Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Casual Cassoulet


Cassoulet is a traditional southern French casserole consisting of meat and beans. Recipes vary region to region and may include lamb or pork, goose or duck confit, sausages or cured pork products like ham or bacon. The constant, however, seems to be the beans. The classic cassoulet is a hearty meal guaranteed to warm you up as it fills you up.

T1 is a friend of the family that owns Le Petit Cafe, an authentic French bistro in Santa Monica. Chef/owner "R", is originally from the south of France so when I saw cassoulet on his menu, I had to try it, knowing it would be the real deal. Once in a while you eat a meal that exceeds your expectations and this was one of those for me. The cassoulet at Le Petit Cafe is a delicious stew of haricots blancs (white beans), duck confit, (duck slow cooked for several hours in it's own fat), and thin, slightly spicy merguez sausages. It tasted like it had been slowly simmering all day long allowing the flavors to meld into one satisfying whole. Despite the assumed lengthy cooking process, the beans retained their bite, while the duck confit was so soft and tender it literally fell apart. How does he do it? In addition, the chewy merguez, lends yet another savory, textural element to the dish.

This evening was one of those many nights where my cooking ambitions outweighed the ingredients I had to work with but nonetheless I decided to work with what I had and set out to create something in the spirit of (by "in the spirit of" I guess you could say with beans in it) a cassoulet.

Equipped with only a chicken leg, a can of white beans, images of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec paintings and a soundtrack of French accordion music looped in my head, I set forth.

First, I browned the chicken leg. Chicken legs have enough fat that renders out during cooking so just a little oil was necessary. After flipping the chicken to brown the other side, I added sliced onions and garlic and let everything caramelize for a bit. Once a good crust formed in the bottom of the pan, I deglazed it with a couple of cups of chicken broth, careful to scrape up all the concentrated flavor. Next it was time for the aromatics, namely, a few thyme sprigs and a couple of bay leaves. I kept the heat cranked up and reached for the beans.

Now, if I had a whole day to prepare this meal to be enjoyed the next day, I would have used dried beans. From what I've read, dried beans are thirsty little creatures that readily absorb the flavors of whatever they're cooked in, but I wanted to eat preferably in the same day so I went with the canned variety instead. I like to use great northern beans. They seem to hold their shape and bite much better than cannelinis which, maybe due to the brand I most frequently buy, quickly turn to mush once heated up.

So the beans got drained and added to the pan and I also tossed in some diced tomato and a couple of carrots just for color. I put the lid on and let everything simmer on low heat for a while (about forty minutes I think). When I got tired of waiting, I opened the lid and "voila!".

Okay, so it wasn't quite like the cassoulet I remember at Le Petit Cafe, but despite not having merguez sausages or duck confit to put in it or even a proper cassole to cook it in, it came together well and was flavorful nonetheless. One thing I think I did get right is that in keeping with the peasant origins of this dish, you cook what you got and you do your best to make it taste as good as it can be.


The Death Metal Soccer Coach said...

I'm imagining white wine in there. Do they use a lot of wine in French cooking?

B said...

Hi DMSC, None of the cassoulet recipes I came across called for wine, I imagine this might be because cassoulet has humble origins in households that didn't have the luxury of cooking with wine much. I'm sure it wouldn't hurt though. I like using reds when making stews and braised shortribs bourguignonne style.