Monday, 9 May 2011

Confit of duck cassoulet, or Vegetarians, look away now

So I came back to Australia to encounter the first bloody cold weather of the year. The shock of it all, and the impending Saturday-night visit from Alida Irwin and the Croissanteur in order to view our respective holiday shots (theirs the wilds of Tasmania from a motorbike and sidecar), and also the memory of our mutual pre-holiday dinner at Madame SouSou’s (which was great but failed to deliver their eagerly anticipated star dish because it had been relegated to a special), led to the heartiest, richest dish possible: le cassoulet.

I’ve never made cassoulet before, and only eaten it once – at Madame SouSou’s.

I had a vague idea that it had involved duck, and a whole pile of beans, and maybe some bits of sausage. With one post-travel eye on my shrivelled credit card, I thought that a $15 fresh duck would form the bulk of the expense. Mais non. It was confit of duck, and pork belly, pancetta and special porky sausages.

Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound, we only live once, tra la, and off I went to no less than four smallgoods specialists to gather all the meat. 

In case it’s helpful to anyone contemplating this dish to make a decision whether they should go for it or stick with lentils and rice, I’ve included costs. Go for it, I say, perhaps making sure to gather a few hungry non-vegetarian friends. I might be facing lentils and rice for the rest of the winter, but I believe this was worth it; we all had a woozy, sticky, satiated sheen to our faces afterwards, and there were vast quantities of leftovers. Freezable leftovers.

Having had this rib-sticker pop into my head, I turned to my bookshelves and could only find recipes in Elizabeth David’s Provincial French Cooking and five pages’ worth in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As both of them involved elements I hadn’t pictured in mine, such as lamb and preserved goose, I went to the internet for further help. There I found a plethora of approaches, and sort of synthesised all the findings in my head to approximate a replication of the Madame SouSou version.

Here’s what I did.

4 confit duck legs ($36 from La Parisienne), left whole and surrounding fat reserved for frying – I had enough to scrape into a jar for several further references (mmm potatoes roasted in duck fat ghmmm)
4 saucisson Lyonnaise ($10 pack from Jonathan’s), thickly sliced
1 chorizo ($8 from Casa Iberica), halved lengthways and thickly sliced
600g pork belly ($6.50 from Thien Thanh), cut in 1-inch cubes
250g piece rolled pancetta ($7.50 from Piedemonte’s; they also had kaiserfleisch for $20 a kilo, which more recipes call for and I’ll try next time)
600g cannellini and red kidney beans, soaked overnight (just happened to be the beans I had on hand, though haricots seemed to be the common denominator throughout recipes)
2 large onions, sliced
3 sticks celery, diced
3 carrots, diced
200g sliced swiss mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 glasses white wine
1 litre chicken stock with a teaspoonful of Bovril in it, plus a cup or so more for later topping up
Parsley, thyme, bay leaves, handful garlic cloves roughly chopped, all tied up in muslin (I also shredded off some more thyme leaves and chopped a few cloves of garlic more finely and added them loose with the onion.)
breadcrumbs from small loaf of day-old sourdough, mixed up with yet more thyme leaves

I heeded part of Elizabeth’s lengthy and discursive (erm, kettle, pot) suggestion for bean preparation, and boiled the presoaked beans for two minutes, then let them cool. I did not, however, retain the cooking liquid for stain removal.

It took ages and a lot of energy and cat-shooing to chop up all that meat, especially hacking the pork belly into cubes with a serrated bread knife. Speaking of which, when I laid out that lovely long strip of pork belly, I was disconcerted to see a row of three nipples on it.

A nice big blob of white duck fat went into the cast iron pot and all the meat was fried up in batches, finishing with the duck. In spite of the prodigious amount of fat in the pan by that stage, the duck skin immediately caught and tore off instead of browning nicely and remaining whole. Next time I might do the duck separately in a non-stick pan, balancing the desire for retaining all the browned extraneous bits with the desire for retaining the skin on the duck leg. Or maybe the legs could be roasted until brown and crisp.

With all the meat browned and set aside out of feline reach, into all the accumulated oil went the onion to brown and cook, followed shortly by the garlic, carrot and celery, then the tomato paste, then the wine and stock and plenty of salt and pepper, then the beans and the bouquet garni, to boil covered for about an hour. This bit could have been done first in another pot and been doing its thing while I got busy frying up all the meat, but I had hope of extra flavour by way of using the same pan with all the meat residue. And how better to spend a cold Friday night than flapping about in the kitchen yelling at the cats?

Finally, a third of the cooked oniony bean mix layered the bottom of the pot, then a layer of meat pieces, another third of the beans, the rest of the meat including the four duck legs, then the remainder of the beans. Then more stock if needed (I needed) to bring the liquid just up to the top layer of beans.

At this point I let the pot cool down, stuck it in the fridge and went to bed. 

Late Saturday afternoon a couple of hours before dinner I resumed operations, topping it with the breadcrumbs and thyme, with a bit more duck fat dotted here and there, and put it uncovered into a 170C oven for about an hour and a half.

A crust formed on the breadcrumbs after about half an hour, and I pushed it just under the surface of the residual oil slick below it a couple of times with a wooden spoon, from whence it would rise up to form a new, increasingly toasty-looking golden crust. I guess it was basically thrice-baked duck fat crumbs. Not rich at all.

 Alongside this artery-clogger, I avoided anything else very full-on, favouring fairly unadorned vegetables as a foil – buttery green beans and braised-to-sticky-mildness radishes, which are new to me but my interest had been piqued by the highly esteemed Orangette. They faded to a delicate pale pink as soon as the 1/3 cup of water bubbled up around them, all their brightness leaching into the liquid.
All put together, various peripheral elements such as bread had to be banished to the sideboard. How I’d love a table with leaves in it. Hell, a bigger dining room would be nice too. And a butler. I know, if wishes were horses beggars would ride.

Quite a long time later, we were ready for Alida Irwin’s sumptuous tart from her 1930s Cooking with Pomiane (Alida Irwin actually dwells in the 1920s, but she jumped forward a decade with enormous aplomb), made from rhubarb from her garden and eggs from her chooks.

1 comment:

  1. That pic of cassoulet crust makes me want to eat it all over again. *swoon*