Much to my surprise, my last Charcutepalooza post was selected by Food 52 as one of the ten best posts for the November challenge. I’m honored that my chronicles of near disaster were considered worthy of their attention.
I had no time to rest on my laurels for successful salami making because there was one more challenge due just a few days later: Show what I’ve learned after a year-long crash course in charcuterie. When I saw that cassoulet was a suggested dish, I knew that’s what I’d have to make – it wasn’t just a technical challenge, but a personal one as well.
When I began cooking 35 years ago (!), almost every recipe presented what appeared to be an insurmountable technical difficulty. As my skills improved, the list of recipes I would never attempt grew much shorter, to the point where there are now only a handful of foods still on the list. I won’t make croissants, I won’t bake baguettes, and I wouldn’t make a cassoulet – they all had a low payoff to effort ratio. But I saw that cassoulet would let me incorporate all that I had learned into one huge dish.
Before I could begin cooking, I needed a recipe. There are probably as many “authentic” cassoulet recipes as there are towns in southern France, not to mention scores of Americanized recipes that promised “the same great taste in half the time” (feh). I had the time, I had the ingredients, so I finally settled on Ariane Daugin’s recipe as a base, with some variations introduced from Modernist Cuisine and Anthony Bourdain’s The Les Halles Cookbook.
I knew I wouldn’t have the time to cure and dry ventreche (French unsmoked bacon), so I planned to substitute a slab of my own bacon. According to Larousse Gastronomique, smoked meat is never part of a cassoulet, but I didn’t want to thrown in a slab of uncured pork belly. I liked the idea of adding duck and armagnac sausage, garlic sausage, and goose confit, which meant I would end up with a cassoulet Toulousain (from Toulouse), one of the three regional variations. I had my battle plan, now it was time to get cooking.
Goose Leg Confit
I had made goose leg confit before, using a recipe by David Rosengarten. It required a brief salting followed by a shallow low-temperature poach in duck fat. It didn’t have to be perfectly falling-off-the-bone tender since it would be braised for at least three additional hours. I also discovered that all goose legs come from the same place, whether you have your butcher order them or if you buy them directly.
This might be the simplest recipe in Modernist Cuisine. Five ingredients: pork, pork fat, garlic confit, salt, and nutmeg. I salted the meat, put it through the grinder, followed it with the fat, added the garlic and nutmeg, and stuffed the mixture into beef casings. I tied off two one-pound links, vacuum sealed them, and poached them at 59 °C for an hour.
Duck & Armagnac Sausage
I’ve got sausage making down to an exact science; all I do is vary the spices and meat mixture. This version of duck sausage was seasoned with sage and bound with armagnac.
Every recipe I consulted stressed the importance of using genuine haricot tarbais, so that’s what I bought – three pounds’ worth.
I soaked the beans overnight in a large pot of water, then prepared the meat and aromatics for cooking. I left the bacon slab whole and rolled two pieces of pork skin into cylinders.
After an hour-long simmer, I reserved the bacon and skin and discarded all of the aromatics except the garlic.
I cut the skin into bean-sized pieces, cubed the bacon, sliced the duck sausages into thirds, sliced the garlic sausage to match, then deboned the confit legs and separated each at the joint.
I realized that my largest enameled cast iron casserole wouldn’t hold everything. In fact, I would have to use my largest stockpot to cook the cassoulet. I added half the beans, layered all of the meat on top, added the rest of the beans, then poured in enough liquid (concentrated duck stock diluted with the reserved bean cooking liquid) to just cover the beans. I cooked the cassoulet for three hours at 325 °F, until it was just bubbling, then let it cool before storing it in the fridge for three days.
On the day of the big dinner, I removed the pot from the fridge a few hours beforehand to let it come up to room temperature. I baked the cassoulet uncovered for a little over an hour at 400 °F, which is when I realized why I needed a large dutch oven instead of a stockpot: the high walls of the pot inhibited the formation of the traditional (and by all accounts necessary) crust on top of the beans. I had to settle for some brown spots instead.
Our personal sommelier had a wine picked out for the course, a bubbly red:
I plated the cassoulet, making sure everyone had a few bites of everything.
I served thyme-duck fat focaccia to mop up the juiciness…
…along with a salad of bitter greens dressed with a bacon fat vinaigrette.
We drank a heavily tannic Bandol to balance the richness of the cassoulet.
I had tasted all of the components as I assembled the dish, but I wasn’t prepared for how it would all taste together. The beans were sweet and creamy, with just a bit of crunch where they had browned (which really made me miss the crust), there were caramel notes from the armagnac in the duck sausage, a definite hit of garlic, and some saltiness from the goose confit. I was concerned that the bacon might overpower the other flavors, but it would up lending just a subtle smokiness.
I have enough cassoulet left over to fill my dutch oven, which means the next dinner will have the crust as well as all of the meaty goodness.
I’ve learned the secret of making cassoulet: As I continue with my charcuterie activities, I plan on making a bit extra. When I’ve accumulated pork belly, sausages, and confit in the Deep Storage Facility, I can think about cooking some beans and putting the whole thing together without stressing about deadlines. I’ll have to work out the proportions for a smaller volume – that or ask She Who Must Be Obeyed to authorize the purchase of a bigger casserole.
I’ve been at this Charcutepalooza thing for a whole year, slowly climbing the difficulty curve along with my fellow bloggers, some of whom have become virtual friends. I am no longer afraid of making patés, terrines, salami, head cheese, hot dogs, or any of the other meaty wonders I have been pushed to try for the first time. Even thought the deadlines are finished, I still have a list of things I want to try again, either as variations or refinements. So, although the Charcutepalooza tag will no longer appear on future posts, you can be assured my adventures with handcrafted meats will continue.