Cassoulet, January Daring Cooks
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.
Lisa and I have been friends long distance for quite some time. I am thinking that it has probably been since 2005. Brought together in a long since abandoned, then relocated group of chefs, cooks, bakers, and loudmouth misfits that now meet here on Facebook (group is now private, contact me on my fb profile). I will warn you, we speak our minds. The old group motto was “If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen!” So when I saw that Lisa was co-hosting the challenge I knew it would be good.
Cassoulet is a dish that I have done twice before. It is classic French peasant food that can be made of leftovers and beans to stretch them out, or in a very high end way that elevates the dish to truly elegant. On previous attempts I did all the hard work of making my own duck confit and using traditional ingredients such as pork belly, fresh herbs, and slow soaked white beans. My only shortcut was the sausage. Cassoulet traditionally uses a garlic flavored pork sausage from the area of Toulouse. I got started on this month’s challenge by making my own sausage.
A 7 pound boneless pork butt and 1 pound of pancetta get cut into cubes. I also put together the spices based on this recipe.
I didn’t follow the recipe exactly, but did use the same blend of spices which were sea salt, sugar, 4 peppercorn blend, fresh grated nutmeg, and about 4 cloves of garlic. I blended the spices in with the cubed meat and set in a metal bowl out my front door. The temp was about 7 deg F. So even with the salt and sugar, the meat started to freeze within about an hour. The chilled meat was then run through my KitchenAid food grinder using the course die.
Into this gets mixed a bit of dry white wine. Then everything is mixed by hand taking care not to mash everything together. This is covered tight and allowed to sit overnight in the refrigerator. I did a quick test after adding the wine to test the spices. It is so good. You wouldn’t think that so few spices and in such small amounts could flavor so much pork. After sitting overnight, these were put into hog casings.
Now on to the duck confit. In the past I have done my confit sous vide to get around the issue of not enough duck fat can be rendered from one duck to confit the legs. This time I wanted to do it traditionally. I butchered two ducks. They were broken down into breasts, leg and thigh quarters, and the carcass. I also utilized 4 additional duck breasts with the skin and fat on. All breast were stripped of skin and fat. Every ounce of skin and fat except from the leg/thigh quarters was then slowly rendered in a bit of water. When the water simmered out, the skin starts to fry in the duck fat and leaves you the most beautiful duck crackling you could imagine.
The leg/thighs were then salted heavily with the addition of sliced garlic and some fresh thyme. These sit overnight in the fridge.
These get rinsed and dried thoroughly. Then packed tight into the smallest container possible. That golden delicious duck fat is then melted and poured over the top of the legs to cover.
I put this in the oven at 225F for about 5 hours. Basically you slow poach the pieces in their own fat until they are melt in your mouth tender. The easiest way to test for this without actually ripping a leg out and biting in is to poke a bamboo skewer into the meat. If it slides in with little resistance then your confit is done.
Now for the cassoulet. I made two different versions because I still had ideas floating around. The first one was to be served on New Years Day. Hangover food. It starts with soaking great northern beans overnight. Then drain and recover with water. I added pork belly, carrot, celery,onion, tarragon, savory, rosemary, bay leaves, pepper, and salt to the beans. They were gently simmered until just done. Think al dente.
Everything is removed from the cooked beans. Save the liquid and the pork belly. I cut the belly pieces into small cubes and then fried them. This was to render out as much fat as possible and to also crisp up the meat. These became my base layer.
I then sauteed some mirepoix in just a bit of the pork fat. That along with some tomatoes, fresh tarragon, savory, and thyme were mixed with the beans and some browned Toulouse style sausage. Everything gets put into the clay casserole and then your reserved bean cooking liquid gets ladeled in to moisten. You can layer it all in neatly or just mix it all together.
I did put the duck legs in whole in this version. Then more bean mixture and topped it all with bread crumbs that were tossed with green onions and butter. Bake it all at 375F until you can’t wait any longer. I like to pull it out every 30 minutes or so and break the crust with the back of a spoon. This has the effect of incorporating some of the crust into the casserole. It is best to then let this thing sit overnight in the fridge. You can the reheat the next day.
My family wasn’t familiar with this dish. So they weren’t quite sure who would go first. My cousin’s boyfriend jumped in first and then it was on. This huge pot of food was gone in 24 hours.
After all this work, I still wanted to experiment some with the recipe. I had saved a duck quarter that had been aging for about 10 days in the fridge. I also had made a duck and cognac sausage from all the breast meat that was smoked at my uncle’s house on New Years Day.
This time was going to be heavy on the pork and duck. I browned up some more Toulouse sausage and the last remaining smoked duck sausage link.
I also tossed in pieces of these amazing smoked pork chops that my butcher makes in house.
This time I took all the meat off the bone of the chops and the duck confit. Tossed it all in a dish an baked with a breadcrumb crust.
At the end of baking though, I went with something that could put even this dish over the top. Remember those duck cracklin’ from earlier? Yes I did.
I just wasn’t satisfied with the breadcrumb crust. It didn’t provide enough textural contrast. So I tossed on some skin rendered in fat. The flavor and the texture it added were out of this world. It is one of those treasures handed to you in the process of making this dish anyway, why not use it.
Thank you to Lisa and Jenni. Be sure to check out the other Daring Cooks to see everyone elses take on Cassoulet.