Friday, January 14, 2011

Cassoulet, s’il vous plaît

With all the French food I've been making and eating in the New Year, from Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours, and now with our first Daring Cooks' Challenge of the year, I better brush up on my French! How do you say, "please slather a few more duck fat pounds on my thighs?"

Our January 2011 Challenge comes from Jenni of The Gingered Whisk and Lisa from Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. They have challenged the Daring Cooks to learn how to make a confit and use it within the traditional French dish of Cassoulet. They have chosen a traditional recipe from Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman.

Anthony Bourdain is an American author and chef, whose interests include traveling around the world as an "advocate for communicating the value and tastiness of traditional or "peasant" foods, including specifically all of the varietal bits and unused animal parts not usually eaten by affluent 21st-century Westerners." (Note: Our challenge recipe includes lining the pan with a layer of pork rind ...thanks, but no thanks). Michael Ruhlman is an author, food writer and blogger, and has also made several appearances in shows hosted by Bourdain.

Confit ("con-fee") is a generic term for various kinds of food that have been immersed in a substance for both flavor and preservation. Confit of duck (confit de canard) is usually prepared from the legs of the bird. The meat is salted and seasoned with herbs, and slowly cooked submerged in its own rendered fat. The meat is preserved by allowing it to cool, and then storing it in the fat. Meat confits are a specialty of the southwest of France and are used in dishes such as cassoulet, which is a rich, slow-cooked bean stew or casserole typically containing pork sausages, pork, goose, duck, pork skin, and white beans.

Cassoulet is named for the cassole, a distinctive, round earthenware pot with deep, slanting sides in which cassoulet is traditionally cooked. Cassoulet is said to date back to the 14th century siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years' War, when citizens created a communal dish so hearty their revivified soldiers sent the invaders packing.

Cookbook author, Paula Wolfert, describes cassoulet as "one of those dishes over which there is endless drama. Like bouillabaisse in Marseilles, paella in Spain, and chili in Texas, it is a dish for which there are innumerable recipes and about which discussions quickly turn fierce."

After hearing of this challenge, I was excited to order my first shipment of heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, in Napa Valley.

Rancho Gordo says their flageolet beans make an excellent substitute
for the traditional, yet elusive, Tarbais bean when making cassoulet

When my beans arrived, I then set out to find the remaining ingredients. After completing my shopping, I was tempted to name this post One Hundred Dollar Cassoulet, but it wasn't quite that bad. Heirloom beans, two cups of duck fat, four duck thighs, two pounds of pork belly, six garlic sausages - these are not inexpensive ingredients, nor are they readily available unless you have well-stocked gourmet markets in your neighborhood. I was able to find everything at Bristol Farms and Iowa Farms Meats. I could have found the beans locally, but I've heard so much about Rancho Gordo and had the pleasure of tasting some of their beans last summer.

This recipe needs to be prepared over at least two days. I do recommend saving it for a special occasion or dinner party.

The first step is preparing the duck confit. This is accomplished by liberally sprinkling salt over four duck legs, and evenly scattering with some garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and a little pepper. The duck is then covered and refrigerated for 1-2 days.

D'Artagnan Duck Fat

On day 2 or 3, depending on how long you refrigerated the duck, you are then ready to complete the confit by poaching the duck in the cherished duck fat, at a low oven temperature. The confit must be cooked slowly, at a very slow simmer, until the duck is tender and can be easily pulled from the bone, about 2-3 hours.

Duck legs covered with melted duck fat, with some thyme, rosemary, and garlic

After a few hours in the oven

At this point, the duck can then be refrigerated, in the cooled and hardened fat, until you are ready to complete the cassoulet.

You will need to soak the dried beans in fresh water overnight. The beans are then cooked with the slab of pork belly, onion, parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf.

The pork belly is removed from the beans after cooking and cut into smaller pieces. Based on the advice of fellow Daring Cook, Robert, an awesome chef in Alaska, I crisped up the pork belly pieces after I browned my garlic sausage. Otherwise, you will have pieces of very fatty pork belly throughout the cassoulet.

Bristol Farms carries fresh garlic sausage.
You can also use another type of pork sausage.

Pork Belly and Garlic Sausages

After browning the sausages and pork belly in a little duck fat, I sauteed two onions, added some tomato paste, deglazed the pan with white wine, and blended the onions in the blender

Blended onion puree

The finished Cassoulet...a large Dutch Oven is necessary to hold all of the meats and beans

"Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.
-Julia Child, Julia Child and More Company Cassoulet for a Crowd


Adapted from Cassoulet by Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman (as featured on the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations”)
Serves 4-8

Ingredients for Duck Confit

4 whole duck legs (leg and thigh)
Coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
2 cups duck fat
1 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
6 garlic cloves
4 bay leaves

Day One

1. Rub the duck legs fairly generously with sea salt, place in the shallow dish. Distribute four sprigs of thyme, 4 crushed garlic cloves, and 4 bay leaves around the duck legs. Cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight.

Day Two

1. Preheat the oven to moderately hot 375ºF

2. Render (melt) the duck fat in the saucepan until clear.

3. Rinse the duck legs and pat dry. Season with black pepper, and place the duck legs in the clean, ovenproof casserole.

4. Nestle the remaining thyme sprigs, rosemary and remaining 2 gloves of garlic in with the duck legs, and pour the melted duck fat over the legs to just cover.

5. Cover the dish with foil and put in the oven. Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the skin at the "ankle" of each leg pulls away from the "knuckle." The meat should be tender.

6. If you are not cooking the cassoulet on Day Two, you can allow the duck and duck fat to cool and then store as is in the refrigerator, sealed under the fat. When you need the confit, warm the whole dish, melting the fat, and remove the duck, allowing the excess fat to drip off.

Ingredients for Cassoulet

2 pounds dried Tarbais beans, or white beans such as Flageolet, Great Northern or Cannelini
2 1/4 pounds fresh pork belly
1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
1 bouquet garni (tie together two sprigs parsley, 2 sprigs thyme and one bay leaf)
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 Garlic Sausages (or other pork sausages)
2 onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup white wine
1 14 oz. can low-sodium chicken broth
1 28 oz. can whole, peeled, Italian tomatoes, drained
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
4 confit duck legs
2 cups Panko bread crumbs sauteed in 2 tablespoons olive oil until golden brown (optional)

Day One

1. Place the beans in the large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least 2 or 3 inches. Soak overnight.

Day Two

1. Drain and rinse the beans and place in the large pot.

2. Add the pork belly, the quartered onion, and the bouquet garni.

3. Cover with water, about 2 inches above the beans, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about one hour, until the beans are tender. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Let cool for 20 minutes, then discard the onion and the bouquet garni.

5. Remove the pork belly, cut it into 2-inch/5-cm squares, and set aside.

6. Strain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid separately. To the beans, add the chicken broth and tomatoes, breaking up the tomatoes with your hands. Mix well, bring to a simmer, and turn off heat.

7. In a sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers.

8. Add the sausages and brown on all sides. Remove sausages and set aside, draining on paper towels.

9. In the same pan, over medium heat, saute the pork belly until some of the fat is rendered off and it starts to crisp up a bit. Remove pork belly and set aside, draining on paper towels.

10. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, brown the sliced onions and garlic, for about 7-10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and saute another minute. Add the white wine and continue to saute until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and purée until smooth. Set aside.

11. Preheat the oven to moderate 350ºF.

12. Arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, then pork belly, beans, duck confit and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion purée between each layer.

13. Add 1 cup of the bean cooking liquid.

14. Cook the cassoulet, uncovered, in the oven for one hour. Carefully remove from the oven distribute the panko bread crumbs evenly over the top of the cassoulet.

15. Reduce the oven temperature to 300ºF and continue cooking for another two hours. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

NEWF NOTES: I did make some variations from the recipe provided for this Challenge. Primarily, I omitted lining the bottom of the pan with pork rind or bacon (I felt there was enough pork with the sausages and pork belly). My addition of white wine, tomato paste, chicken broth, Italian tomatoes, and use of Panko bread crumbs, was based on Thomas Keller's Cassoulet recipe. Finally, browning the pork belly to render off the additional fat and crisp it up a bit was based on a suggestion in the Daring Cooks' forum, and is highly recommended.  Leftovers freeze well.

You can find the full recipe in The Daring Kitchen Recipe Archive, here. Phenomenal challenge, Jenni and Lisa! Excusez-moi, but I must now get back to my diet (and my French lessons). Merci beaucoup!


Audax said...

I cannot believe how much effort you put into this challenge and the cost is amazing! That final photograph is stunning wonderful result. I love the detail and attention you put into this challenge bravo!

Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

David and Stacy said...

Our Dutch Oven was definitely bursting at the seams...

Well done on a great result!


Lisa said...

Denise, certainly one of the most beautiful cassoulets in the challenge - but you guys always turn out gorgeous dishes, BUT, it's hard to make cassoulet look beautiful :) Love all the effort you put into it, and I'd be happy to come by and help finish all the leftovers! Thanks so much for taking part in our challenge!

Steph said...

What an amazing effort! Your dish looks stunning and I wish I'd been in the neighborhood to help you eat this. Lovely job!

Creating Nirvana said...

Your confit looks amazing! Great job on this challenge.

Carmen said...

Love this! The pureed onion saute is a great idea for any baked bean dish.

Kim said...

Not to sound like a broken record, but duck confit and cassoulet is ALSO on our list to make this year. Like Bourdain, we're big fans of "peasant food." But we like to call the dishes "rustic." :P Just need to find time to be able to do this on "day one" and "day two."