The cassoulet, eight years later
An “authentic” recipe is a snapshot in a spacial/temporal continuum
For fifteen years, every time my birthday came around I served a cassoulet to eight to ten friends, as many as we could get around our dining table, followed by an array of desserts by Mary. But a couple of years ago, my old friends had mostly left London, or indeed the planet. Come the October Gallery to the rescue! Out of a casual conversation grew the idea that Mary and I should serve up our traditional feast to about fourteen of the Institute of Ecotechnics staff and friends, which was the number that my largest cassole would generously feed, and they of course would foot the bill.
So this year the tradition continued, essentially as it always had, but with a couple of small but contributory refinements. The separate elements were prepared more or less as usual as follows:
6 duck legs: Roasted slowly, covered, in the oven. Fat and juices separated, meat removed from the bones and cut into bite-sized chunks, bones reserved for stock, both refrigerated.
Confit is of course traditional but that was necessary in the days before electrical refrigeration. For me, such choices are dictated both by convenience and economy. (The latter is born, not of necessity, but of a growing discomfort at the accelerating gastronomical income gap.)
1 kilo Toulouse garlic sausages: Roasted slowly in the oven, covered, to at least 70ºC, cut up into short lengths and refrigerated.
The above two stages were done simultaneously, the two trays reversed once to equalize the cooking times.
2 pigs’ feet (not split, which produces sharp bits of bone): Pressure-cooked with a generous cup of water for two hours. The meat comes completely off the bones, which turn white, making the tiny ones easy to spot for removal. Meat and stock refrigerated.
Half shoulder of mutton, about a kilo: This is the most complex part of the meat preparation, but well worth the effort. It’s adapted slightly from Richard Olney’s cassoulet recipe in his French Menu Cookbook.
2 onions, peeled and coarsely sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cubed
1/2 mutton shoulder, with surface fat removed
1/2 bottle of wine
Several cloves of garlic, peeled
Thyme, sage, rosemary, bay leaf to taste
1 can tomatoes with juice
More water as needed
Brown the meat in a heavy stockpot, starting with some duck fat. Then add the vegetables and cook until they start to go limp. Add everything else, bring to the boil and then cook over a very low heat, barely simmering, for two or three hours. When it’s done and cool enough to handle, the meat will separate readily from the bones. Combine the stock and all the vegetables in a food processor. (Olney’s instruction to strain it dates back to pre cuisine mechanique. Why waste all that texture and flavour?)
NB: At each stage, go easy with the salt. Everything will concentrate in the final cooking, including the seasoning. In fact, this year I didn’t add any salt at all; no one missed it.
Half kilo of pork belly: Slow-cooked on a gas ring with a heat diffuser in a covered Creuset-type casserole, along with a couple of roughly chopped shallots and carrots, a few cloves, several cloves of garlic, and a couple of bay leaves. Browned first, then simmered in some of the already existing stock, so that the flavors integrate and intensify. This may take a couple of hours, after which the skin with its thick layer of fat can be separated and the rest boned as necessary and cut into bite-size pieces. Remove the cloves, combine the stock and its ingredients in a food processor. It will be very thick and rich; it can be thinned as necessary for the final assembly. Refrigerate.
1 kilo dried haricot beans: Keep it simple. Soak them overnight and remove defective beans and foreign objects (Don’t be too literal; these days the beans themselves will probably be foreign objects. For several years most were coming from Argentina; this year it was Ethiopia.) Cover with fresh water, bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer, checking regularly that there is plenty of water.
The cooking time will vary according to how old they are. I once had beans straight from a farm that were done in less than an hour; another year those from a supermarket were so old that they never softened. That’s why I don’t cook any of the meat along with the beans as some recipes suggest: when the beans are ready, the meat is likely to be overdone or underdone. I’m not a chef running a kitchen; I don’t have to use my time efficiently, so I’m happy to putter along doing jobs one at a time.
This year I was lucky—the beans were ready in an hour and a quarter of gentle cooking. They should be close to done, but not quite. A bit al dente is desirable; they’ll be getting several more hours of slow cooking. Don’t bother to cook them in stock. There will be bean water left over, and if it’s stock, then there’s that much wasted flavor that hasn’t gone into the cassoulet. In the final assembled baking, the flavors will have plenty of time to integrate. (And so, hopefully, will your guests around the dinner table.)
There’s a final naughty ingredient to be prepared in advance. In a food processor, I combine the thoroughly cooked gelatinous meat from the pigs’ feet with lots of garlic and some warm stock. This is adapted from an insidious suggestion from Paula Wolfert years ago by way of Charles and Lindsey Shere. Mixed with the meat stews prior to assembly, it transports the cassoulet ineluctably into the higher realms of Dante’s Paradiso.
For logistical reasons, the cassoulet had to be baked the day before and reheated at the Gallery before dinner. Not a disadvantage—it’s always better the next day! This year, two significant alterations made this easy:
A Tala thermometer with a metal probe wired to an external control box let me keep track of the temperature. In a slow oven (150C) I aimed at 70C final internal temperature.
When reheating the next day, the fat had of course solidified and all the moisture had been absorbed. I started the oven low, lifted the mixture away from the sides of the cassole and poured in as much hot water as it would take, checking regularly and adding more. I kept it full right up to the top; having put a pan of water in the bottom of the oven, I didn’t worry about it overflowing and burning on the oven floor. As a result, the meat and beans were never at risk of drying out and hardening. Again, the Tala thermometer let me control the reheating time relative to the ultimate serving time.
At the end, the cassoulet was the most moist but also the richest in flavour and texture of any I’ve ever had, and with a generous deeply browned crust. Was it authentic? Certainly not! Too much meat content relative to the beans! It was authentic only as a great New York or San Francisco pizza or a Providence RI Mafia lasagne is authentic—a peasant dish elevated to luxury by New World immigrant prosperity.
John Whiting, 18 November 2014