Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cassoulet

Sunday the 11th had been in a bunch of calendars for a long while. We have been trying to get together with our winemaker friends Jim and Betsy Dolphin of Delaplane Cellars and Jeff and Kelly White of Glen Manor Vineyards for a long time. January is always a down time in the wine world (in our hemisphere) and so it is also in the restaurant business. It's the perfect time to get together. But even as slow as it is, we all run businesses and it takes planning to extricate ourselves even for an afternoon and evening of celebrating.

Cassoulet: Our Guest of Honor
Many, many weeks ago, Ann sent out the invitations and at some point well before Christmas asked me if I would make a cassoulet for the event. Cassoulet is one of my favorite winter foods and is great festive party food: you can just leave it on the counter and let each person serve himself. The timing was perfect: we just butchered a hog and lots of hog parts are required for a great cassoulet. I set about making the cassoulet on Thursday so that it would be in perfect form by Sunday.





As our guests arrived, I opened a couple bottles of Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay. What better for two of the best winemakers in the state than the best sparkling wine made in the state?

Headcheese and Terrine
Sparkling wine in hand, we started off the afternoon with a couple of pieces of charcuterie that I made from the aforementioned hog, butchered just before New Year's Day: truffled headcheese (on the left) and terrine with pumpkin seeds and golden raisins. That hog also furnished a few ribs, a few trimmings for garlic sausage, some miscellaneous bits, and a lot of pork stock, all of which went into the cassoulet. Without a lot of pig, it is really, really hard to make first-rate cassoulet.

Ann Made This Beautiful Loaf
To go with the charcuterie, Ann made this delicious loaf of bread. What was left accompanied the cassoulet. As always, her bread is wonderful.

Arugula with Pomegranate, Manchego, and Shallots
Cassoulet is not a lightweight food. It is a huge bowl of beans and meat swimming in rich broth. And so we needed a counterpoint, a light and crisp salad with a fairly acidic dressing. This is baby arugula, pomegranate seeds, raw minced shallots, and finely grated Manchego cheese dressed with a little pomegranate juice, Sherry vinegar, and olive oil. It was the perfect foil for the über rich cassoulet; in fact, I think most people co-mingled the two dishes on their plates.

A Good Day!
This group, we like our wine. And it was a great day to sit around the island in the kitchen and crack a few bottles and let our hair down. After the Thibaut-Janisson, we opened a 2005 Louis Carillon Puligny-Montrachet that Jeff brought. It was delicious and everything that white Burgundy should be. After that, we opened my two magnums of 2010 Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape. What a fabulous bottle of wine that is! I have not tasted better, even in 2001 and 1998. After dinner, I opened a 1986 Raymond-Lafon Sauternes that did not show well. It is sad and tired now and that is a pity. 1986 was one of the fabulous vintages.

Cassoulet: It's All about the Beans
Here are some tips for making cassoulet, if you dare take them from an American. You do understand that small land wars have been fought over the "proper" cassoulet in southwest France, don't you? No matter that it originated as a peasant dish of whatever beans and whatever meat scraps were at hand. And that it may actually be a Catalan dish. But still, the French are pretty touch about this subject.

Use the best dried beans you can find. I have pretty much an unlimited number of kinds of beans at my disposal. I choose Steuben Yellow Eye beans (pictured above) because I think they are the best. I have used Tarbais beans, haricots blancs, local bird eggs, and many other kinds. Steubens rock.

I am a big fan of soaking the beans overnight in many changes of water. This helps alleviate some of the issues in digesting them. I also discard the initial cooking water. Yes, I parcook my beans to half done with a touch of rosemary and discard that cooking water before assembling the cassoulet.

The essence of the dish is pork and beans. If you have great beans and great pork, you don't need a lot of other seasonings. I use a hint of rosemary in the beans. In the cassoulet proper, I use a few bay leaves and a little garlic. Aside from that, the dish is just primal pork and beans.

In the same vein, cassoulet doesn't need a lot of vegetables. Just a bit of mirepoix (2 parts onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery), but make sure you sauté the mirepoix in duck fat (or barring that, lard). We process a lot of ducks at the restaurant, so there are always gallons of duck fat on hand.

Use a great stock, pork or duck or mixed, to make your cassoulet. The gelatin in super rich stocks helps form the crust on top of the cassoulet, which after it browns, you punch back down into the broth to further enrich it.

I like to punch down the crust four or five times while the cassoulet is cooking. Some French people swear by seven punchdowns but I don't think my beans need to cook that long.

Start your cassoulet days before you need it. Cassoulet is always, always better the second and third day. Make it in advance and do your final punchdown and crusting just before you serve it.

Here is my rough cassoulet process:

1. Soak the beans overnight in several changes of water.
2. Cook the beans halfway with a little rosemary and discard the cooking water and rosemary.
3. Prep a little mirepoix and garlic.
4. Assemble the meats: garlic sausage, pork trimmings, duck or confited duck legs or both, etc.
5. Heat a little duck fat and brown the meats. Remove.
6. In the same pan, lightly brown the mirepoix and mix with the beans.
7. Put half the beans and a few bay leaves in the cassole, casserole, or whatever dish you're baking in.
8. Put the meats in next.
9. Cover the meat with the remaining beans.
10. Cover all with stock.
11. Bake in a slow oven until crusted.
12. Punch down and add more stock as necessary.
13. Repeat until you're happy.

For the cassoulet above, I made a little garlic sausage from pork loin and shoulder trimmings. And I roasted all the bones from the hog and made pork stock from that. All the meat that I pulled off the bones after making the stock went into the cassoulet. I grilled fresh loin trimmings (rib eye cap) and put them in the cassoulet after cutting into pieces. And I separated a bunch of spare ribs and put them in. Finally, I used half fresh duck legs and half duck legs that I confited a few weeks ago.

For a cold January day, what better to serve friends than a glorious cassoulet?

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