Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Cassoulet Chronicles

A chef at my school was the guest of honor at a local restaurant's Family Style Dinner. The main dish: Cassoulet.

This is a pot of beans from southern France. It always contains white beans. It probably contains pork. After that, it may have duck, goose, lamb, tomato and varying degrees of herbal seasonings. Bread crumbs with a bit of fat and cooking juice go on the top, that form a crust during baking. Cassoulet fanatics argue about the next point, but basically the crust should be broken up, mixed into the cooking liquids and allowed to re-form at least once. There are versions from Agen, Toulouse, Castelnaudry. All different, all authentic.

Our chef called it "French pork and beans". I'd seen the meats in various stages of preparation in the school kitchen. Confit de canard. Pork belly. It smelled incredible, yet I managed to resist grabbing a chunk and absconding with the evidence.

I was not sure I'd be able to attend the dinner, so I decided I'd try a piggy version of the dish myself. Instead of very expensive duck, I'd use slow cooked pork. The herbs would be the same: fresh thyme and laurel. There would be a bit of garlic, the beans and the bread crumbs with a bit of duck fat to make the crumbs interesting. Minimal and basic. No lamb, nothing expensive.

I've made my version of Cassoulet - something I prefer to call Haricot de mouton so as not to offend cassoulet purists. The main meat is lamb shanks, a bit of pork, garlic sausages, herbs, beans, etc. This time, I would not be able to fall back on the full flavored lamb to carry the dish. It would be a much more subtle beast.

As it turned out, I did attend the chef's dinner. The cassoulet was interesting. Less herbal than I expected, but with a nice porky note from all that pork belly. There were a few pieces of duck but they were cast in a supporting role under the porky lead. The beans were perfectly seasoned and cooked. Quite different than what I was used to, but a definite success nonetheless.

I'd already begun preparation for my cassoulet, so this was definitely my dish of the week. I'd already decided what I would do, so I knew the taste would be different than the chef's dinner.

I'll just say that it came out nice, not especially traditional, and that I ate too much both nights. So, without further ado, here's the recipe (my first in this blog, take note!)

Cassoulet de Carnitas

Yield: serves about 5-6 people - or reheats well for leftovers.

  • 5 pound pork shoulder roast, bone in, cut into 3" - 4" pieces. Leave some meat on the bone.
  • 7 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 1-1/2 cup of Cannoli beans.  If you love beans, use two cups. If you're a gazillionaire, use French Tarbais beans. Make sure you check the price first, because I'm really not joking about the millionaire part.
  • 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 3 bay leaves, fresh
  • stale bread cut into 1/2" cubes
  • about 2 tablespoons duck fat
  • 1 strip of bacon
  • about 1/4 cup of herbes de provence, dry
  • Water to cover the beans twice. If the beans are 1" deep, add 2" water.
  • About 1/2 cup of sherry
1. Soak the beans overnight in salted water with the herbes de provence and half the garlic (you can use dried garlic and save the fresh stuff for later - if so, don't peel the garlic until the day you add it to the pot.

2. The next day, pour out the salted water through a strainer.

3. Place the beans in fresh water with the garlic, bacon, pork bone and herbs and cook without salting the water until they're just tender.

4. While the beans are cooking, tightly place the pork pieces in a pan with just enough water to cover and some salt and cook at low heat until the pork is falling apart tender and the water has evaporated. Pay close attention toward the end so that you don't burn the pieces. The goal is for them to fry gently in the rendered fat. If this looks familiar, it's the basic recipe for carnitas.

5. Turn the pork pieces to brown them in the fat, then drain off the fat. The pork, basically Mexican carnitas, can also be considered a confit of sorts, just the thing to throw into a nice cassoulet.

6. Transfer the pork and the beans to an oven proof dish and mix them well. Either remove the meat from the bone or just toss the whole piece in. Massage the bread crumbs in the duck fat and press them down onto the surface of the meat & bean mixture.

7. Bake at about 300° F until a crust forms, then break the crust. Check that there is still liquid. You may need to add water or stock to keep things juicy.

8. When a second crust forms, you can eat. No need to be fanatical about multiple crusts since this is a non-traditional recipe.

9. Serve with a nice Cahors (a Malbec from France), a Côtes du Rhône or other Burgundy style wine like a Portuguese Dão. The only other thing you might want is some hearty, crusty sourdough or levain style bread.

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