Monday, March 1, 2010

A French Feast


Whoa, this last week definitely got the better of me!  It seemed like every last item on my to-do list suddenly reached its deadline, and every spare and frazzled moment was consumed by errands and chores.  Any hopes of blogging just got lost in the shuffle.  But the important thing is, we’re still on track.  The dinner parties are progressing right on schedule.  And I’ve been anxious all week to tell you about our latest get together, because I made one of my favorite dinners.  And so, with no further excuses or other sorts of ado, let’s talk about cassoulet.

Fourme D’Ambert Blue Cheese, Brillat-Savarin Triple-Crème Cheese,
Red & Green Grapes & French Bread Crostini
[Blanc de Blancs, Schramsberg, Calistoga, California 2003]

Cassoulet with Frisee Salad & Toasted French Baguette
[Beaujolais Cru, Morgon, Burgundy, France 2005]

Apple Tart Tatin with Vanilla Ice Cream

A traditional dish from the south of France, cassoulet is a rich and rustic slow-cooked stew of tender white beans and a variety of meats.  An undeniably homely meal– all a big mush of browns and tans and grays - cassoulet could make even the most superficial of persons believe the old truth, real beauty lies within, for no other food could taste more beautiful.  Creamy white beans infused with smoky bacon flavor, rich and salty shreds of duck confit, mini sausage cakes seasoned with herbs and spices, indulgent slices of fatty pork belly, tender cubes of roasted pork loin and deeply aromatic, slow-cooked lamb stew, all enfolded in a deeply flavored sauce and topped with a thick and toasted crust of buttery herbed breadcrumbs. 


Layer upon layer of incredible goodness, cassoulet is as homey as it is homely, a big slow-cooked pot of pure comfiness.  One bite can warm your soul.  A winter dish through and through, it begs to be eaten next to a crackling fire, in a little log cabin out in the middle of a snowy forest.  Or perhaps simply in a cozy little Chicago fourth-floor apartment, with stools pulled up to the kitchen island, and the Winter Olympics playing in the background. 

I’ll tell you up front, making cassoulet is a big time, majorly huge endeavor.  But in my book, the preparation of this special dish is the truest incarnation of the phrase labor of love.  Each separate component is a substantial process in and of itself.  I begin preparations for the duck confit at least two weeks before the big night.  On top of this, I make home-made chicken stock, and marinate and roast a pork loin.  I hand-make sausage patties, simmer white beans for hours, and braise a lamb shoulder.  All in all, it’s at least a whole day’s work.  Of course, you can choose to take short cuts at every stop, and save yourself a ton of time.  But the way I look at it, the more labor you put into this dish, the more love you get out of it in the end.  So I take every step slowly and carefully, celebrating the ingredients, honoring the process and relishing the whole experience.  I don’t know what I love more, the final product, or the process behind it.


For the last five years, cassoulet has been a yearly tradition for us.  And the details vary little from year to year.  I always follow Julia Child’s recipe, and serve it alongside nothing more than a simple frisee salad and toasty French baguette.  Tart tatin (an upside-down apple tart - also traditional French) is always for dessert.  And most important, we always share it with exceptionally special guests of honor.  This year we invited Ben’s Aunt Carol and Uncle Steve.  Or as I usually find myself calling them, my Aunt Carol and Uncle Steve, because they’ve been so warm and generous and welcoming towards me, ever since I first became part of the family, it seems impossible to think that we haven’t been family all along. 



And we always drink good wine with cassoulet.  And we lucked out this year – Steve, who to put it lightly, knows a good thing or two about wine, brought two sensational bottles.  With the cassoulet we sipped a Morgon Cru Beaujolais.  It was sensational – the spicy, floral notes perfectly complemented the heady flavors of the cassoulet, and its hint of acidity gave just the right amount of brightness to counter the dish’s richness. 

And an incredible Champagne-style California Blanc de Blancs perfectly complemented the cheese and grapes we had for hors d’oeuvres.  Gosh, I love a good cheese course.  For this night, I chose a pungent French blue, called Fourme D’Ambert and a classic triple-crème cheese called Brillat-Savarin, which is a lot like Brie, but creamier and, if you can believe it, way more delicious.  With a few clusters of fresh grapes and a handful of toasted crostini, it was a fittingly Frenchy start for our cassoulet feast.


And for dessert, apple tart tatin - It doesn’t get more French than that.  A ring of quartered apples bakes beneath a flaky, buttery pastry crust.  When the top is perfectly golden, the pan is removed from the oven, inverted over a serving dish, and the rosy, caramelized apples end up on top.  It’s simple and beautiful, and with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, just heavenly.



I know cassoulet seems like a daunting project.  And I admit, it’s definitely a lot of work.  But I hope I’ve convinced you of how in the end, all this work is absolutely worth it.  And while time consuming, it’s not difficult.  Each step, in and of itself, is easy.  I’ve attempted below to illustrate the steps as clearly as possible, and have included the time line I usually follow.  I would be just about the happiest blogger out there, were any of you to try it out.  So, if/when you do take on this special endeavor, definitely fill me in.  I can’t wait to hear about it!

Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
Serves about 8 people (allowing for seconds and even thirds)

Up to 2 weeks before the dinner party:
• Trim duck legs and rub with spice mixture, cover and refrigerate for 2 days. (See Duck
   Confit recipe.)

Two days after that
• Rinse spice rub off of duck legs, cook in melted duck fat, store in refrigerator, submerged
   in duck fat. (See Duck Confit recipe.)

Two days before the dinner party
• Make the stock, store covered in the refrigerator. (See Brown Chicken Stock recipe.)
• Rub the pork loin with spice mixture, cover and refrigerate overnight. (See Roasted Pork
   Loin recipe.)

One day before the dinner party:
• Shred the duck confit (see Duck Confit recipe below) and set aside.
• Roast the pork loin, cool, slice (see Roasted Pork Loin recipe) and set aside.
• Soak the white beans, simmer and slice the pork rind, and combine both of these with
   the pork belly and other flavorings to cook . (See White Beans with Pork Rind & 
   Pork Belly recipe.)  When done cooking, allow the beans to soak in the cooking liquid,
   and remove the pork belly from the beans, cool, slice and set aside.
• Prepare the braised lamb shoulder (see Braised Lamb Shoulder recipe).  When done
   cooking, reserve the meat and cooking liquid separately, and set aside.
• Drain beans from their cooking liquid. Cover with the lamb braising liquid, and simmer
   5 minutes.  Allow beans to soak in the liquid, until needed. (See White Bean recipe.)
• Prepare and sauté the pork sausage patties (See Pork Sausage Patties recipe), set aside.
• Prepare the bread crumb crust mixture.  (See Bread Crumb Mixture recipe.)
• In a large Dutch oven (or any large oven-safe and stove-top safe, high-edged pot),
   assemble  the cassoulet:
      ᵒ Arrange 1/3 of the beans in an even layer over the bottom of the pot.
      ᵒ On top of this, arrange a next layer with 1/2 of the braised lamb,
      ᵒ and over this, spread 1/2 of the roast pork loin,
      ᵒ then 1/2 of the duck confit,
      ᵒ then 1/2 of the pork belly,
      ᵒ then 1/2 of the sausage patties,
      ᵒ then 1/2 of the remaining beans,
      ᵒ then the rest of the braised lamb,
      ᵒ then the rest of the roast pork loin,
      ᵒ then the rest of the duck confit,
      ᵒ then the rest of the pork belly,
      ᵒ then the rest of the sausage patties,
      ᵒ then the rest of the beans.
      ᵒ Pour on the lamb braising juices and enough bean cooking juices to just reach
         the top layer of beans. 
      ᵒ Finally, spread the bread crumb mixture in an even layer over the top.
• Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook.

On the day of the dinner party (about 2 hours before serving):
Place the pot on the stove, over low-medium heat, and slowly bring the cassoulet to a simmer, about 45 minutes – 1 hour. 
• While the cassoulet is heating up, preheat the oven to 375°F.
• Place the simmering cassoulet into the oven.  When the top has crusted lightly, after about 20 minutes, break the crust with a spoon and baste with the cassoulet liquid. Repeat this when the top has crusted again, but leave the final crust intact for serving.  If the liquid becomes too thick during baking, add a small amount of the bean cooking liquid.  The cassoulet should cook for about one hour.  Serve hot. 


Duck Confit 

4  duck legs
6 Tbl kosher salt
1 Tbl freshly ground black pepper
scant 1/2 tsp ground cloves
scant 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 head garlic
8 whole cloves
1 – 1 1/2 quarts duck fat *

With a sharp knife, make a circular incision around the bone of each duck leg, about a half inch from the end, just below the ankle joint, cutting through the skin and tendon.

Combine the salt, pepper, ground cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, thyme & rosemary and mix to combine.  Slice the head of garlic in half, and pierce each half with 4 cloves. 

Thoroughly rub the spice mix all over the duck legs.  Add the duck legs, garlic and bay leaf to a medium-sized container, cover an air-tight lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 days.

Rinse off the salt mixture, under cool running water.  Reserve the studded garlic head.

Preheat oven to 250°F.  In a medium-sized sauce pot, melt the duck fat and bring to just a simmer.  Add the duck legs and studded garlic and return to a bare simmer.  Cover the pan with an oven-proof lid or tin foil, and place in the oven.  Simmer in the oven until meat is fork tender and the skin of the leg has shrunk off the bone, about three hours.  Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.

Remove the legs from the fat, and strain the fat through a fine sieve. Place the duck legs in a clean, appropriately sized container.  Pour the strained fat over the legs, making sure they are fully submerged.  Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.  Store until needed, up to three weeks.

When ready to assemble the cassoulet, remove the duck legs from the fat.  Remove the skin and discard.  Remove the flesh from the bones and tear into bit-sized shreds.  Discard the bones. 

To save the fat for another use, add it all into a sauce pot and place over medium heat.  Bring just to a simmer.  Remove from heat, cool about 15 minutes, then strain through a fine mesh sieve.  Store frozen, in air-tight containers, until needed again.

* The trickiest part about making duck confit is having enough duck fat on hand.  Whenever I cook with duck, I render my own - I trim off all the extra skin and fat, combine it all in a pot, and leave it over low-medium heat until all the fat melts and the skin becomes golden brown and crispy (which is a delicious bonus snack!).  Then I strain the fat off through a fine sieve and freeze it in an air-tight container.  A whole duck will only give about a cup or so of fat, but I collect it over time.  You can also buy duck fat from a specialty store or a good butcher, but it’s expensive.  The New York Times has recently published a recipe for duck confit that aside from what’s already on the duck legs, calls for no extra fat.  I haven’t tried it out, but I thought I’d mention it, because this technique could make the whole process more do-able for everyone.  Check it out here.

Brown Chicken Stock
Makes about 2 quarts

4 # chicken bones
vegetable oil, as needed
1 large onion, chopped
1 leek, washed and chopped
4 sprigs parsley
1 sprig thyme
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 tsp black peppercorns
kosher salt, to taste

Place a large roasting pan in the oven and preheat to 475°F. 

Remove the hot pan from the oven, add vegetable oil to lightly cover the bottom of the pan, and then add chicken bones in a single layer across the pan.  Quickly return pan to the oven.  Roast, rotating and turning bones about every fifteen minutes, until all bones are deeply browned, about 1 hour.

Remove the bones from the roasting pan and place in a large stock pot.  Add water to cover the bottom of the roasting pan, place the roasting pan over low-medium heat, and bring to a simmer, using a wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Remove from the heat and pour this liquid into the stock pot.  Cover the bones with 2 1/2 quarts water, place over medium heat and bring to a simmer.  Lower the heat and keep at a bare simmer for about 4-6 hours (more time will give you more flavor).  Add boiling water as necessary throughout cooking, to keep the bones submerged.

While the chicken bones are simmering, brown the onions and leeks: Heat a sauté pan over medium heat, then add the chopped onions, leeks and about 1 Tbl vegetable oil.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are well browned.  Remove from heat and set aside until needed.

After the bones have simmered for the 4-6 hours, add the browned vegetables, parsley sprigs, thyme, garlic & peppercorns.  Season with a good big pinch or two of salt.  Simmer 30 minutes.  Remove from heat and pour through a fine sieve.  Discard the solids. Taste the stock and season with more salt, if needed.  Reserve the stock until needed.

Roasted Pork Loin

1 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1/8 tsp ground bay leaf
pinch allspice
1/2 clove mashed garlic
12 oz boneless pork loin
1 Tbl vegetable oil

Mix together the salt, pepper, thyme, ground bay leaf, allspice and garlic.  Rub the spice mixture all over the surface of the pork.  Place in an air-tight container and marinate overnight, turning 2-3 times.

Scrape off the spice rub, and use a paper towel to thoroughly dry the meat.

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Heat an oven-proof sauté pan over medium-high heat for two minutes.  Swirl the vegetable oil into the pan and continue to heat 1 minute.  Add the pork loin to the pan and brown, about five minutes.  Flip it over and brown about three minutes more.  Place the pan in the oven and cook until the internal temperature of the pork is about 150°F.  Set aside to cool to room temperature.  Slice into 1/2 inch cubes.  Reserve.


White Beans with Pork Rind & Pork Belly

1 # great white northern beans
1/2 # fresh pork rind or salt pork rind
4 parsley sprigs
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 sprig thyme
1 clove
1 bay leaf
1/2 # chunk  of fresh pork belly
1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot, bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a rapid boil.  Add the beans and boil for 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let the beans soak in the water for 1 hour. 

While the beans soak, place the pork rind in a medium sauce pan, cover with 1 quart cold water, bring to a boil, and boil for 1 minute.  Drain, rinse in cold water, and repeat the process.  Then, using kitchen shears, cut the pork rind into 1/4 inch strips, and cut the strips into small triangles (see picture below).  Add the rind triangles and 2 cups cold water to the sauce pan and simmer 30 minutes.  Remove from the heat and set aside.  (This process softens the rinds, making it meltingly tender.) 

Combine the parsley sprigs, garlic clove, thyme sprig, clove and bay leaf, and wrap in a small satchel using a small square of cheese cloth and kitchen twine. 

When the beans are finished soaking, add to the pot the herb satchel, the pork belly, the sliced onions and 1 tsp salt.  Bring to a simmer.  Simmer slowly, skimming off any scum that rises to the top, until the beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours.  (To keep beans covered in liquid, add boiling water as necessary throughout cooking.)  Near the end of cooking, season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Discard the herb satchel.  Remove the pork belly.  When cooled to room temperature, slice in 1/8 inch slices (see picture below), and set aside until needed.  Leave the beans in their cooking liquid until ready to use.

When the lamb shoulder is done braising (see Braised Lamb Shoulder recipe below), drain the beans from their cooking liquid (reserve the bean cooking liquid).  Add the beans back to the pot and cover with the lamb braising liquid.   Add the bean cooking liquid, if necessary, to cover the beans.  Bring to a simmer, and simmer gently for 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat, and allow the beans to soak in the liquid until needed (in order to absorb flavor).  When you are ready to assemble the cassoulet, drain the beans from the liquid, reserving each separately.


Braised Lamb Shoulder

2 # bone-in lamb shoulder
vegetable oil, as needed
1 cup minced onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbl tomato paste
2 Tbl tomato puree
1 1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups brown chicken stock (see recipe below)
1 bay leaf
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, as needed

Slice closely along the bones to remove the shoulder meat from the bones.  Reserve the bones, and slice the meat into 1 1/2 inch cubes.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for two minutes.  While the pan is heating, use a paper towel to pat dry the cubed lamb meat.  Season the meat with salt and pepper.  Add vegetable oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan and continue to heat 1 minute.  Working in 2 batches, place half of the lamb cubes into the pan, one by one, leaving space between them.  Brown for two minutes, then flip over and brown for two more minutes.  Remove the cubes of lamb to a side dish, then repeat with the remaining lamb.  Brown the lamb bones, about 2 minutes per side, and add them to the meat. 

If the oil has burned, discard it, then add oil again to cover the bottom of the pan.  Lower the heat to medium and lightly brown the onions, cooking for about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and thyme and cook about 2 minutes.  Add the tomato paste and tomato puree and cook 1 minute more.  Add the white wine, chicken stock and bay leaf.  Return the browned meat and bones to the pan.  Season with a pinch of salt.  Cover, keep at a very light simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Discard the bones and bay leaf.  Remove lamb meat and set aside.  Remove as much fat as possible from the surface of the cooking liquid.  Discard the fat.  Following the steps in the White Bean recipe, simmer and soak the cooked beans in the lamb braising liquid. 

IMG_0075 IMG_0078

Pork Sausage Patties


12 oz ground pork
2 Tbl brandy
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp ground pepper
pinch allspice
pinch crumbled bay leaf
vegetable oil, as needed 

Add the ground pork, brandy and minced garlic to a medium-sized bowl.  In a separate small bowl, combine and mix the salt, pepper, allspice and crumbled bay.  Sprinkle this spice mix over the pork.  Mix to combine.  Using a 1 tablespoon measuring spoon, scoop out equal portions of seasoned pork and shape into patties about 1 1/2 inch in diameter and about 1/2 inch thick.

Heat a sauté pan for 2 minutes over medium-high heat.  Swirl in oil to cover the bottom of the pan and heat 1 minute more. Working in two batches, add the sausage patties to the hot oil and brown both sides, about two minutes per side.  (You do not need to cook them through.)  Drain on paper towels and set aside until needed.

Bread Crumb Mixture  

about 12 slices stale white bread (enough to make 4 cups bread crumbs)
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1 stick butter, melted 

If the bread is not already stale, lay the slices out on the kitchen counter for about 6 hours, flipping them over every once in a while, until they are stiff and dry.  Slice the bread into 1/2 in cubes.  Working in 2-3 batches, pulse the bread cubes in a food processor to form bread crumbs of roughly equal size. 

In a large bowl, mix to combine the bread crumbs, parsley, salt and pepper.  Pour the melted butter over the breadcrumb mixture and mix to combine thoroughly. 


Frisee Salad 
Serves 4

1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl Sherry vinegar
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 small clove garlic, peeled & finely minced
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl vegetable oil
1 large head frisee, torn into bit-sized pieces, washed and spun dry
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the mustard, vinegar, thyme, garlic, a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Whisk together, and slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  The dressing can be made ahead and stored about five days, refrigerated in an airtight container.

Place the frisee in a large mixing bowl.  Drizzle the vinaigrette over the top, enough to evenly coat the frisee – You man not need to use it all.  Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.  Serve immediately. 


Apple Tart Tatin 
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook by Martha Stewart

For the crust:
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbl sugar
1 stick butter, cold, cut into small pieces
2-4 Tbl ice water

Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl and stir to combine.  Add the butter.  Rub the butter and flour mixture together rapidly between your finger tips until the fat is broken into tiny pieces and the mixture resembles dry oatmeal.  Tablespoon by tablespoon, drizzle the water over the flour mixture, mixing with your hand (use your actual hand, not a spoon) between additions, until the dough begins to hold together, without being wet or sticky.  You can test the dough by squeezing together a small amount – if it is still too crumbly and does not hold together, add a bit more water.   Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface.  Knead once or twice to bring the dough all together.  Shape into a flattened disk.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

4 Tbl butter, cut into small pieces, plus more for greasing the pan
flour, for dusting
1 cup sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
2 1/2 large Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored & cut into quarters

Preheat oven to 425°F.  Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan, and set aside.  On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the chilled dough to a 9-inch round.  Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and chill until needed.

Mix together the sugar, lemon juice and 2 Tbl water in a small sauce pot.  Bring to a boil over high heat, and cook, without stirring, until the mixture turns a deep amber color, about 3 to 5 minutes.  (If it happens to take even longer, just be patient.  Keep cooking until you have a deep amber.)  Turn off the heat and add the butter, swirling to combine.  Pour the caramel mixture into the greased pie pan.

Arrange the apple quarters, round side down, around the pan in a circular pattern, with one in the center.  Fit the apples as close together as possible.  Drape the dough round over the apples to cover completely.

Place in the oven and bake until golden, about 25-30 minutes.  When done, remove from the oven and immediately invert onto a serving dish.  (Place the serving dish upside-down over the pie plate, hold the two dishes together and invert to right side-up.)  Allow to cool about five minutes.  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.


  1. Kate this is beautiful - bravo for taking on such a time consuming (and rewarding!) dish. Great pictures!!

  2. Thank you, Katie! After a week of prep, it certainly tasted rewarding!