Friday, November 21, 2008
Keep out the Cold with a Warming Stew.
I promised I'd write some more about our local speciality, the famous cassoulet. Much has been written about this rustic stew, and it has become something of a must- try on the tourist circuit. So, one witnesses the comical sight of coach-loads of heavily perspiring tourists packing out the restaurants of la Citié,the Unesco Heritage Site in Carcassonne, manfully ploughing their way through steaming plates of bean stew in the 30c heat of July. Because 'it's what you do when you take in the sites of Carcassonne'. You bring a copy of the DaVinci Code to study in an ostentatious manner as well.
Every European country has a winter stew written into its gastronomic history, if only to use up all those hearty winter vegetables in an effort to keep warm, from Lancashire hotpot to Tuscan white bean stew. And in the chill of a Southwest France winter, cassoulet was just as much of an alternative to central heating as all the rest. Basically it's a white bean stew, very much like the Tuscan one, with sausages,tomatoes, garlic and meat. It's in the choice of meat that the cassoulet displays its regional characteristics.
As I mentioned before, the town of Castelnaudery lays claim to producing 'le vrai' cassoulet. And a village just north of the town was famous for producing the traditional red clay pot that the stew should be served in. This is a deep bowl, with the sides narrowing towards the base. This gives plenty of space for the bread-crumb crust that some regions insist on for the finished dish.
Depending on where you eat your cassoulet will determine what meat is likely to be in it, but as a rough guide it's:
Castelnaudery : all pork...any cuts together with sausages and pork rind
Toulouse : pork, but confit duck or goose as well, and Toulouse sausage (naturellment)
Carcassonne : pork, and sausage with lamb, or if its's in the autumn, you may be lucky enough to find a piece or two of partridge
The Perigord : lamb, Toulouse sausage and cou farci d'oie...stuffed goose neck.
There are so many variations that really, anything goes as long as you stick to the main ingredients which must include dried haricot beans. They should be lingots produced around Tarbes but they are hideously expensive and probably not that easy to find in the UK.
There are three processes to the making of a cassoulet: the soaked beans are cooked separately, and the meats as well, then the whole thing is brought together with confit duck or goose for the final cooking....the duck/goose will have been previously cooked when it was confit'd so doesn't require the long cooking that the rest of the ingredients do ( I'm beginning to sound like Delia Smith)
This recipe will serve 8 -10 and just requires some crusty bread to accompany it. Nothing else, oh - apart from a few bottles of a gutsy red wine. It's a rib-sticking piece of gastronomy, so no other vegetables or side dishes are neeed. Some indigestion tablets might be a good idea for those with less than robust digestions.
For the bean part you will need:
1 kg dried white haricot beans.
a carrot, an onion and 2 cloves of garlic( well, as many as you like really...this is where I stop sounding like Delia.) These should be roughly chopped
350 gms (more or less) salt belly of pork
a ham bone...if you can scrounge one from your local deli, a Bayonne, or Serrano ham bone is ideal, but an ordinary one is OK.
salt (go easy on it as you've got salt in the pork, so taste as you go) and peppercorns.
Soak the beans in cold water overnight. Then drain, rinse, and place in a large saucepan with enough water to well cover, and bring to a fast boil. Cook for 10 mins. Then add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about 1 hour. Test the beans - they should be soft, but not mushy.
While the beans cook prepare the meat part of the dish.
For this you will need:
350 gms lean pork shoulder
700 grms good quality pork sausages, preferably Toulouse, but any sort with a high meat content
250 grms peeled tomatoes - I strongly recommend a large tin of Italian plum toms - it's easier and they have a richer taste, but let's not tell the French !
yet another carrot and onion and plenty of garlic
1 generous litre of meat or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste.
Cut the pork into chunks, and fry off gently (in duck fat if possible) with the chopped onion, sliced carrot and crushed garlic. Add the sausages ....if you're using the Toulouse variety you'll need to cut it up into chunks, if not you can leave the sausages whole.Then sauté everything off until is a nice gold colour. Add the hot stock and the tomatoes. Season well and cook at a gentle simmer for about an hour. All being well the beans and meat will be ready at the same time.
Whilst both are simmering away you can prepare the confit'd duck or goose.
For this you will need:
1 850 gm -1kg tin of confit de canard or d'ioe
Place the tin in a pan of hot water and warm up in a moderate oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully open the tin. A cloth over the tin at this point is a good idea, as there will be a lot of hot fat sloshing around.
Lift out the pieces of duck or goose and drain well. Tear the pieces into easily eaten chunks, being careful to remove any bones. Pour the liquid fat into a kilner type jar and refrigerate. Stored like this, the fat will solidify and keep for months. It makes the best-ever roast potatoes and is one of the few fats that are actually acceptable health-wise.
Now you're ready to assemble the cassoulet.
Drain off the beans, discarding the vegetables and herbs. Remove the rind from the salt pork (the French don't, so keep it on if you wish)and cut into chunks.
Take a very large casserole dish - terracotta if possible,for authenticity - and layer in the beans and the meats - the salt pork, the shoulder of pork, the sausages and the duck or goose meat - plus the vegetables from the pork and sausage stew, then top up with the cooking stock until everything is well covered. At this point you could refrigerate the dish until and hour before you need it. It will sit quite happily for a couple of days, thus saving a lot preparation time if you're entertaining on a tight time scale.
Just before placing in a moderate oven sprinkle a thick layer of fresh breadcrumbs over the top of the cassoulet and cook for an hour. As long as you check that it hasn't absorbed all the liquid it will sit quite contentedly in the oven for a lot longer while you chat with your guests. It's a perfect dish for solo entertaining as all the hard work can be done beforehand.
So, making sure you have all the required ingredients, or adapting the recipe to make use of what's available, just wait for the first sprinkling of snow and spend a cosy afternoon in the kitchen assembling your version of a French winter stew.