Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An easy cassoulet a la frangourou

Cassoulet country--the triangle of Toulouse, Castelnaudary, Carcassonne--is home territory for us Massons and over the years I've eaten this quintessential south-western French dish pretty often, mostly in France, and mostly home-made too, though also in restaurants and occasionally from tins(the best of these, to my way of thinking are the Maison Samatan ones sold in the wonderful Victor Hugo markets in Toulouse, and the famous La Belle Chaurienne ones from Castelnaudary).
My father's sister, my late aunt Betty, used to make a legendary cassoulet so tasty and hearty that you felt it would have seen Napoleon's army through a Russian winter forced march; my mother used to make confit, for cassoulet and other dishes, if we were back at Empeaux for a European winter, and for quite a few years here too when David and I kept ducks(Muscovy ducks, actually, which are more related to geese in fact)here in our Northern Tablelands home, we also made duck confit in the winter, and had wonderful magrets and cassoulets. Though the Muscovies have gone--we got sick of their messy ways and tired of the work involved in keeping them--we still make cassoulet occasionally--and have also branched out into pork confit which is also pretty nice(you need good free range pork for this. Our way of doing it is quite easy, if time-comsuming, but then you can't make a good cassoulet in too much of a hurry! I've included here the recipe for confit which needs to be made at least a few days in advance and in fact improves if you can leave it for a few weeks. If you don't want to include confit, simply follow the rest of the recipe for a cut-down version.
To make the confit: You need duck pieces(breast and legs are best), a fair bit of coarse salt, duck fat, sprinkle dried thyme and bay leaf. Put the dry duck pieces in a glass dish, rub all over with the coarse salt(needs to be pretty thickly crusted). Add the herbs, cover and leave in fridge(or a cold pantry) for about 36 hours. After that, melt the duck fat--if you don't have enough, you can add melted pork lard to it too. Take out the duck pieces, drain the liquid, wipe off the salt completely. Heat the fat in a saucepan, cook the duck pieces in it. It needs to simmer for about an hour—if it's properly cooked, the juice will run yellow(test with a skewer.) Cool the duck, put in a jar with the fat on to-it must cover all the duck and a bit more-then cover jar with lid or greaseproof paper. The fat solidifies and preserves the meat. It can be preserved in the fridge or a cold pantry(only in the winter) for a few weeks or used within a day or two if you're in a hurry! You can also make pork, goose or even chicken confit in the same way.
Pieces of the confit are then used in the cassoulet itself.
For the cassoulet, you need the confit, haricot beans, Toulouse sausage(if none available use Italian sausages)olive oil, onions, garlic, herbs(rosemary, thyme, parsley), tomatoes(fresh or tinned), breadcrumbs, salt, pepper. You can also add some unsmoked bacon(such as pancetta) or pork belly pieces if you like. And in some recipes even more meat, such as mutton pieces, are also included, but we don't do it, or you feel like you're going to expire from protein overload! Proportions depend on how many you're cooking for, but for 6 people you'd need about 500 g beans, 2 garlic cloves, 2 onions, 2 or 3 tomatoes depending on size, ½-2/3 sausage per person, and if using pancetta or pork belly, a little for each person. If you don't use duck confit, add more sausage and pork belly/pancetta. To prepare the beans, either soak them overnight in cold water, or to do it more quickly, put them in a pan with cold water, without adding salt. Bring this to the boil and cook for 15 minutes. Do not salt the beans until at least half-way through this cooking time(salting them too early makes them harder to cook quickly). Drain the beans. Fry half the onion and garlic in the olive oil, add the beans, pepper, half the herbs, and if you like a little white wine, cover with a little stock or water, simmer till beans are tender. In a different pan fry the rest of onion and garlic, the sausage, pancetta or pork belly, rest of herbs, pepper, a little salt, and tomatoes. When beans are cooked, drain and add sausage mixture to it. Now take out the confit from its jar, heat through in a little of its own fat. Lay it in the bottom of a casserole dish, put the bean/sausage mixture on top. Cover with breadcrumbs, and sprinkle them with olive oil. Cook in oven or under grill till top has gone golden brown.
Serve with salad and a good red wine.

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