Monday, February 14, 2011

Holy Ghost Cassoulet

Prosper Montagné, the Carcassonian chef, author, and creator of the "Larousse Gastronomique", used to introduce cassoulet with a story about going to the local shoemaker’s in his native Castelnaudry only to find the place locked and shuttered. For a moment he feared tragedy until he saw the note pinned to the door: "Fermé pour cause de cassoulet.”

Cassoulet is indeed an event, a holiday unto itself, and I’ve long felt it was almost worth having February exist in the calendar year just to provide an opportunity for a proper cassoulet party. In fact cassoulet calls precisely for just what we tend to detest most about February: arctic winds, freezing rain, snowstorms. Ok our wind’s not the mistral, but have any of my fellow New Yorkers felt what’s been blowing in off the Hudson this past week? It’s certainly made me wish I had several feet of Languedocian stone farmhouse wall between me and the elements rather than the measly window panes of a New York City apartment. But a cassoulet? Well it was designed for this weather. It fortifies against the gloom, stokes the proverbial kitchen fires, enables, nay, necessitates a long winter’s nap, and generally laughs in the face of February.

There is a sense of occasion and deep conviviality to the whole thing, and there are certain steps that you follow, both in the cooking and in the eating of it. Begin hungry. I suppose that goes without saying, but you really should be quite hungry, because this is a true feast.

The wisest way to start is with a palate opening aperitif – champagne or kir royals work well – and possibly some very light hors d’oeuvres – radishes with cold little curls of fresh butter and some fleur de sel for example, or even some tapenade and winter vegetables.

Next comes the solitary cassoulet with its gratin crust, herb infused and fragrant, beneath which lie some of the greatest treasures of French farmhouse life: rich duck leg confit, simply seasoned pork sausage, and fresh lamb shoulder, all braised for hours and enrobed in creamy, garlicky, thyme and pancetta-infused haricot beans.

A mâche salad vinaigrette is lovely right afterwards, along with some little cheeses to sample if you think you can manage them. And to follow, I personally think anything with apple is hard to beat. Apple tart, tarte tatin, even simply roasted apples – you get the picture. This weekend a gift of homemade chocolate covered strawberries actually made the perfect end to the meal. Or at least the perfect pause before we brought out the calvados. Whatever you choose to serve before and after your cassoulet, I don’t think it’s possible for any other dish to impart such warmth. And yes, rabble at the back, I said pancetta. More on that later though – I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Named for the cassole, an earthenware pot glazed on the inside and traditionally used for the dish, cassoulet is said by some to have been invented out of pure necessity during the siege of Castelnaudary in 1355, when the townspeople pooled together their remaining food to create a communal stew. Regardless of provenance, back then a cassoulet would have most likely closely resembled the Arabian fava bean and mutton stews. Haricots didn’t arrive from Spain until the 19th century.

As for the cassoulet we know, the Languedocian towns of Castelnaudry, Carcassone, and Toulouse all claim credit for having created le cassoulet officiel. There are certain parameters that are agreed upon though: a cassoulet must be at least 30% pork, mutton or preserved goose, with the rest comprised of haricot beans and stock, fresh pork rinds, herbs, and flavorings. Remember my summer version, designed specifically to placate a yen for colder, cozier months? At the time I mentioned that, within these restrictions, cassoulet is still a recipe whose ingredients vary spectacularly from town to town, and of course from house to house too. In short it is a dish that inspires rivalry and pride in equal measure.

In fact Chef Montagné, clearly taking as fact that cassoulet comprises a religious experience (and I hope you’ll understand that stance after trying it), defined the three major versions of the dish as a holy Trinity:

1. The “Father,” and by many approximations the oldest of the 3, is the version from Castelnaudry, comprised of pork (loin, ham, leg, sausages, fresh rinds) & often preserved goose.

2. The “Son” is from Carcassone and uses leg of mutton and, during the hunting season, partridge.

3. The “Holy Ghost” is the cassoulet prepared in Toulouse, and this past weekend in rough approximation at a certain Manhattan address not too far from one of the city’s main greenmarkets. The Toulousain recipe incorporates the same ingredients as Castelnaudry’s only in smaller amounts, the difference being made up with fresh lard, saucisse de Toulouse or Toulouse sausage, mutton and duck or goose.

As you might expect, there are a couple of limitations to cooking cassoulet Toulousain in New York rather than Toulouse. Certain items have to be streamlined. In absence of petit salé, a lean salt pork, I use pancetta, which I’ve always felt slightly sacrilegious doing until I saw that Clifford Wright does the same thing. You know what? It works. And it tastes divine. He also sometimes substitutes mild Italian pork sausage for the saucisse de Toulouse, a straightforward, robust, coarsely ground, fairly fatty, pure pork sausage. Again, I’ve never seen the Toulousain saucisse in New York, but Julia Child came up with a few extra seasonings to make up the difference. I’m assuming you don’t have access to the Toulousain version either, but if you do, then you can omit the cognac, allspice, one of the bay leaves, and two of the garlic cloves.

Here then is my New Yorker’s locavore version of cassoulet Toulousain, something that’s been researched and tinkered with for years. The recipe below includes many meats sourced from the greenmarket: duck confit from Hudson Valley Duck Farm, sweet Italian sausage, ham hocks, and spare ribs from Flying Pigs Farm, and lamb shoulder from Catskill Merino Lamb. In case you would like to play around a bit but still stay true to tradition, you can boil (and then discard) a pound of fresh pork skin with the beans (a step considered by many to be of the utmost importance, though I’ve skipped it the past few years to no great loss), or add a little pork lard or swap out some of the lamb for pork shoulder when you braise the meats. Also feel free to substitute goose confit for the duck if you’d rather.

I suppose it might theoretically be possible to prepare this dish in one day, as long as you salt the ham hocks two nights before that is, but I like to stretch it out more leisurely over two or three days and really enjoy layering all the flavors. It makes it feel more like a celebration and less like going into battle. Plus don’t forget that all meat braises develop better flavor over a couple of days. I often soak and boil my beans on day one, brown and braise my meat on day two, and then assemble and cook my cassoulet on day three.

Oh and purists insist on breaking the gratin crust a certain number of times during the cooking process (seven in Castelnaudry and eight in Toulouse), which is something most locals would rarely get hung up on. The breadcrumbs do help all that pork and duck fat to thicken the sauce – just try to crack the crust several times during the cooking process before allowing a final crust to form.

Serves 10 – 12

2lbs ham hocks, I prefer unsmoked
kosher salt
2 lbs dried haricot beans or medium sized navy beans
olive oil
2 lbs mild, fresh Italian pork sausage
1 lb well-trimmed lamb shoulder, cut into large cubes
6 pork spare ribs, separated
½ lb pancetta, sliced as thinly as possible
2 ½ lbs duck leg confit (about 6 legs)
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
4 cloves
1 bunch of carrots, ends trimmed (roughly half a pound)
14 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
1/3 cup cognac or armagnac
1 bottle dry white wine
2 cups or 1 lb canned crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp tomato paste
3 bay leaves
large pinch allspice
large pinch granulated sugar
freshly ground black pepper
10 stems of thyme
1 large bunch flat leaf parsley
good quality veal or chicken stock, preferably homemade
4 cups very coarse fresh breadcrumbs

Two nights before you begin, salt your ham hocks:

Two nights before you want to cook your beans, roll the ham hocks in kosher or other coarse salt and place in a bowl in the fridge.

Soak and boil your beans:
Pour your beans onto a baking sheet or table and rake through to pick out any stones or discolored beans. Place the beans in a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold, running water. Place the beans in a very large, heavy-bottomed casserole and cover with lots of cold water. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often and skimming off any foam with a large spoon. Boil for 2 minutes and then drain, rinsing the beans again thoroughly under cold, running water. Give the large casserole a quick rinse too. Pour the beans back into the pot and cover with cold water. Soak off the heat for 1 hour, then drain and rinse the beans and pot again.
(As an aside, I love that Elizabeth David notes in her discussion of cassoulet that the water from the first boil of the beans was traditionally saved by housewives from the Languedoc to remove difficult stains from linens.)

Rinse your ham hocks well and pat dry. Heat a large heavy pot over medium heat and add some olive oil. Brown your ham hocks, turning occasionally. Add your beans and cover generously with hot water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a very gentle simmer, and cook partially covered for 2 hours, skimming off any foam or scum that rises to the surface and topping up with boiling water whenever necessary to keep the beans well covered.

Towards the end of the cooking, check the seasoning of the cooking liquid with salt and pepper. Store the beans in this cooking liquid (which will be reserved for later) until you’re ready to assemble the cassoulet. Remove the ham hocks and remove the meat from the bones. Reserve the meat for later.

Brown and braise the meats:
You may do this at the same time that you boil your beans if you wish. This browning and braising step though should not be divided into different days or else you’ll lose your lovely pan juices and fond, both of which are key to building the flavor of the dish. The trick to successful searing is to start with dry meat and to never overcrowd the pan – it’s best to work in batches, removing browned pieces to a large bowl to catch all the drippings. Also it’s important not to burn the fond that will accumulate on the bottom of the pan, so watch carefully and be ready to lower the heat, add more oil, and take more time to brown your meat.

Heat a large cast iron casserole over medium heat. Add a glug of olive oil. Prick the sausages all over and when the oil is hot, place some of them into the pot. You want the sausages very brown. Flip them once the first side is deeply caramelized and brown the other side. Remove to a bowl.

Brown the lamb shoulder pieces in the same way and then the pork spareribs, removing them to the bowl as they finish. Your pot will likely be quite full of fat now, mostly from the sausages. You should feel free to pour off some or most of it if you wish and replenish with more olive oil. Do it now though because you won’t want to lose the pancetta fat or any duck fat that renders out of the confit.

Once the oil in the pot is hot again, lay pancetta slices out across the pan. You want these to be very crisp with all the fat rendered out. Once they’re cooked on both sides, like well-done bacon, remove them to a paper towel to cool and crisp up.

Next add a few of the duck legs at a time. Brown well on both sides and remove to the bowl.

Add more oil if necessary and then add the whole onions and carrots to the pot, cooking until the onion is well browned on a few sides and being very careful that the fond on the bottom of the pan isn’t burning. Add 12 of the garlic cloves and sizzle for one minute more.

Remove from the heat and immediately add the cognac. Return to medium high heat and allow the cognac to reduce for a minute or two, scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula to help lift up that beautiful fond you’ve been building. Next add the bottle of white wine, the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and bay leaves. Add the allspice and sugar. Season with a little salt and more black pepper. Stir well. Tie some butcher’s twine around the 10 thyme stems and 10 of the parsley stems to create a bouquet garni and throw that into the pot.

Use your hands to crumble the pancetta into very small pieces, almost into a powder, and mix into the cooking liquid. (The texture will much nicer this way than having cubes of softened pancetta fat in your finished cassoulet). Now add the sausages, lamb, spareribs and duck legs back into the pot and try to have as much of the meat covered with the cooking liquid as possible. You can top up with cooking liquid from the beans or stock if necessary.

Bring the cooking liquid to a simmer over medium heat and then stir down to the bottom once to prevent sticking before reducing the heat to very low and covering. Braise the meat for 2 hours or until very tender, stirring down to the bottom occasionally and adding more cooking liquid (or stock if you run out) if necessary. Once the meat is done, remove from the heat. If you aren’t trying to finish in one day, you can let the whole thing cool and then stick it in the fridge overnight at this point, or you can go ahead and remove the meat from the bones and chill it and the cooking liquid separately overnight too.

When you are ready to proceed, and when the meat is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the cooking liquid and vegetables (which you reserve). Remove the sparerib meat from the bones, discarding the sinew, and the duck meat from the bones, discarding all skin and allowing the meat to fall into very large pieces – it will break up more as it cooks, and I like my meats vaguely identifiable in cassoulet. Slice the sausages into large rounds (it looks nicer if you do this on the bias. I get 3 – 4 slices per sausage). Make sure you transfer out and reserve all of the pieces of lamb too. Discard the bay leaves and the bouquet garni. Discard the onions and use your hands to break up the carrots and put them with the meat. Check to make sure there are no pieces of bone or duck skin in the cooking liquid and reserve.

Assemble and cook the cassoulet:

Preheat the oven to 375 F

You will really need an extremely large cast iron or earthenware pot for this. 8 to 12 quarts is ideal.

Grate or mince the remaining 2 garlic cloves and mix them into the beans. Arrange half the beans on the bottom of the pot. Now arrange your meat on top of that, including the ham hock meat and finishing with the sausage rounds. Now cover the meat with the rest of the beans. Pour over the meat braising liquid and then any remaining beans’ cooking liquid (or stock if you’re out) until the top layer of beans is just covered.

In a large bowl mix your breadcrumbs with a large handful of chopped parsley. Season generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the top layer of beans and drizzle with olive oil.

Place the cassoulet in the middle of the oven. After 20 minutes reduce the heat to 350 F. Bake for 2 more hours, topping up the cooking liquid if the pot becomes too dry with more of the beans’ cooking liquid or, if you run out of that, good homemade stock. Use the back of a cooking spoon or ladle to gently crack the breadcrumb crust several times during the cooking process and then allow it to form one last final time before serving.

When the cassoulet is finished, let it sit for 20 minutes before serving.


Joanne Rendell said...

Wow! And yum! That is all I can say!

Karen in Bali said...

What a beautiful, engaging write up. Thanks for posting.

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

Jo & Karen, thank you! I've been wanting to do proper cassoulet on here for a very long time.

Emily said...

I love the name of this recipe--holy ghost cassoulet--it's so charming and wonderful. And the post is terrific, hard to do justice to just how delicious this dish looks and sounds.

Sylvia said...

Is my father's fav french dish and also one of mine too.The post and recipe are fabulous, full of information and beautiful pics.Amazing!!!

Jessica said...

This should be in a magazine! amazingly detailed and beautifully written

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

Emily, thank you! It really is one of my favorite meals.

Sylvia, I didn't know it was your favorite! It's definitely mine too and so perfect for the cold. So glad you like.

Jessica, aren't you kind : ) So glad you like.

tribecachef said...

Sounds like good cassoulet and a good night! I usually use some smoked ham in mine.

Jenn @leftoverqueen said...

This is most impressive! Maybe next year you could make this at my house?! We have a nice guest room!

Gloria said...

Amanda this look awesome and delicious!!I love this type of dish!

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

Tribecachef, according to Paula Wolfert, (who is obviously pretty much the reigning queen of cassoulet in the English speaking world at least) there are some who swear the secret to the best cassoulet is using smoked ham hocks or other smoked pork products. I really think it's completely down to personal taste at the end of the day as long as you're not messing up that bean to meat ratio or dumping in canned beans or something.

Jenn, my friend, be careful what you wish for. Getting snowed in with you guys and a big batch of cassoulet sounds pretty darn good : )

Gloria, thank you! I do too. It's that rustic, wintery thing I love so much.

Lucy said...

It was you, darls, who coined the term 'season envy'...and, going through my bookmarks, I found that yes!, I had marked that summer cassoulet of yours.

So. This weekend - another (small groan) rainy one - I know precisely what I'm making, thank you.

And, dare I say it, but I too have missed your beautiful writing. So very, very pleased to have you posting again. Next time I'm in NY... XX

Anonymous said...

Lovely write up! What exactly are ham hocks? Are they pig's feet? I'm with you on cutting out the pork skin.
- Amy

Toffeeapple said...

Oh it's been such a long time since I last ate Cassoulet in Carcassone. Thank you for bringing back such happy memories.

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

Lucy, aren't you just the best. And I would love, LOVE you to come to NY. Is it raining on you? It was snowing on me today. Sadly I may have reached my duck confit quota for a while. I think I ate cassoulet 4 days this week.

Amy, thanks. Ham hocks are the bottom of the shank. Basically right above the foot. Lots of flavor!

Toffeeapple, that is something I've never done! How sad is that? I've left a trail of empty cassoles in my wake all over the place, but not in Carcassone. That may be reason enough to start planning a trip...

Sydney Railla-Duncombe said...

Can't wait to make this. Perfect for my next dinner party!

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

Thanks Syd. How remarkable that you are giving dinner parties and making cassoulet. I remember when all you could do was babble and make out with Italian waiters. xo

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