One need only read the “cassoulet” entry in the Larousse Gastronomique to be forever cast under its spell. It is good bedtime reading, best done on a full stomach and with clean blankets nearby for dabbing the moistened corners of the mouth. Additionally, the bed is a good locale for there’s something slightly deliciously racy about the prose. Something that thickens the blood and expedites the heartbeat.
“…on the surface of the dish a golden crust forms, thick and fat. Break it because this element must be incorporated… put it back in the oven, wait until another crust forms, which must be broken, and this must be done six times. Serve after breaking the crust seven times…”
Further along, you’ll find a description of the slowness of preparation of the dish. This is quite the opposite of the “quick and easy” bent of food culture. I won’t mention any names. It is a 20-hour recipe, not a 20-minute recipe. It is a recipe for people who want to come home after a long day of work and whip up dinner and have it ready for the following day. It is for people whose first thoughts upon awakenment from a night of dreaming are not just of dinner, but of dinner several days hence.
“…a little tavern in the rue Vavin, chez Clemence, who only makes one dish… to be good it must have cooked very slowly for a long time. Clemence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. She replenishes the pot sometimes with goose, sometimes with pork fat, but it is always the same cassoulet.”
With this subtext, we transport cassoulet to the wilds of Texas, a place whose entries into the world’s culinary playbook lie more within the realm of deep-fried blobs of Coca-Cola syrup than twenty-year-old cassoulets.
A Dallas attorney with 20-10 vision, a shottie polished to a high sheen, and too much free time gifted me a freezer bag of three unfortunate ducks, shorn of their mortal coils and then their feathers and innards somewhere in Southern Louisiana. I puzzled over the best use of the critters for several months until an Austin parkland acquisition dealmaker with a trusty hand-me-down .30-06 and too much access to virgin parkland provided me some smoked sausage made from a whitetail that last frolicked on a crisp December day in Llano County. In a fine bit of lesser-known algebra violating the associative and probably the distributive properties, duck plus sausage equals both gumbo and cassoulet. Of course, gumbo is just a fuzz too easy. It only takes twelve hours to prepare. Cassoulet, now there is a culinary project as manly as the slaying of the fauna from whence it is inspired. Add the complicating factor of a nine-month-old human baby clambering between your feet, racing toward the oven, dodging spattering molten fat, and pulling on the legs of your camera tripod, and you’ve got a quite masculine task ahead of you.
Oh… what is cassoulet? I sincerely apologize for the forgotten Journalism 101 lesson… I violated the tenets of the inverted pyramid of prose composition. Appropriately, cassoulet conforms well to an inverted food pyramid, one where meats and fats are to be eaten in massive quantities and vegetables are nearly nary seen. Cassoulet is Languedoc’s contribution to the Pantheon of French culinary classics, a hearty, peasanty white bean and meats casserole. Castelnaudary claims to be the world capital of the cassoulet. Of course, once the flag is planted, all others are pretenders, responders, apers. Toulouse and Carcassonne collectively slap their civic foreheads and mutter for not having taken advantage of the branding opportunity. They sadly have little else to recommend them as worthy destinations. That’s it. Meat and beans. Gallic shrug. Then why such the fuss? The fuss, my dears, is that every last muon of flavour has been wrenched from these simple ingredients. The fuss is that this is culinary alchemy at its richest. Cast aside your flimsy tools of molecular gastronomy, your favored countertop liquid nitrogen receptacle and essential oil vaporizer… I bring you true conjuration.
Enjoy the enclosed recipe. I reluctantly included numbers and amounts… don’t let those mislead you or muddy your instincts. I hope you’ll take the time to see the associated slideshow at _______, as photographs are reputed to be able to substitute for many words. It would not be a bother if you contacted me with any questions at email@example.com. Please, however, direct criticism and complaint to the proprietors of this establishment.
P.S. I forgot to include tomatoes. For that, I am sorry.
David J. Ansel
The Soup Peddler
Here’s the recipe:
3 wild ducks
1 rope smoked venison sausage
1 or 2 cups duck, chicken, or bacon/pork fat
1 or 2 smoked ham hocks
2 cups cannellini or any decent-sized white bean, soaked overnight
6 fresh bay leaves
12-18 sprigs fresh thyme
Fresh parsley for garnish
1 yellow onion
1 head garlic
Preparation time: 2 days
Butcher ducks. Use a paring or utility knife to cut off duck breasts and legs, leaving skin on. Reserve these for confit. You may desire to soak the ducks in milk for 24 hours to remove gaminess. I tend to think it’s not entirely necessary… the gaminess of my ducks seemed to have mellowed in the long cooking processes of this recipe.
Prepare stock. Break down carcasses if you wish. Add to a 4 or 5 quart pot along with ham hocks, half of bay leaves and thyme, and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, cover. Simmer for 4 hours to overnight. Strain and refrigerate to skim fat. Pull any meats from carcasses or ham hocks and reserve for cassoulet.
Prepare confit. Place a layer of duck meat in a covered oven-safe dish. Add remaining bay leaves and thyme sprigs, smashed garlic cloves, salt and pepper. Cover with remaining duck parts. Pour in room-temperature fat to cover. Cover the pot and place in a 250 degree oven for 4 hours to overnight. This can be refrigerated for a couple of weeks.
Prepare beans. Cover beans with duck/pork stock and simmer until par-cooked. Add two or so teaspoons of salt. Cook until just slightly al dente.
Prepare meats. Over a low-medium heat, saute chopped onion and a few cloves of chopped garlic in fat from the confit for twenty minutes. Add venison sausage and cook through. Pull the confit meat and add it to the sauté, just to heat through.
Assemble and bake cassoulet. Layer the sauté into the bottom of an oven-proof dish. Deglaze the pan with stock and add this to the dish. Cover with cooked beans. Pour in two or three cups of stock. Bake uncovered in a 300 degree oven for two hours, checking to make sure there is still at least a little liquid in the pan.
Serve. Spoon out a helping of meat and beans, garnished with fresh parsley and black pepper.