Three things came together in the making of tonight’s dinner:
- I spotted Rancho Gordo Flageolet beans at Revival Market the other day while getting food ready for Thanksgiving, so I bought a pound;
- I had a leftover turkey leg (drumstick + thigh) from Thanksgiving – browned, then braised, then roasted and fall-off-the-bone delicious – that bore no small resemblance to a very oversized leg of duck confit;
- and my friend Kate Hill had written over the weekend about her birthday and her love of cassoulet
Y’know, sometimes the universe just conspires to send you a message. With a relatively busy-but-meeting-free afternoon working at home, I decided to make cassoulet(*).
* – sort of.
Many, many words have been written by many, many smarter people than I about the tradition, lore, and correctness of what makes up a cassoulet. What beans are correct, what sausage is required, whether duck or goose confit should be used – I’m far from well versed in all the nuances, and will not rehash it here.
I took a different tack. Much of the world’s culinary tradition – not the high-end gastronomy, but the real back-to-roots cuisine – stems from pragmatism in the face of scarcity. Using what’s plentiful and available when it’s there and devising ways to preserve it (or reminisce about it) when it’s gone, awaiting the return when the season rolls back around and all that.
So, in the best tradition of every housewife, homesteader, cook, and grandmother that came before me, I winged it.
My cassoulet would be mistaken for its French inspiration the same way one might, say, mistake a Warhol for a Rembrandt. But instead of Warhol, think “high school art project”. Although, some of the people I was in high school with were crazy talented, so maybe “finger painting” is more apt. (It really wasn’t that bad at all. Maybe more like Banksy.)
Roughly speaking, building a cassoulet goes something like:
- Cook beans with aromatics until mostly cooked.
- Brown meats separately.
- Build layers of beans and meats, add just enough pot liquor back to moisten, and bake until done.
Work with what’s available. I managed to run out of onions over the holiday weekend – oops! – so a leek made a valiant effort to stand in. A head of garlic, because why not? Long cooking mellows out garlic. Carrots and celery for flavor. Bacon because beans really benefit from having some kind of salty or smoky pork in the pot while the cook, and because it’s bacon. Chop it all up, mix it with the beans, and pour in the turkey broth I had remaining from Thanksgiving, just enough to cover it all by an inch or so of liquid. Pop it on the stove, bring it up to a simmer, and cover and simmer until the beans are ready.
(Things to note: I got away without presoaking the beans, but it does help. So does actually bringing the beans to a rolling boil for a few minutes rather than just up to a simmer. But hey, I’m still learning how to use dried beans.)
In my case, the meat came from a shredded turkey leg and some leftover ham from the Thanksgiving holiday. Shred the turkey, eat a bit, cut up the ham, eat a bit, put it in a bowl … and in the adapted words of Richard Dreyfus in Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger pot.
In lieu of diced tomatoes, I browned a can of tomato paste just a touch in the larger pot, and built the layers. Start with beans, end with beans, and put the meat in the middle – nothing too fussy. Add enough liquid to just cover, and bake for a couple of hours or so until everything is bubbly and a light crust has formed. Traditionally, there is a crumb layer of bread crumbs in butter or oil, but I was keeping this gluten free. (I did try to go with nuts instead, and mixed almond meal in with melted butter. Best we don’t speak of that thought, just that we’re all happy I didn’t try to glop it on top of the cassoulet.)
Dish it out – even eating like royalty, I’ve still managed to multiply leftovers and beans into a few more meals. Topped here with a bit of beurre de gascogne(*)
* – sort of.
Traditional would be a mix of garlic pulp, rendered lard, and parsley. I did that, and it’s delicious. Then I made a more tailored version, with roasted garlic, rendered bacon fat, and parsley. Something nice to top a bowl of beans with, I suppose.
So what if it was 73 Fahrenheit or 23 Celsius here today? Winter is a state of mind.