cassouletIf you’ve read this blog for a while you’ll know that cassoulet ranks as something of a minor obsession of mine. Named for its traditional cooking vessel, the cassole, a deep, round earthenware pot characterized by slanting sides, this rich, slow-cooked, casserole of meat and beans has its origins in Languedoc. Especially the towns of Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudary, which each claim ownership of the dish and invoke minor variations on what is essentially a peasant stew assembled out of leftovers: Toulouse substitutes a local garlicky saucisson, while Castelnaudary trades duck confit for the more traditional mutton, and in Carcassonne, as I learned onboard le bateau yesterday, duck gets replaced with partridge. In the end it’s six of one: all are made with white beans, confit, sausage, and additional meats. And all soothe the soul on a cold winter’s evening like good comfort food is supposed to do. The only hitch yesterday was the weather. A heavy stew isn’t quite as inviting when the thermometer inches up into the 80’s. Not that I let that stop me.cassole


cassoulet bonne femme

Many home cooks get gun-shy when it comes to French food, having neither the time nor expertise to execute a multi-pan exercise in precision. Yet as Wini Moranville makes clear in her new book, “The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day,” Americans needn’t be afraid of French cooking. They just need to learn the bonne femme style. With a focus on fresh, tasty ingredients and a generosity of spirit, this is French cooking without fuss or fear. Now that the typical bonne femme works outside of the home just like her American counterpart (and now that French men, like their American frères, are often in charge of getting dinner on the table), Moranville’s emphasis is on easy techniques and speedy preparation in a book which shows everyday chefs that it’s possible to feast like the French, without breaking the bank or spending all day in the kitchen. A sterling example of how her recipes reflect the way real French families eat today is this Pork and White Bean Cassoulet Ce Soir, an any night stove-top take on cassoulet, the famous southwestern-France stew of white beans simmered with sausage, pork, and duck confit. While not the three-day extravaganza of a true cassoulet, this version is nevertheless a perfect expression of the book’s everyday spirit. I tried it this weekend so I can promise you it offers a good helping of the warmth and comfort that cassoulet brings – easily done in just a day.  With a crusty loaf of bread and a spicy bottle of Gigondas, it proved the perfect foil to the coming threat of snow.

2 cups dried Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over

8 cups water

2 to 2 1/2 pounds bone-in country-style pork ribs, cut in half crosswise

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped (about 3/4 cup)

1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence, crushed

1/2 cup dry sherry

3 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

12 ounces sweet Italian sausage links, cut crosswise into six pieces

1. Soak the beans in the water overnight; drain and set aside. (Or, place the beans and the water in a large Dutch oven. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain and set aside.)

2. Season the ribs with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven. Add the ribs and cook, turning occasionally, until brown on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes Transfer to a plate. Cook the bacon in the pan until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain.

3. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. Add the bell pepper and onion and cook, stirring, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and herbes de Provence and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

4. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the sherry and return the pan to the heat. Bring to a boil and boil, stirring to loosen any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until the sherry is reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add the beans, bacon, chicken broth, and drained tomatoes to the Dutch oven; top with the ribs. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover tightly, and simmer for about 1 hour (the ribs will not quite be done at this point).

5. After the ribs have cooked for about 45 minutes, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage pieces, turning as needed to brown evenly, for about 5 minutes (the sausage will not be cooked through at this point).

6. After the ribs have cooked for 1 hour, add the sausage pieces to the Dutch oven, pushing them down into the stew so that they are submerged. Bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the sausage is cooked through, the ribs are nearly tender, and the beans are tender, about 15 minutes more.

7. Uncover the pot and increase the heat so that the stew comes to an active simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced, the ribs are tender, and the stew has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

8. Serve in wide, shallow bowls, with a piece of sausage, a piece of pork, and plenty of beans in each bowl.



bucket list: 2010 – february

FRANCE:  I narrowly escaped a snowstorm which ultimately paralyzed the Northeast only to find myself landing in Paris in the middle of a – you guessed it – snowstorm.  But, of course, it’s Paris, so despite the aching cold it was also achingly beautiful. (Plus, a pair of newly-acquired woolly French long johns kept me from succumbing to the elements.)  I had cassoulet on the brain – I blame the cold – and it led me on a foraging expedition through a handful of my favorite shops in the 2nd arrondissement:  the mothership E. Dehillerin, La Bovida, G. Detou, Mora, and new favorite victualler, Comptoir de la Gastronomie, where I chanced upon both haricot Tarbais and duck confit, conveniently vacu-sealed as if awaiting a trans-Atlantic journey inside my luggage.  The foraging paid off handsomely.  Not only did I return home to concoct a splendid cassoulet, I also ultimately invented the “cassoulet cake,” a brilliant – if i do say so myself – use of leftover beans and duck.


luxe leftovers

What on earth do you do with leftover cassoulet?  It would be a crime to waste even a morsel of duck confit. (especially after smuggling it across an ocean.)  And let’s face it:  unless you’re cooking for a crowd, there’s going to be a lot of leftovers. When someone proffered the suggestion of turning it into a hash, I got an idea that falls somewhere between a crab cake and a burger:  cassoulet cakes.  And I think it’s genius, even if I do say so myself.  I molded a big scoop of cold cassoulet into a thick patty and pressed it in fresh breadcrumbs.  After cooking up a few slices of bacon, I reserved the fat and used it to brown up both sides of the cakes before transferring them to a hot oven.  While they warmed, I plated a simple mâche salad and inspired by a croque madame – and the fact that this was breakfast after allpulled an egg out of the  fridge and quickly fried one up.  After about ten minutes the hot cakes came out and slid atop the salad, the egg topped the cake, and bacon and parsley got scattered everywhere. Crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, the runny egg yolk brought it all together, while the mustard tang of the salad cut through the rich fat of both the pork and duck.  Delicious, yes.  Indulgent, yes.  And the perfect way to greet the passing of a cold and snowy February.


live blog: success!

It took two days of soaking, browning, roasting, baking (and more duck fat than I ever could have imagined) but the great cassoulet experiment proved a smashing success – especially when paired with a simple mache salad, a crunchy French baguette, and an earthy bottle of red wine.  I only wish it were a bit colder out; this hearty bean stew is wintry comfort food of the highest order.


live blog: paris booty

The great Paris booty hunt led me through a handful of my favorite shops around Les Halles in search of elusive, yet essential, ingredients as well interesting bits of kitchenalia unavailable back home. Starting at the mothership, E. Dehillerin, I picked up a covered terrine that will make a great butter dish that’s large enough to hold an oversized brick of European butter.  Somehow I restrained myself from indulging in a cast iron pâte mold and escargot plates; however, at the last minute I did succumb to a neat device for making julienne vegetables in addition to a good, solid chef’s knife. Around the corner at La Bovida I stocked up on ramekins for myself as well as for cool small gifts. Next it was on to G. Detou, across the street, where the mustard gods were smiling down upon me and I picked up the last giant pail of Fallot’s – the most authentic of the traditional Dijon mustards out there, I think. Then something unexpected happened.  While loitering down the block at Mora, I noticed the curved Art Nouveau windows of a shop I’d never seen before:  Comptoir de la Gastronomie.  It was fortuitous; inside I found bags of hard to find haricots Tarbais, vacuum packed duck confit, confiture l’onion, and logs of fresh Toulouse saucisson. I judiciously passed on the saucisson.  Something told me that I was already sneaking enough contraband into my luggage – I didn’t need fresh garlic sausage to set the dog tails wagging, too.  The rest of the goodies, however, were quickly shoved into a bag.  Together they’ll be making a reappearance this weekend in a cassoulet, as I test the theory that I’m an even better cook than I am smuggler.


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