I have planned for several years to make a cassoulet, but night after night, year after year, other hearty dishes appeared on the table, while it patiently waited its turn. The serendipitous pick for this month’s Daring Cooks Challenge was this marvelous French stew and I decided to celebrate the frigid Southern California weather by preparing this time-consuming and fussy meal (and I know that one day a hefty Minnesotan woman with a Scandinavian lilt will beat me senseless with a snow shoe for all my whining about the cold, and I will deserve it).
Father has this idea that women, historically, have not really had anything to do and therefore competed amongst each other in inventing the most difficult and tedious dishes imaginable. I know that he cannot boil an egg, so I greet these original inanities with a wide grin, avoiding arguments that would lead nowhere. As I read the recipe, I realized that it really takes three to four days to make a proper, original cassoulet, but it is mostly passive time.
I sent Husband to procure the necessary ingredients, opting for chicken leg confit (our Mexican butchers at the local Persian store know us, and I knew the meat would be of great quality. On the other hand, I had no idea where to buy duck legs). Pork belly had everybody completely confused. The butchers at “Albertson’s” were playing possum, and I had to drag Father to the store, as the porcine expert (I can vouch that he has consumed a fair quantity of pork bellies in his life).
By the time I gathered everything I needed, the house was a stage of which Ionesco would have been proud. Husband proclaimed that the dish sounded very southern (as in Appalachian way). Nina dismissed it as “just another bean dish”. Zoe went around trying to frenchify Bill Brasky jokes (do not ask me, just Google it). Father went on a tangent of a tangent trying to tie it to one of the summers of his youth. Anya flitted around pronouncing every word as if French. And I just plodded along, trying to ignore the cacophony, invoking a “happy place” mantra.
The first night I rubbed four plump chicken quarters with kosher salt and left them in the refrigerator to luxuriate in grainy salinity. A pound of navy beans went into a pot with cold water to soak overnight. Not fussy at all. French housewives were patient. They relied on planning and organization to extricate the best flavors from the most ordinary foods.
The next day I poured the mix of duck fat and lard over the chicken legs, buried some rosemary and thyme underneath, and stuck a couple of cloves of garlic around the meat. It went in the oven to roast for about an hour. I strained the beans and put them back on the stove with more water, the pork belly, salt, pepper, onion, and herbs. It simmered for two hours, until the beans were softly yielding to the tongue. I took out the pork belly, discarded the onion and herbs, and strained the beans, reserving the liquid.
The chicken went to sleep in the refrigerator, miraculously missing all the crispy skin. Several days later, Father told me, in all innocence, that he really liked that roasted chicken I made (well, it was only boiled in duck and pork fat, producing the best cracklings ever!) The theater of the absurd continued while I was building the cassoulet ingredient by ingredient, trusting the Grandmeres in this blind quest for the ultimate food-Grail. I had to hide the cooked pork belly from the girls who abhor anything white and fatty in their plates (we are a household of extra-crispy bacon). I had to tuck the sausage in the far depths of the refrigerator lest it became the “after hours snack” for the whist-playing brigade. I had to guard the leftover bean liquid from being dumped in the sink, inglorious and plain in its brown tawdriness.
The third day I sauteed the sausage, the garlic and the onions in some more duck fat. The caramelized vegetables went into a blender, spiked with sea-salt and black pepper. I aligned all the participants on the counter top and started layering the cassoulet in my Romertopf clay casserole. When I pulled it out of the oven, steaming and bubbly, it looked gorgeous to me. It symbolized the essence of home-cooking, a dish pretending to be humble and ordinary. It was not an elusive Parisian beauty wearing haute couture at a soire, but a Tante that always offers a warm hug, sitting in the shade of an old elm in front of her cottage overlooking fields of lavender.
I was not surprised when The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros failed to appear at dinnertime. The cassoulet seduced us with its complexity. Every rich ingredient complemented another, and the flavors rose step by step, until our taste buds became pleasantly overwhelmed. Gone were the French jokes and oo-la-las. The girls went for seconds, unaware that it was just another bean dish hiding soft pillows of sweet pork fat in its midst.
If you have to ask how many calories it has or how many grams of fat, then run like the wind and forget you ever read this. But if you want something rich, and with the power to induce hibernation for the remainder of the season, this one’s for you.
Blog checking lines: 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.
For the original recipe click here.