A Housewarming Stew : The Cassoulet

Cassoulet

Peabody is hosting a virtual housewarming party on December 8 to celebrate her move into her charming new abode. With the weather turning frostier by the day, what is more ideal than to finally attempt to make a cassoulet – that famed slow-cooked bean stew from the southwest of France.

The “Hungry” hubby had also been complaining about the lack of “real” food in the house since I had been in a baking frenzy lately and he noticed how most books arriving in the house were more of the sweet rather than savory nature.

            “How about some Osso buco ?” He would hint every weekend for a month now.

Finally taking a pity on my man, I declared this past week:

            “I shall make cassoulet.” (Not quite Osso buco , but still…)

The next question was: “Which recipe to use?”

After flip-flopping endlessly between Paula Wolfert and Anthony Bourdain, I decided to go with Bourdain’s version from his Les Halles Cookbook because it was simpler – besides I look forward to hearing his voice in my head complete with that acerbic tongue of his and tough-love type of instruction encouraging the home cook that, yes, she can turn out mean bistro fare worthy of three stars.

A typical cassoulet is made with tarbais beans, duck confit, pork sausages, pork belly and uh — some pork rind. I knew immediately that I would be buying my pork sausages (instead of making my own) and substituting lamb stew meat for the pork belly (otherwise, I would be eating the pork belly by myself). I called my local butcher and I was in luck because they just skinned a pig – so that took care of the pork rind part.

            As for the duck confit, I made a big batch of them three weeks ago – and I mean big – like eight legs.  I was not exactly pleased with the result texture-wise so I thought it would benefit from more cooking within the cassoulet.

            This was also my first time cooking with tarbais beans. And let me tell you that I have never seen or tasted a bean quite like it.

            The recipe said to use an earthenware pot which I didn’t have, but after I consulted with Helen who consulted with her brother in Toulouse (a cassoulet expert, I hear), she said it was okay to use a dutch oven.

Cassoulet

Adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook

  • 1100g Tarbais beans or white beans
  • *1.5 lbs lamb stew meat
  • 1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 lb/450g pork rind
  • 1 bouquet garni (1 sprig parsley,thyme,bay leaf)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4cup/ 56 g duck fat
  • * 2 tbs. duck fat
  • 1.5 lbs pork sausage (orig. recipe – 6 sausage links)
  • 3 onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 5 confit duck legs (orig. recipe – 4 duck legs)
  • * 1 ham hock

Day one:

Place the beans in a large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least two or three inches of water above the top of the beans. Soak overnight. That was hard, right?

Day two:

* Salt and pepper the lamb stew meat and set aside.

Drain and rinse the beans and place in a large pot. Add the quartered onion, ¼ lb/112 g of the pork rind, the ham hock and the bouquet garni. Cover with water, add salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about an hour. Let cool for 20 minutes, and then discard the onion, the bouquet garni, and the ham hock. Strain the beans and the rind and set aside, reserving the cooking liquid separately.

* While the beans are simmering, preheat the oven to 400 °F and heat the duck confit through for 20 minutes.

* In the sauté pan, heat 2 tbs of the duck fat and brown the lamb stew meat and then set aside.

In the sauté pan, heat all but 1 tablespoon/14 g of the duck fat over medium-high heat until it shimmers and becomes transparent. Carefully add the sausages and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside, draining on paper towels. In the same pan, over medium-high heat brown the sliced onions, the garlic, and the reserved squares of pork rind from the beans (not the unused pork rind; you’ll need that for later.) Once browned, remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add 1 tablespoon/14g of the remaining duck fat and puree until smooth. Set Aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Place the uncooked pork rind in the bottom of a deep ovenproof earthenware dish/Dutch oven. You’re looking to line the inside, almost like a pie crust. Arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, lamb stew meat, beans, duck confit, and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion and pork rind puree between each layer. Add enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans, reserving 1 cup/225 ml in the refrigerator for later use. Cook the cassoulet in the oven for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 250°F/130°C and cook for another hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.

Day three:

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°F again. Cook the cassoulet for an hour. Break the crust on the top with the spoon and add ¼ cup/56ml of the reserved cooking liquid. Reduce the heat to 250°F/130°C and continue cooking for another 15 minutes, or until screamingly hot through and through. Then serve.

* NOT IN ORIGINAL RECIPE

Cooking Notes:

            I am not big on beans (the “Hungry” hubby loves them) but the tarbais beans surely peaked my interest – looking so big yet cute in their 1lb bags. I ordered them earlier this year fully intending on making the stew but the weather got hot so quickly that making a cassoulet in 70 °F weather did not seem so appetizing so I waited patiently for the seasons to pass.

            So at the first sign of fall weather, I quickly made my duck confit with a 50-50 chance of using some of them in the cassoulet. I did not follow Bourdain’s recipe for confit in the book which was why I did not include it here. I made my confit from the The Balthazar Cookbook and shall post that recipe soon, I just need to tweak some seasonings and cooking times and I think I would have accomplished my quest for duck confit. If you live in the Richmond,Va area the Belmont Butchery makes their own duck confit – though not as good as mine ;). It is also available at D’Artagnan.

            I was a little disappointed with my sausage choices at the local butchery. They did not make garlic pork sausage that week and I was left with some skinny little ones that looked so out of place in such a weighty stew. However, since I substituted pork belly with chunky lamb meat and had five pieces of Duck legs to throw into it, I think those sausages were not going to be missed. The pork rind I got wasn’t cut all that well either. I did not have enough to line the bottom of the pot and I think I might have added too much of the bean liquid afterwards.

            It is also a good idea to take out the duck confit from the refrigerator at least two hours before you need it so it would be easy to remove the legs from the fat – that glorious duck fat – without damaging the legs.

            Having almost non-existent experience in handling beans, I did not know that these babies could expand to almost twice their size – talk about beans on steroids!

            I added a piece of ham hock to the bean cooking liquid. The main flavoring of the beans happen during this part because the other ingredients you add later on like the duck confit already have their own seasonings so make sure you add enough salt and pepper to the liquid which you would be using later when you assemble the dish.

            My one mistake was making this stew so late in the day after I’ve already run around town doing errands. At first I was so overwhelmed about where to start but after I got into it – and had some wine – I began to enjoy the process!

            I followed the cooking time for the cassoulet of 1 hour to boil the beans and 2 hours to braise. In re-heating, it took an additional half-hour than the stated one hour and fifteen minutes to get the whole thing piping hot (I also took the pot out of the refrigerator an hour before it was going to be reheated)

            A word of warning. This recipe made a lot! Imagine a 9-quart Le Crueset dutch oven filled almost to the brim. I think the entire pot was about 40 lbs ( I think the pot –empty- was 25 lbs alone). I think I could have fed 10 people easily with it (although I think there might not be enough duck confit to go around as they were the first to disappear).

           Oh but what a heartwarming dish this was. It was truly an amazing alchemy of all the ingredients: the beans so pleasantly sweet, the wonderful broth so perfect for dipping bread and the duck confit attaining such exquisite flavor and texture as the succulent meat almost fell off the bone!

            So Peabody – I hope you eat duck and beans!

Wine-ing Chicken

Coqauvin

          

             I recently took an interest in Anthony Bourdain after his guest post over at Ruhlman’s blog. I read Kitchen Confidential, after which I will think twice about going to restaurants. I also got his Les Halles Cookbook. I love his style of writing, a mixture of irreverence and wit, although there were times while reading  Kitchen Confidential that I would blush.

            A dish in his  Les Halles Cookbook caught my eye. The classic Coq Au Vin. I have seen a lot of recipes for this dish and I decided it was about time to make it. How interesting can you make chicken? Quite interesting if you load it up with wine ;).

            Coq Au Vin ,translating to “rooster with wine” in French, is simply chicken stewed in wine. It is a staple of French Cuisine and a standard of bistro cooking. It is traditionally made with roosters since they have enough connective tissue to produce a rich and savory sauce.

At first glance, the process appears complicated, but Bourdain quickly addresses this in his recipe, trouncing that initial impression by stating that it is relatively simple to make.

“Mise en place”, or having ingredients and utensils ready, is very important. Bourdain suggests allotting a leisurely afternoon to make Coq au Vin. He also interjects the comment that between the stages of cooking, you should have a glass of wine from the vino left over from the recipe. Now how cool is that?

I was so confident that I could make this dish that I actually invited guests over for dinner. They were my close friends, so in case the chicken turned out tasting nasty we could always order pizza and it would not be too embarrassing. Actually, the “hungry” hubby was also grilling some lamb chops, so there was a fallback.

The dish was not without its challenges. It had nothing to do with the recipe, but more to do with the circumstances that surrounded the making of it. First of all, we lost electricity the night before for 12 freaking hours! I was dubious about using the chicken that I had sitting in the refrigerator, so I decided to buy another one the following morning. Secondly, I did not know how country bacon looked–or lardons for that matter. The person behind the meat counter at our local supermarket had no idea either, so I bought something that I thought looked like country bacon. After I sautéed it though, I decided to just throw it out because it tasted like cardboard and did not look even remotely appetizing. If only I had the time to go to the butcher shop located downtown – they make their own bacon and also have Ruhlman’s book Charcuterie featured so prominently in the store- I’m sure they would know exactly what I needed.

I was not able to marinate the chicken overnight as the recipe suggested, but I did get it into the wine mixture for at least six hours before cooking. I also planned the crème-brulee-filled almond tea cake for dessert, so that took up some prep time — so much for a leisurely afternoon.

Without the bacon though, I don’t know if I could call this a Coq-au-vin. Oh well.

Coq –au-vin

            Adapted from the  Les Halles Cookbook, by Anthony Bourdain

1 bottle/1 liter plus 1 cup/225 ml of red wine

1 onion, cut into a 1-inch/2.5 cm dice

1 carrot, cut into ¼-inch/6-mm slices

1 celery rib, cut into  ½ inch/1-cm slices

4 whole cloves

1 tbs/14 g whole black peppercorns

1 bouquet garni (2 sprigs thyme, 1 sprig parsley, 1 bay leaf wrapped in cheesecloth and tied

        with a string )

1 whole chicken, about 3.5 lb/1.35 kg, “trimmed” – meaning guts, wing tips and neckbone

        removed

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tbs/28 ml olive oil

6 tbs/75 g butter, softened

1 tbs/14 g flour

¼ lb/112 g slab or country bacon, cut into small oblongs (lardons) about ¼ by 1 inch/6mm by

        2.5 cm

½ lb/ 225 g small, white button mushrooms, stems removed

12 pearl onions, peeled

pinch of sugar

Equipment:

3 large, deep bowls

plastic wrap

fine strainer

large Dutch oven or heavy –bottomed pot

tongs

wooden spoon

small sauté pan

small sauce pan

1 sheet parchment paper

whisk

deep serving platter

Serves 4

            DAY ONE

            The day before you even begin to cook, combine the bottle of red wine, the diced onion (that’s the big onion, not the pearl onions), sliced carrots, celery, cloves, peppercorns, and bouquet garni in a large deep bowl. Add the chicken and submerge it in the liquid so that all of it is covered. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

            DAY TWO

            Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat it dry. Put it aside. Strain the marinade through the fine strainer, reserving the liquids and solids separately.  Season the chicken with salt and pepper inside and out. In the large Dutch oven, heat the oil and 2tablesppoons/28 g of the butter until almost smoking, and then sear the chicken, turning it with the tongs to evenly brown it. Once browned, it should be removed from the pot and set it aside again. Add the reserved onions, celery, and carrot to the pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and golden brown. That should take about 10 minutes.

            Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and mix well with the wooden spoon so that the vegetables are coated. Now stir in the reserved strained marinade. Put the chicken back in the pot, along with the bouquet garni. Cook this for about 1 hour and 15 minutes over low heat.

            Have a drink. You’re almost there…

            

            While your chicken stews slowly in the pot, cook the bacon lardons in the small sauté pan over medium heat until golden brown. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain it on paper towels, making sure to keep about 1 tablespoon/14 g of fat in the pan. Saute the mushroom tops in the bacon fat until golden brown. Set them aside.

            Now, in the small saucepan, combine the pearl onions, the pinch of sugar, a pinch of salt, and 2tablespoons/28 g of butter. Add just enough water to just cover the onions; then cover the pan with the parchment paper trimmed to the same size of the pan. (I suppose you can use foil if you must.) Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the water has evaporated. Keep a close eye on it. Remove the paper cover and continue to cook until the onions are golden brown. Set the onions aside and add the remaining cup/225 ml of red wine along with salt and pepper and reduce over medium-high heat until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.

            Your work is pretty much done here. One more thing and then it’s wine and kudos…

            When the chicken is cooked through – meaning tender, the juice from the thigh running clear when pricked – carefully remove from the liquid, cut into quarters, and arrange on the deep serving platter. Strain the cooking liquid (again) into the reduced red wine. Now just add the bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, and swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons/28 g of butter. Now pour that sauce over the chicken and dazzle your friends with your brilliance. Serve with buttered noodles and a Bourgone Rouge.

Cooking Notes:

Right before the guests arrived, I had a taste of this aromatic chicken dish. I was very pleased with the results. All the herbs in this dish combined to give an extremely complex sauce that was exploding with flavor. The chicken was falling off the bone (maybe that’s why they used a rooster in the old days–so it would still be quite firm after this long cooking time). I did not even have to use a knife to cut it up, I just pulled the parts off.  Okay, I did have to cut the backbone off, but most of the cartilage just melted into the thickened sauce.

I did have a gripe with the pearl onions.  How the heck do you peel the skin off these?! I think I massacred these little jewels, because they fell apart when I was simmering them in butter and water. I might have added too much water as well. I ended up throwing out the rest of the liquid (shame on me, I know), adding some butter back and letting the onions caramelize to produce a fond.  I can hear Bourdain right now in his acerbic tongue, berating me for doing this. I must hand it to the man; even through a cookbook, he manages to instill a sense of accountability about doing things right. I also had a problem in reducing the wine (sheepish grin) or maybe I was panicking because the doorbell just rang and my guests had arrived! 

Anyhoo, I acted like I knew what I was doing, mixed the cooking liquid with the new wine reduction (or non-reduction), and nobody except moi knew the difference! I do have lessons in sauces coming up this Tuesday in my culinary arts class, so you can be quite sure that I’ll be asking a gazillion questions of my chef instructor. I will keep this post updated on my findings.

Like any other stew, the Coq-au-vin tasted better the next day when all the herbs and spices had managed to further infuse the sauce and the chicken with their amazing combination.

I was quite rueful that I did not have the bacon for the dish. I know how bacon fat can add such an otherworldly taste to food. Also, I failed to attain the Zen-like pleasurable calm that Bourdain stated this recipe MIGHT bring at the end of its cooking. That means I’ll have to make this dish again, and I definitely look forward to that time.

Bourdain also suggested, as an improvisation, the use of pig or chicken blood as a thickener. I am wiling to give this a try in the future only if I am sure of the freshness and source of this unusual thickener. Blood makes the sauce set up pretty quickly, so it is prudent to add this slowly. Apparently it freezes very well too, so I guess I just have to convince the “hungry” hubby that it is okay to have a culinary blood bank in the freezer.

I’ll leave you some words of wisdom from Bourdain regarding this dish “ … this is the kind of dish you might enjoy spending a leisurely afternoon with. There are plenty of opportunities for breaks. It’s durable, delicious, and the perfect illustration of the principles of turning something big and tough and unlovely into something truly wonderful. Knock out your prep one thing at a time, slowly building your mise en place. Listen to some music while you do it. There’s an open bottle of wine left from the recipe, so have a glass now and again.”