Joe Deconstructed This Cassoulet

Tipplers March 2008 Tasting 

Certain iconic dishes have the power to arouse high passions. If you want to start a verbal food fight in a marketplace in southwestern France, just ask a group of shoppers how they make cassoulet, and stand back.

Everyone can agree on the basics: white beans, meats, aromatic herbs, and vegetables assembled in a casserole and left to cook in an oven, slowly and mostly unattended. With time, the beans are coaxed to creaminess, and all the elements meld into the hearty winter classic that is almost synonymous with the area around Toulouse. But the details inevitably vary from town to town -- and family to family. Fresh pork or cured -- or both? Duck or goose? Lamb, perhaps?

Not bound by local tradition, Americans can choose from all the options with the sole aim of producing a delicious, warming meal with a deep, rich flavor and still be entirely true to the spirit of the recipe. The fact is, many of the folks passionately holding forth about the authentic cassoulet are now buying theirs ready-made. With a little time and the proper ingredients, it's possible to do far, far better than that in your own kitchen.

Ingredients

Serves 6

4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh rosemary

3 sprigs fresh thyme

1 celery stalk, halved crosswise

1 leek, dark-green part only, rinsed well

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 ounces fatback or uncured pork belly, cut into 1/2-inch dice

8 ounces pork shoulder, cut into 3/4-inch dice

1 whole clove

1 medium onion, halved

1 smoked ham hock

1 medium carrot

1 3/4 cups whole peeled tomatoes with juice, chopped (from a 14 1/2-ounce can)

2 cups dried navy, Great Northern, or Tarbais beans, soaked in cold water for 12 hours

1 garlic clove, halved

2 legs duck confit (homemade or store-bought), skinned and separated at the joint

8 ounces fresh garlic sausage (see the Guide), cut into 1/2-inch half-moons

4 cups coarsely torn fresh bread (preferably from a crusty, rustic loaf)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Directions

Bundle parsley, bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, celery, and leek to form a bouquet garni, wrapping kitchen twine around the aromatics several times to secure -- which ensures easy retrieval of the ingredients after they've infused the cooking liquid with flavor.

Warm oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add fatback or pork belly, and cook until it is golden on all sides and has begun to render its fat, about 5 minutes. Add pork shoulder, and cook until golden on all sides, about 8 minute’s total.

Remove pot from heat. Discard carrot, onion, and bouquet garni. Transfer ham hock to a cutting board, reserving liquid, and let cool slightly. Trim meat and gelatin from the bone, dicing and returning them to the pot. Discard the bone.

Remove pot from heat. Discard carrot, onion, and bouquet garni. Transfer ham hock to a cutting board, reserving liquid, and let cool slightly. Trim meat and gelatin from the bone, dicing and returning them to the pot. Discard the bone.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Rub cut side of garlic clove over the entire inner surface of a small (5-quart) Dutch oven or other ovenproof vessel. This allows a subtle though distinct garlic flavor to infuse the resulting cassoulet.

Using a wire skimmer or a slotted spoon, place half the bean mixture in the Dutch oven, spreading it evenly. Leave the cooking liquid in the pot.

Arrange the duck confit and sausage on top of the beans in the Dutch oven to create a single, snug layer. Spoon the remaining beans over the meat, reserving the cooking liquid.

Add enough cooking liquid so the beans are almost, but not quite, submerged. Reserve the remaining liquid. Transfer pot to oven and cook, uncovered, for 2 hours. Check the liquid every 30 minutes to make sure it is no more than 1/2 inch below the beans, and add liquid or water as necessary. Do not stir.

After the cassoulet has cooked for 2 hours, toss bread and butter in a bowl. Sprinkle over cassoulet, and return to oven until beans are tender and bread is golden, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Before serving, let cassoulet stand at room temperature for 20 minutes to cool and to allow the beans to absorb some of the liquid. You can refrigerate cassoulet in an airtight container for up to 3 days; rewarm in an oven heated to 300 degrees.

Layers of ingredients yield layers of flavor in this classic French recipe. Its rich, comforting taste is conjured simply by slowly cooking an array of humble ingredients. From start to finish, this dish takes about 18 hours to prepare, although most of it is unattended.

This iconic dish from southwestern France deserves an equally emblematic wine. Cahors, a robust and tannic red from the same region, is the classic match. An Argentine Malbec or a California Meritage would also work well. If you're in the mood for a beer -- a full-bodied lager, such as a Czech pilsner, perhaps -- go right ahead.

Serving tip: When the cassoulet comes out of the oven, it will be much too hot to eat. Letting it stand for 20 minutes before serving allows it to cool and ensures that the beans soak up more of the liquid. The individual portions of cassoulet cool all too rapidly, so make sure to serve them on warmed dishes.

Tipplers wine recommendation to accompany Cassoulet: 2004 Chateau de Cedre, Cahors. Tipplers favourite wine of Joe’s tasting was the 2001 Domaine du Silene des Peyrals.  Not available at LCBO only SAQ in Quebec.

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