(Cassoulet and Comfort is my entry for Challenge #3 of Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog. Thank you to everyone who voted for me in the first two challenges. Voting opens on Monday, October 4th and closes on October 7th.)
I had an elaborate five course dinner menu all set last week and had planned out shopping, prepping and cooking for the week. My husband’s help depended on much of it. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world and a few unforeseen circumstances came up. One included a family emergency that required my husband to cut his business trip short to tend to a family emergency which extended through the weekend. Among other things, my five course extravaganza slowly creeped from being a source of joy to becoming a stressor.
The kids were getting more restless as the week progressed. A week of rain and being indoors only exacerbated their mood. Family and mundane daily matters overwhelmed my thoughts. These circumstances called for comfort and ease. Friday morning, I glanced at a tweet by Michael Ruhlman, “morning, whole house smelling of veal stock, soon beans, draw duck, pork belly dripping from the fat for weekend cassoulet, life is good.” Aha! Cassoulet! This centuries-old dish seemed more appropriate for my mood and the weather. This change, however, did not go without raising some logistical issues. I needed to go shopping, find a fourth guest, and needed a babysitter. A bridge and two tunnels later, I was at my sister’s place in my adopted neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn.
As soon as I got there, my sister referred me to a couple of local grocers and purveyors that easily made shopping a pleasant excursion. The morning was spent playing with the kids and cooking started in the afternoon before dinner. I must admit, being alone in the tiny kitchen was quite therapeutic and calming.
We started with Oeufs au caviar and a glass of sparkling Vouvray. The beaten eggs were topped with a whipped cream touched with lemon juice, vodka, salt and cayenne. This rich little dish incorporated hot, cold, salty, creamy, and slightly crunchy all in one bite. The chilled sparkling Vouvray was perfect.
Dinner was family-style, appropriate with four toddlers. Cassoulet is a hearty and luxurious casserole with tender beans, sausage, pork, and duck confit. This rich dish was served with an arugula salad dressed with a simple vinaigrette. The bitterness of the greens and the acidity from the dressing was a perfect complement to the rich dish. Dinner ended on a chocolatey note with a warm soft Valrhona chocolate cake. The molten chocolate in the center of the cake was simply divine with the cold ice cream.
Despite all the craziness and rain all week, it was truly relaxing to be able to cook and share this dinner with family and friends. I am grateful for this. The exotic or elusive can sometimes be the touchstone for comfort and ease when your environment and circumstances suddenly change.
A few things to keep in mind when planning and entertaining:
Keep it simple. No one likes a stressed out host which is why I personally prefer family-style dinners. And this isn’t Top Chef. Back during the pre-kids era, I used to pride myself in making everything from scratch. But you know what? It’s okay if it’s not. If pre-made duck confit is the only thing you can get at 9 p.m. on a Friday night, then by all means go for it. Just make sure to find quality sources for your goods.
Be flexible. Menu change, venue change, and more guests? It’s not the end of the world. This also goes for the recipes. I’m such a stickler for having the right ingredients especially when trying out new recipes. But as the quintessential Brooklyn butcher said, “C’mon, this is an Italian shop. You’re not gonna find German or French sausage here. Be gutsy! Try it!” Yes, the Italian pork sausage and pancetta did not kill the dish.
Have fun. If you adhere to the other two rules, then you’re guaranteed to have fun. The guests are there to see you, not to judge your duck confit. (Or are they?)
Oeufs au caviar
Adapted from “Simple to Spectacular” by Jean-Georges Vongerichten & Mark Bittman
Notes: You have to work quickly through this recipe. I waited too long between making the whipped cream and cooking the eggs which resulted in the whipped cream breaking down. I had to remake the cream which, fortunately, did not take too long.
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
2 teaspoons vodka
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 to 4 teaspoons caviar
1 – Whip the cream until it holds stiff peaks, then beat in salt and cayenne to taste, along with the lemon juice and vodka. Taste and adjust the seasoning; it should really sing. Whip the cream again until stiff.
2 – For a really dramatic presentation, remove the tops from the eggshells, pour the eggs into the saucepan, and set the bottoms of the shells in egg cups. (Or, you can serve these in a bowl or espresso cup which is what I did)
3 – Combine the eggs, butter, and salt and cayenne to taste in a medium saucepan or skillet, preferably one with sloping sides. Turn the heat to medium-high and begin to beat the egg mixture with a whisk, stirring almost constantly but not too fast; you do not want it to become foamy.
4 – After the butter melts, the mixture will begin to thicken, and then to lump up in small curds; this will take between 3 and 8 minutes, depending on the thickness of your pan and the heat level. If the mixture begins to stick on the bottom, remove the pan from the heat for a moment and continue to whisk, then return to the heat.
5 – When the eggs become creamy, with small curds all over – not unlike loose oatmeal – they are ready; do not overcook (like I did). Add more salt and cayenne if necessary and place in warmed bowls. Use a spoon to place a dollop of cream on the eggs. Top each with a spoonful of caviar and serve right away.
Cassoulet (French pork and white bean casserole with duck confit)
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
Notes: The original recipe called for salt pork and fresh garlic sausage which I will certainly try the next time. The two markets that I went to did not have salt pork! I substituted pancetta and Italian pork sausage (lightly seasoned with salt and pepper).
Serves around 6 hungry people.
6 duck legs, pre-made duck confit (you can certainly make your own duck confit)
1 pound cannellini beans (about 2 cups), rinsed and picked over (I substituted great northern beans)
2 medium celery ribs
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme
1 pound fresh pork sausage
¼ pound pancetta (the fattier, the better), diced
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large onion, chopped fine (about 1 ½ cups)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice (about 1 cup)
4 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 4 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup dry white wine
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 quart chicken broth
Ground black pepper
4-5 slices high-quality white sandwich bread, torn into rough pieces
½ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 – Dissolve 2 tablespoons salt in 3 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add beans and soak at room temperature, 8 to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.
2 – Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
3 – Using kitchen twine, tie together celery, bay leaf, and thyme, and set aside. Place sausage in medium saucepan and add cold water to cover by 1-inch; bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 5 minutes. Transfer sausages to cutting board, allow to cool slightly, then cut into 1-inch pieces.
4 – Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in 8-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sausage pieces and brown on all sides, 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl. Add pork shoulder and brown on all sies, 8 to 12 minutes. Add onion and carrots; cook, stirring constantly, until onion is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 30 seconds. Return sausage to Dutch oven; add white wine, using wooden spoon to scrape browned bits from bottom of pan. Cook until slightly reduced, about 30 seconds. Stir in diced tomatoes, celery bundle, and pancetta.
5 – Stir in broth and beans, pressing beans into even layer. If any beans are completely exposed, add up to 1 cup water to submerge (beans may still break surface of liquid). Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Cover pot. Transfer to oven, and cook until beans are tender, about 1 ½ hours.
6 – Remove skin from duck legs and discard. Remove duck meat from bones, leaving meat in large pieces; discard bones.
7 – Remove stew from oven and increase temperature to 350 degrees. Remove celery bundle from stew and discard. Using large spoon or ladle, skim fat from surface of stew and discard. Adjust seasoning of stew with salt and pepper. Add duck meat and stir gently to combine. Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
8 – Meanwhile, pulse bread and remaining 2 tablespoons oil in food processor until crumbs are no larger than 1/8 inch, eight to ten 1-second pulses. Transfer to medium bowl, add parsley, and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
9 – Sprinkle ½ cup bread-crumb mixture evenly over casserole; bake uncovered, 15 minutes. Remove lid and bake 15 minutes longer. Sprinkle remaining bread-crumb mixture over top of casserole and bake until topping is golden brown and beans are bubbling around edges of pot, about 30 minutes. Let rest before serving.