, like “baseball” tenderloin steaks and 2-inch thick T-bones for bistecca alla Fiorentina. In a water oven, you can gently bring the steak to a single, uniform temperature and doneness all the way through. If you want medium-rare steak, you set the oven at 135’F, and the steak can never get more done than that. Then just before serving, you blast the outside with some high heat to get that tasty, tasty crust.

Wild Pacific halibut vacuum-packed with Meyer lemon, and frozen olive oil and dill cubes. Freezing liquid ingredients allows the home sous vide-r to get by with a cheap Foodsaver (which is easily damaged by liquid intake), rather than a costly chamber vacuum.

This isn’t to say that everything done sous-vide is perfect, or that it’s appropriate all the time: sometimes you want the melding of flavours that a traditional oven braise provides, and sometimes it’s nice to have a leg of lamb that has some rare and some well done meat. Sous vide is just another cooking tool, and I’m enjoying learning to use it.

This year’s New Year’s Eve feast will include cassoulet. And that, my friends, means duck confit: lightly salt-cured duck legs cooked slowly in duck fat until they become succulent beyond belief.

There are a few things about duck confit that lend it to sous vide cooking:

  • It needs a constant, low temperature over several hours in order to become tender without seizing up or drying out.
  • Cooking it traditionally – in a pot in the oven – requires a heckuva lot of duck fat. Sous vide, you can just vac-pack the legs with a couple of tablespoons of fat, and depend on water to transfer the heat.

For the curing and flavouring, I turned to Michael Ruhlman – the recipe is on his website, but can also be found in his excellent resource, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

Duck legs in a melange of salt, garlic, pepper, clove, bay leaves and thyme.

After 48 hours in the fridge, I rinsed the duck legs, patted them dry, and got ready to vacuum pack them with duck fat.

Foodsaver, bags, duck fat, and cured duck legs.

For a good vacuum seal, you need to ensure that the edge of the bag is kept clean and dry. Folding the edge over itself is the easiest way to do this. Plus, you end up with a bunch of bags that look like they’re saying “NOM NOM FEED ME DUCK AND FAT NOW.”

Or are they singing Christmas carols?

Giving each leg its own pouch avoids the trouble of having to separate the delicate confited legs from each other.

Sous vide cognoscenti have differing opinions regarding the optimal time and temperature settings for confit. They typically range from 165’F to 180’F, and from 8 to 12 hours. As usual, I take Thomas Keller’s advice – in his pioneering book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, he recommends 180’F for 8 hours.

What's 0.3'F between friends?

Rub a dub dub, 6 legs = 3 ducks in a tub.

Got botulism? No thanks. Unless you're serving sous vide food immediately, you need to plunge it into a 50% ice / water bath and keep it there as long as the guidelines specify – this is a function of temperature and food thickness.

After coming out of the ice bath, one leg went into a hot-but-not-smoking cast iron skillet for 30 seconds each side. I wish I could tell you it came out looking like this:

… but it took a minute with the brûlée torch to get its sides and corners nicely browned. Next time, I’ll do the browning under the broiler.

How did it taste?

Pretty amazing. Definitely on the salty side of fantastic, but for its intended uses – in a salad, and as a cassoulet garnish – it’s great. The texture was unbelievable – still holding together, but falling away into silky strands on the fork. The garlic (which I was skeptical about) ended up being a really special flavour. Robust, but not at all aggressive.

Next time, as someone who likes to eat duck confit as a main course rather than a garnish, I’d probably cut the curing time down to 12 hours or even 6: in Under Pressure, Keller uses a 6-hour cure; Ruhlman, in Charcuterie, advises between 24 and 48 hours. Presumably, the sous vide method intensifies the saltiness.

Duck Sticks, Five Times Fast


We’ve been cooking from Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s (hereafter: JGV) Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges. It’s cool in that it stretches us just a bit beyond the usual Euro-cuisine that dominates our cooking, without moving into full-on Asian cookery.

One of the highlights so far has been Duck Sticks: spring rolls filled with a duck-confit-based mixture.

Yes, I KNOW... but it tastes good, okay?

To my shame, I didn’t have time to confit duck. So, we bought some good quality prepared confit and mixed it with daikon, garlic, carrots and scallions that had been sauteed in 5-spice powder. It was a good compromise.

You make bath-time so much fun!

Oddly, JGV does not serve this with his duck mustard, the recipe for which is in the same book. We did. As adapted by us, the duck mustard went a little something like this:

1 cup Apricot jam
2 Tbsp sweet horseradish jam (optional – we had it on hand)
2 Tbsp dry mustard
5 inch section of fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp nam pla
1 Tbsp Japanese rice wine vinegar

Reconstitute the mustard in 1 Tbsp of warm water for 10 minutes. Add it to the rest of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopper blade. Process until smooth. You’re done.

We accidentally improved the duck stick recipe by forgetting to include the pickled ginger in the filling, serving it alongside instead. All diners were confident that this was a better way to go.