Friday, December 16, 2016

Snow Day Cassoulet

We had our first real snowfall of the season last weekend, a half a foot of light, fluffy splendor that transformed the landscape overnight.  And with that snow came the first serious cold of the winter, bringing a definitive end to what had been a long, lingering, quite lovely autumn.  We had the woodstove blazing 24/7, and thoughts immediately turned to warm, filling, savory comfort cooking.  For me, nothing epitomizes that more than a fragrant, crusty and rich cassoulet.

Whether in the iconic brown pot of New England baked beans crowned with a square of salt pork, a French cassoulet rich with pork rind and lard fume, or Cajun red beans and rice simmered with ham hocks and sausage, dried beans and pork products go together like, well, pork and beans.  It’s one of those elementally satisfying combinations.  I love almost all iterations of this classic partnership, from humble baked beans from a can up to an elaborately garnished, ceremoniously presented cassoulet.  But the cassoulet holds a special place in my heart, being so very…gallic, as well as delicious.
In my younger days I would happily spend two or three days making a cassoulet that called for pork, pork rind, pork fat, salt pork, and sausage, along with a couple pounds of lamb and a whole duck.  It was a mammoth production, incredibly rich, delicious, and festive—and I’ll probably never make it again.  In some ways, at least as far as the meats were concerned, that particular cassoulet favored quantity over quality, since with so many different proteins in play it’s extremely difficult to get everything to turn out right.  And frankly, at this point in my life, the thought of contending with lamb, duck, pork, and sausage, all on one plate, leaves me feeling slightly bilious, and exhausted.

The cassoulet I make nowadays—and I make it a few times from fall through early spring—is a streamlined version, well garnished with savory pork, perhaps a leg of duck confit, but much less meat-centric than many.  The thing is, I really like beans, and I consider it the mark of a really good and thoughtful cook to be able to produce a cassoulet in which the luxuriously coddled beans draw as much praise as the meats.  Though streamlined, this is not a recipe to throw together for a quickie weeknight dinner (for that, make a big batch and savor the leftovers).  But it can easily be accomplished in a single day—get the time-consuming pre-simmering of the beans started after breakfast, and you’ll not be rushed to pull the crusty, fragrant, unctuous final product out of the oven at dinner time.
One key element of the streamlining is that I don’t soak the beans overnight, as so many recipes for dried beans suggest.  The reason I’ve omitted this step is simple:  it is completely unnecessary.  What I do, instead, is to parboil the beans for 10 minutes, drain them, discarding the cooking liquid, and then begin cooking them again, more slowly, with lots of aromatics.  Parcooking the beans and dumping the first water also helps to minimize the digestive difficulties that beans, “the musical fruit,” can produce.  Now that we’ve saved 12 to 16 hours, as well as potential social embarrassment, let’s get on with it….

There are beans under there, ready to simmer.

The key to a great cassoulet, as with many bean dishes, and long-simmered or braised dishes in general, is to use loads of aromatic vegetables.  I tend to think that back in the day cassoulet was sustenance food in which relatively small amounts of very flavorful meats were used to garnish and enrich a dish predominantly composed of vegetables.  Lately cassoulet has become a standard winter addition to the menus of many gallic-inflected restaurants, and the dish there presented is often more of a meat-fest than an exaltation of the humble, but delicious, nourishing, and versatile haricot sec.  (There was a recipe for the cassoulet from St Paul’s Heartland restaurant going around last winter; it called for roughly nine pounds of meat to garnish one pound of dried beans, and I just thought, woof, that is not my idea of a cassoulet.)

Bacon and pork shoulder browning.

And anyway, cassoulet is not a restaurant dish.  It’s a dish you want to soak in all day, luxuriate in the aromas of simmering duck confit, fall into the warm embrace of vegetables turning soft and yielding in lovely bacon drippings.  On a snowy winter day you want to get your beans simmering and then go for a brisk walk—or shovel the first real snowfall, as we had the opportunity to do this past weekend.  Then when you come back in, oh, the smell!  The warmth of the house and kitchen!  The anticipation of tucking in, come dinner time, to such satisfying food!  Yes, cassoulet is not just a dish, but an experience.  It requires a few steps, but none of it is difficult.

Roast pork shoulder rests amid yummy drippings.

 As to the meats I use in my cassoulet:  bacon is essential.  I always have a hunk of home-smoked bacon in the fridge and/or freezer, but good quality slab bacon is widely available now.  Take the time to procure some good, naturally smoked bacon—it’s one of the flavor backbones of this dish.  I also often add a piece of pork shoulder that I’ve either smoked or roasted.  In either case, I set it to macerate overnight with a rub of salt, pepper, and maple syrup.  Details below.  And finally, for the last half hour of baking, I’ll nestle into the beans either 1) a couple of legs of duck confit that I have previously set in a skillet to crisp the skin and warm the meat, or 2) some good smoked sausage, also browned in a separate skillet before adding to the beans.  You could add both, but then things are getting a little meatier than I like.  But—you could skip the pork shoulder and do confit and sausage.  That would be delightful.  
Ready for the oven.
Whatever meaty things you choose to garnish your cassoulet is up to you.  The main thing is the beans, unctuous, savory, yielding. You could do without added meat altogether, frankly—the basic beans with some crusty warm bread, a glass of red wine, a salad, this would make a lovely repast.  It could, I dare say, even be made vegetarian, with the addition of some extra vegetables into the mix, and perhaps something like dried porcini mushrooms or morels to give it added depth and umami.  I tasted a very good vegetarian cassoulet once, prepared by my friend, the chef Roger Payne.  
But hey, you know, those beans aren’t going to cook themselves.  Allons-y…

While not the most photogenic of dishes, cassoulet is soul-satisfying fare.

A Snow Day Cassoulet

Serves at least six

For the pork shoulder:
1 pound pork shoulder
2 teaspoons salt
1 ½ tablespoons maple syrup
Black pepper from the mill
2 tablespoons oil, bacon fat, or fat from duck confit

You need to start this at least the night before you plan to make your cassoulet, but it can be made several days in advance.  Rub the pork with the maple syrup and then sprinkle on the salt on all sides.  Give all surfaces a generous grinding of black pepper.  Cover and let stand in the fridge overnight, or longer.  Turn it a couple times during this time if you think of it.
The next day, heat your oven to 325 degrees.  Blot the meat off with paper towels and discard any liquid that has gathered.  Put the pork in a small baking dish (I use an oval ceramic gratin to both macerate and roast) along with the oil or fat.  Roast the pork for 2 hours, or until it is nicely browned.  Turn every 30 minutes or so to promote even browning.  Remove from the oven and set aside.  Be sure to keep the fat and drippings remaining in the baking dish.  We’ll add these to the cassoulet later.

1 pound great northern beans (I've also made cassoulet with cranberry beans; many dried beans would work. I think navy beans are too small.)
¾ cup chopped light green leek tops
1 small shallot, chopped (or use a bit of onion)
1 small carrot, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 small dried red chile, optional
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 or 2 bay leaves
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried
¾ teaspoon salt

Rinse the beans well and sort through them to remove any debris or stones (nothing ruins a lovely meal like biting into a rock).  In a large saucepan, add the beans and water to cover by at last an inch.  Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and simmer for 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the beans sit for another 10 minutes.  Drain the beans, discarding the first cooking liquid.  Return the beans to the saucepan along with all the vegetables, spices, herbs above EXCEPT THE SALT.  Again add water to cover by an inch or so, bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes.  Now add the salt and simmer for 30 minutes more.  Check the doneness—you want the beans to be cooked through.  Some may be even falling apart, a few may be al dente still, but overall you want the beans to be DONE at this point.
Set the beans aside when they’re cooked to your preference.  DO NOT DRAIN.

For the final assembly:
4 to 5 ounces good slab bacon, in ¾-inch squares, more or less
1 tablespoon oil or confit fat
1 small leek—about 1” in diameter—chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
½ cup canned tomatoes, chopped
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¾ cup fresh breadcrumbs
Duck confit or smoked sausage, optional—I would allow one confit portion, thigh or drumstick, or about three ounces of sausage per person

Heat your oven to 325.  Cut the pork shoulder you previously roasted into 4 pieces.  Heat a large dutch oven (enameled cast iron is ideal) over medium-low heat and add the bacon.  As it starts to render its fat, add the pork shoulder, and get it nice and brown while the bacon cooks.  When the bacon and pork shoulder are nicely brown, remove from the pan.  Remove excess fat from the pan, leaving about 2 tablespoons.  Add the leek, onion, and carrot, and cook these over medium heat until they are well wilted.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring, then add the tomatoes.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the tomatoes have given up all their moisture and even begun to brown a bit.  Then return the beans and their cooking liquid to the pan (if you happen to notice the whole cloves or the now leafless thyme twigs, take those out).  The liquid should cover the beans by a half-inch or so.  If it does not, add water or stock to that level.  
Add the bacon and pork shoulder to the pan, along with a couple more sprigs of thyme and a few grinds of black pepper.  Taste the liquid for salt and add a bit of salt if it seems under-seasoned, but note that it will take up some of the salt from the bacon and pork as it bakes, so go easy.  If you’ve saved the drippings from roasting the pork shoulder, scrape these into the beans, as well.  Bake uncovered for 1 ½ hours, stirring every half hour or so.  Cooking time varies a lot from one batch of dried beans to the next, so when the cassoulet is done is a bit of a judgment call.  They’re done when they have taken up most of the liquid and are very tender, but still holding their shape—well, a good part of them, anyway; some will certainly have collapsed, and that’s fine.  You want the beans to be a little bit liquid when you declare them done, as they’ll thicken as they cool.  You can take the cassoulet to this nearly done stage a few hours to a few days before you want to serve it—it reheats very nicely.

About 30 minutes before you want to serve the cassoulet, tuck the duck confit or sausage that you’ve crisped/browned into the beans.  Then toss the breadcrumbs with a tablespoon or so of fat or oil, and stir well to moisten them evenly.  Sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the top of the cassoulet and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the crumbs are brown.  If you have convection in your oven, this is a good use for it.
Serve hot from the oven.  Make sure everyone gets a portion of the various meats.  Serve with crunchy, warm country bread and a deep red wine—I would go for a Bordeaux, Cahors, Cotes de Rhone, or Rioja.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw


Joyce P said...

Thanks for returning to the blog world! And with cassoulet, no less. Looks awesome and I think it's going to be on my January menu somewhere ;-)


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