Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Cassoulet Journal Entry #3: The Party

If you haven't seen my first two posts you can check them out here:



And the cooking continues...

So on day 467 of cassoulet prep it is time to confit your duck legs. To "confit" a piece of meat is to cook it low and slow in its own fat. This serves two purposes: the meat can be left in the fat, cooled so that the fat congeals and seals the meat in, and preserved for months in this state. It also makes an incredibly tender and delicious preparation of what might be considered a less noble cut of meat. I have to admit I cheated a little bit here. I knew I wouldn't be able to render enough fat out of one duck to confit two good sized duck legs so I bought an additional jar of duck fat. And even then I didn't have quite enough to cover both legs (and I won't be having any uncovered legs at one of my parties). So in a moment of Archimedesian brilliance I came up with this solution...

I think an alternate title for this blog could be "Cooking with the Natural Sciences," or maybe "Mike's Janky-Ass Kitchen." Anyway, I lobbed the top off a head of garlic, stuck a clove in and threw it in the pot. I let this cook just below a simmer for about 2 1/2 hours until the meat was tender. Here's the result:

Maybe not the prettiest thing in the world yet, but these will be thrown in a low-medium frying pan to let the skin crisp up a bit before going into the cassoulet, and I promise they taste damn-good.

Meanwhile, I prepared my pate to go in the oven. I lined a terrine with blanched bacon, thoroughly mixed the pork and duck liver mixtures and spooned the resulting mixture into the terrine, put another layer of bacon over the top, threw a bay leaf and a couple sprigs of thyme on top. Then covered the terrine with a piece of foil, cut out a piece of cardboard to evenly fit over the top, and put it and a couple heavy cans on top to weigh down and compact the pate to make it easier to cut when finished. If I remember correctly, I let it rest with the cans on top in the fridge for 24 hours before cooking it. When I was ready to cook, I took the cans and cardboard off, put the terrine in another, wider baking dish (filled with water so that the water came up to about an inch on the side of the terrine) then let this cook in a 350-degree oven for 1 1/2-2 hours. When it was done, I took it out and let it cool with the cardboard and weight back on top. I let this rest in the fridge for another day or two before serving. Here's the result:

Back to the Cassoulet...

Now we have to cook the beans. This is the part I was most nervous about. The quality of the beans really makes or breaks a cassoulet, and so many people claim a cassoulet is not a cassoulet without tarbais beans. I used cannellini beans because I would have had to take out a loan to pay for enough tarbais beans to make this big of a cassoulet, and the interest rates on bean loans are through the roof these days. I figured it's a nice, medium-sized, starchy white bean, it should do the trick.

I cooked the beans in a pot of water with some carrots, one halved onion studded with cloves, a few whole garlic cloves, the sausages, a hunk of pancetta, and a bouquet-garni. I cooked all this until the beans were just under-done, for about an hour and a half. Then I took out the pancetta, chopped it up and braised in a white wine and tomato sauce, which would later become part of the liquid base for the cassoulet.

Now it's time to cook the sausage and duck.

I crisped up the confit duck legs, browned the sausages, and pan-seared the duck breast I didn't use in the pate. 

We are now in the home stretch. All that's left is assembling and cooking the cassoulet.

Alternate layers of beans and meat in your casserole...

Continue this process until you run out or fill your casserole...

Finish with a layer of beans and pour in braising liquid, filling the casserole just barely below the top layer of beans. If you don't have enough braising liquid use the cooking liquid left over from cooking the beans.

Cover with a layer of breadcrumbs and chopped parsley. This is an optional step and a controversial one that varies region to region, but I think the breadcrumbs add to the symphony of textures that is the cassoulet. I spooned a generous layer of duck fat over the top as well to assist in browning the top layer. 

Then you cook it in a 300 degree oven, occasionally basting the top layer with the braising liquid or bean juice as the liquid reduces. And every forty minutes or so, whenever a crust forms on the top you should use a wooden spoon to break the crust into the cassoulet. Continue this process until the top is perfectly golden brown and the beans are perfectly tender. I think it took me about two and a half hours.

In the meantime, we ate oysters.

The smaller ones with the ridges on the shell were from Washington state and they were cool, and fresh tasting with a nice cucumber water kind of quality to them. The bigger greenish ones were from PEI and they were briney, dank and delicious. And I'm proud to say there were no shucking related trips to the hospital, which always puts a damper on a party. 

We also ate the pate, which turned out wonderfully if I do say so myself, along with a smattering of other delicious things.

And then finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the cassoulet was ready. 

We finished our meal with a number of badass cheeses, from the incredible Bedford Cheese Shop in Williamsburg Brooklyn. We had a Rodolphe le Meunier Saintalin, a cow's milk cheese from Tours which was dank and funky but in a subtle pretty way if that makes any sense, a nutty and simply delicious Fricalin made by Caroline Hostettler in Switzerland, also cow's milk, and a grassy, savory, and voluptuously creamy sheep's milk cheese called Brebirousse D'argental from Auvergne. I forgot to take pictures, which is unfortunate, because there really is nothing sexier than a cheese plate.

Oh and I almost forgot to mention, we drank some wine as well. 

With the oysters we had a 2010 Alice and Olivier De Moor Chablis, an awesome Cremant du Jura from Chais du Vieux Bourg, and a Muscadet from Jo Landron. We also drank my one remaining Ducroux "Prologue" Beaujolais nouveau, which was a pretty unbeatable companion to the pate.

And with the Cassoulet a 2010 Domaine de la Marfee "Della Francesca," a 2010 Montirius Vacqueyras "Le Clos", a 2008 "Lecinquevigne" Barolo from Damilano, and a 2009 Domaine du Gour de Chaule Gigondas Cuvee Tradition.

All these wines, with the exception of the Ducroux, were new to me. Between cooking and socializing I didn't manage to keep diligent tasting notes but there were definitely some clear highlights as well as some head-scratchers. All of the whites were nice but weren't necessarily great for oysters. This was my first De Moor Chablis and I had pretty high expectations, and I was surprised by its rich, lactic sort of quality. It lacked that cutting, stony acidity I associate with Chablis and instead was sort of rich and opulent, at least by Chablis standards. It was definitely delicious, but it wasn't what I was hoping for in this context. The Landron was also a bit puzzling, very fruit forward, also not what I was expecting. Maybe I just have no idea what Chablis and Muscadet wines are actually like...The Cremant du Jura was awesome though, rich and savory but with a great backbone of acidity. It was a great foil for the funk of the PEI oysters. 

The reds were all great. The cassoulet was a good excuse for me to drink some bigger southern French wines like a Gigondas or Vacqueyras which are definitely out of my wheelhouse. The 2010 Domaine de la Marfee "Della Francesca" was a definite highlight. This wine is from the Languedoc region in South-West France, which is the birthplace of cassoulet and a treasure trove of red wine values. Very fruit forward, but in a fresh, pleasant, not overly ripe way, which perfectly balanced the richness of the meal. And we found that Barolo is also a surprisingly winning combination with Cassoulet. 

But, most importantly, none of the wines overshadowed the comfort-food rusticity that makes cassoulet so specialor the laid back good times that come with sharing simple, soulful food with good friends. Now that it's springtime and I've had some time to recover financially from this party, it's time to start planning the next! Bouillabaisse perhaps?