The French dish cassoulet.
Seemingly every chef and his dog has a recipe for cassoulet, or his mother’s recipe, usually swearing theirs alone is the right true cassoulet and every other is a heresy. Geographically I am about as far from the Languedoc as you can get, but with some basic charcuterie skills it is possible to make a fair approximation, and I make no claim to my dish being ‘authentic.’ For one, I cannot obtain certain ingredients here in Japan like good fresh pig skin, although most ingredients I can make: duck confit, ‘Toulouse’ sausage, salt pork and these days it is possible to even buy imported French beans (at an eye-watering price). First off is the confit de canard – very easy to make with all the ingredients fairly easy to obtain here in Tokyo. Some Frenchmen swear confit has no place in cassoulet, but all the dishes I ate over the years in France seemed to have duck confit in them. I made a batch of duck legs last winter and stored them in the orthodox manner, sealed deep in duck fat. According to my records, the legs of Magret duck were cured and cooked on the 26th January, making them a ripe three months old almost to the day. Releasing the legs from their tomb of duck fat is a messy, nasty business, but it was deeply gratifying to see the flesh unspoiled and a great deal of the melted fat goes into the cassoulet pot also.
The other ingredients were fairly orthodox – lamb shoulder (imported from New Zealand) and pork shoulder – but I did not have the foresight to make a hock-ham, so I made do with some boneless salt pork I make year-round. Also the sausage was made with fatty pork, white wine and seasoned lightly with pepper, although they are stuffed into pork casings and linked, rather than the right true Toulouse sausage you see, enormous fakes of lamb casing sold by the metre. The meats on the bone form the basis of the stock, along with the usual ingredients – onion, carrot and some cloves, some dry white wine, bouquet garni, two bulbs of garlic and so forth – and once the broth was ready, with meats removed and the whole strained back into the pot, it was a wonderful sight to see – and tasted even better.
The meats are pulled off the bones and the Toulouse sausage cut into rounds. I couldn’t resist the temptation of tasting the duck confit before it would go in with the beans and stock – eating it was almost beatific. Such flavours!
With all the meats ready, the stock strained and reduced a little further, the pre-soaked French beans drained and a short French bastard ground in a food processor to make breadcrumbs, the only thing further required is patience, for the cassoulet to slow-cook in the oven.
After two hours in the oven and a couple of bottles of wine later, the cassoulet was deemed ready, given the diners circling around the kitchen privately swallowing their saliva and looking increasingly like prowling sharks. I broke into the crust and spooned out the cassoulet; and still somehow I had the presence of mind to snap a photo, although it was blurred by the steam pouring out of the dish…
It was very, very good, and all diners on hand had two helpings. It needed nothing more than some crusty bread on the side, and we soon saw off a bottle of Burgundy to help it all down. The mixture of flavours, textures and aromas is difficult to describe, but it was all very tasty. The added bonus is that cassoulet tastes just as good, or even better, in the following days, and one recipe makes plenty of leftovers for the following days.