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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Cassoulet Report

Some months ago, I got it in my head to make a cassoulet the next time it was our turn to host our gourmet club. I'd never had a cassoulet and don't know if I'll ever make it to France, so I decided to read a lot of recipes and see what kind of version I could come up with in the middle of Hoosierdom.

From what I gather, cassoulet is the Gallic culinary equivalent of chili in that various towns and regions claim that their versions are the most authentic, and that any recipe that varies from theirs isn't worthy of the name. The use of lamb and bread crumbs in cassoulet are as passionately debated as whether a highly-seasoned meat stew that contains beans or chocolate can be described as chili.

Fact is, cassoulet is a traditional French peasant dish that contains beans (white, usually) and whatever kind of meat is locally available. Although in some areas that might be fish or lamb, in the heart of cassoulet country what's common is duck and Toulouse sausages. And since cassoulet is an old dish that predates refrigeration, it's traditional to use duck confit — slow-cooked duck, usually just the legs and thighs, preserved in its own fat.

Despite the fact that Indiana is one of the leading producers of duck, duck legs aren't common grocery items around here. Fortunately, a friend who was going to Cincinnati to visit her daughter stopped at Jungle Jim's and picked up a dozen for me. Another friend had half a tub of duck fat from Kincaid's, so armed with a recipe from Emeril Lagasse, I made my own confit. The seasoned duck legs had to sit for 12 hours before I could slow-cook them in duck fat for 12 hours, so a bit of planning ahead was in order.

It also took a bit of planning ahead to come of with the Toulouse sausage, which apparently isn't too common outside of France. Joe at Joe's Butcher Shop has a recipe for them though, so two days after calling him I had my five pounds (the minimum order for custom sausage) of Toulouse sausage — a bargain at just $3.29 per pound. (They are, by the way, the best sausages I've ever eaten. They're seasoned with spices, garlic and white wine, and are excellent by themselves with a little Dijon mustard for dipping.)

The white beans had to soak overnight too, so this is no spur-of-the moment dish. Once all my components were ready, I followed a recipe from Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France that called for cooking the beans in Madiran. The only Madiran I could find was $39 a bottle so I used Syrah instead.

The cassoulet turned out just fine, and now I'm plotting ways to make my own multicultural versions using chicken, lamb, and other things I like, baked in a Römertopf. I'll take photos and issue a report.
M. Zane Grey, 8:36 AM