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Cassoulet for Christmas

My Christmas dinner this year emphasized heartiness rather than elegance. The main course was a big pot of cassoulet with lamb, garlic sausage, and duck confit. We were going to eat as if it were frigid winter outside, despite what the thermometer had been saying.

Cassoulet

Actually, my cassoulet recipe somehow got away from me this time. That’s a seven-quart pot, and there were only four of us dining. Some time ago I’d created a small recipe, much simplified from Julia Child’s version in Mastering, Vol. I, for a cassoulet for two. All I did this time was double it, but it certainly grew! Here are the components:

ingredients

The intimidating size of the dish was mostly because of the quantity of beans, I think. Rancho Gordo says its cassoulet beans are bred from original French Tarbais stock, which is the classic cassoulet bean. When I gave them an overnight soaking two evenings before Christmas, they swelled enormously. The next day, when I cooked them with onion, bacon, pork skin, garlic, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, and clove, they “swole” even more. Sampled, they already tasted delicious. They went into the refrigerator overnight.

Also that day in advance, I cooked chunks of lamb shoulder with onion, wine, broth, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. That stew also reposed in the refrigerator overnight, developing its flavor.

So by Christmas Day all the heavy work had already been done, and I had only to drain the beans, put them in the big pot, stir in the lamb and its liquid, tuck in slices of French-style garlic sausage and confit duck legs, add a little of the bean soaking liquid, and put the whole thing into a 375° oven for about an hour. I also boiled little German butterball potatoes in their jackets, to serve alongside.

cassoulet 1

That array of meats and beans made hefty platefuls, almost staggeringly rich and succulent. We bravely worked our way through them and, at the end, were surprised by how much we had managed to eat. Still, there were ample leftovers to look forward to in the days ahead.

Combined with a first course of coquilles St. Jacques nantaise and followed by a cheese course, a pear sorbet and Christmas cookies, plus, of course, wines from Beloved Spouse’s collection, that cassoulet made it a merry Christmas meal indeed.

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My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

P.S. Tom’s blog has a post on some of the wines we drank in Spain.

 

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My trip to Paris earlier this month included a search-and-acquire mission. Autumn is the season for Coco de Paimpol beans, and I wanted some! On my last trip, in 2007 at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Benôit, I ate a superb cassoulet made with this prized bean variety grown only in northern Brittany. Ever since, I’d looked for them in vain in the US, so I hoped to find some dried ones this year in the Paris traiteurs.

I had no luck in that regard, but the produce department in the huge, wonderful “gourmet” section of Galeries Lafayette had fresh ones in the pods. This was not really practical, but I couldn’t resist. I bought a kilo. Back in our typically tiny Parisian hotel room, Tom and I shucked them and spread them out to dry for the three days remaining in our trip.

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Every day I put fresh tissues under them to absorb their moisture, and stuffed them in a paper bag for the times when the maid would be in to do the room.

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They dried pretty well, even in the grey and drizzly weather, but I didn’t want to take a chance on the US customs confiscating them as fresh vegetables. I wrapped them as best I could and buried them in my toiletry kit for the flight home. Once back, I gave them a few more days drying on a sunny windowsill and planned the cassoulet I’d make with them.

Now, cassoulet is a great dish, but most serious recipes for it serve 8 to 12 people. My kilo of fresh beans yielded a mere 8 ounces when shucked and dried, so I needed to downsize a recipe to feed just Tom and me. Julia Child’s version in Mastering, volume I, is the recipe I use when making cassoulet for a crowd, so I started there.

Accordingly, the first thing was to cook the beans in water with chopped onion, diced, blanched bacon, an herb bouquet of garlic, parsley, thyme, clove, and bay leaf, and a 6” chunk of fresh kielbasi, which Julia allows as a substitute for saucisson à l’ail.

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The next step was to prepare the principal meats. I stewed half a pound of boneless lamb shoulder as Julia directs, with onions, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, white wine, and broth. In place of the recipe’s roast pork I used her alternate suggestion of roast duck: Two nights before we’d had a duck for dinner, whose legs I’d providently saved for the cassoulet.

Then all I had to do was assemble everything in the casserole and put it in the oven for about three quarters of an hour. I skipped the traditional breadcrumb crust topping, since there was ample richness in the dish without it, and just boiled a few potatoes to serve alongside.

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The Coco de Paimpol beans had plumped up beautifully in the cooking and tasted delicious, as I’d hoped – and so did everything else, including the 1998 Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf du Pape that Tom produced from his wine closet to accompany our modest two-person cassoulet. A memorable meal, and my Parisian mission accomplished.

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P.S.  While in Paris Tom and I also, happily, had some Coco de Paimpol beans in a restaurant. The plat du jour for our Sunday dinner at Le Petit Celadon was a roasted pork chop served on a bed of the pureed beans and surrounded by braised chanterelles. Not shabby!

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Tom and I and our friend Hope recently held one of our periodic cookathons – a full afternoon in the kitchen, composing dishes from some particular cuisine followed by an evening of eating them. Typically, we overextend ourselves, make far more than we three can eat, and have a grand, messy time.

For this dinner we looked to Spain, choosing four recipes from three cookbooks: Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain, Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain, and The Cooking of Spain and Portugal from the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

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Coca con Pimientos y Tomates
Crusty Flatbread with Roasted Peppers and Tomatoes

This starter was a real star. It looks like merely a pizza-type crust with a vegetable topping, and technically so it is – but that description doesn’t do it justice. The yeast dough was rich with egg, olive oil, and lard. After a 30-minute rise, we patted it thinly into a pan, topped it with strips of roasted red and yellow peppers, quartered grape tomatoes, and more olive oil, and baked it to a warm golden brown with crisp edges. It was utterly delicious.

With it we drank a sparkling Cava.

Merluza y Almejas en Salsa Verde
Hake Fillets with Clams in Green Sauce

Shopping for the fish dish was a teense iffy. Hake isn’t always available in the markets; could we use halibut? or, if necessary, scrod? Happily, the fish counter at Citarella had beautiful hake fillets that day, as well as perfect little manila clams. In a large pan we sautéed minced garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil; stirred in flour; added a lot of liquid from steaming open the clams, along with wine and parsley; and simmered until it thickened slightly. The fish fillets went in and cooked for two minutes on each side, then the clams for two minutes, and that was it.As you can see, the sauce was not actually green, but the dish was excellent. (Confession: the recipe also called for a garniture of a few white asparagus spears and hard-boiled eggs, but given everything else we were eating, we decided to skip them.)

The wine for this course was a white Rioja, which actually didn’t work well with it, because it turned out to be a modern-style, heavily oaked one: just plain wrong for the delicate fish flavors.

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Arroz con Pato de Braga
Roast Duck with Sausage-and-Ham-Flavored Rice
Acelgas con Pasas y Piñones
Greens with Raisins and Pine Nuts

This was the easiest roast duck I’ve ever made, and the most complicated rice preparation.

The duck was simply rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt and pepper, stuffed with some lemon peel, and roasted undisturbed until done. A combination of high heat followed by lower heat rendered out much of the fat that plagues Pekin ducks.

Meanwhile, the rice. That was a whole other story. We boiled it until almost tender, drained and kept it warm. We put chorizos in a skillet, added cold water to cover, simmered five minutes, drained and sliced them in thin rounds. We melted lard in a very large casserole, cooked the sausage in it briefly, added finely chopped carrot and onion, softened them, added julienne strips of Serrano ham, and finally stirred in the rice, lemon juice, and parsley, cooking just long enough to heat everything through. This could have been a whole dinner in itself.

Here’s the duck, waiting atop the rice while we made a gravy in the roasting pan.

For a “lighter” vegetable to accompany this elaborate concoction, we made Swiss chard with garlic, onion, olive oil, raisins, and pine nuts. Rich as that was, it was indeed lighter than the rest of the course.

With the duck we drank a red Tempranillo, which accompanied it very nicely, the acid of the wine cutting cleanly through the lushness of the duck. Need I say that we were not finishing each bottle of wine with each course? We’d have been pie-eyed by this point if we were. But we did very much enjoy the progression of the different wines – and an opened bottle doesn’t last long in our house.

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Monte Enebro, Garrotxa La Bauma, Amarelo de Beira Baixa, Roncal, Queso de Valdeon
Five Spanish cheeses

You might well wonder how we could go on to cheese after all this. So did we. But the cheeses were fascinating. When you buy from Murray’s cheese shop in Greenwich Village, the wrapper of each cheese includes a label with a description of it. I transcribed those write-ups for us to look at as we tasted, so if you’re curious about those varieties, look here.

With the cheeses we drank a gorgeous 16-year-old Prado Enea, a Rioja wine from the very traditional producer, Muga. In its richness and harmony it can only be described as Burgundian, overworked as that word is. We actually finished that bottle.

After all that, we neither needed nor wanted dessert. Espresso and a good Spanish brandy (Gran Duque d’Alba in this case) finished off the meal – and us – nicely.

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I wonder why Pekin ducks have so much fat. They don’t need it all to keep themselves afloat, or keep themselves warm in cold water. Mallards and Muscovy ducks manage their aquatic lives quite well without having great slabs of fat under their skin. The relative lack of fat doesn’t hurt their succulence, either – unlike that of most modern pigs, which agribusiness has slimmed down so much that their meat is often dry and bland.

Much as I like roast duck, I don’t enjoy the struggle to leach out the average Pekin’s quart or more of fat (despite how good it is to fry potatoes in). I was very pleased, therefore, when d’Artagnan recently had a sale on fresh Muscovy ducks. It’s hard to find them fresh, and freezing seems to toughen them.

In due time there was delivered to my door a lovely, plump but trim, four-pound Muscovy. I thought I’d like to serve it with a fruit sauce. I’d made duck with cherries, with oranges, and with peaches; I wanted something new. I found it in Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine. Mangoes! That was a surprise – because I hadn’t thought classic French cuisine used mangoes, especially back in the sixties and seventies, when Oliver was the doyen of the Michelin three-star restaurant Le Grand Véfour in Paris. But there was the recipe for canard aux mangues, and all the fruit stands in town were laden with mangoes.

The duck was roasted simply, not even on a rack but on a bed of sliced onion, carrot, and celery, with thyme and crumbled bay leaf. Another nice thing about Muscovies is that they take much less time to cook than Pekins. At 350˚, my duck was done in an hour and a quarter, with no need to baste or keep stabbing a fork into fatty parts. The roasting pan wasn’t drowned with fat, and fat didn’t spatter all over the oven. God bless Muscovy ducks!

During the roasting, I prepared the mango. The recipe called for two fruits, not too ripe, size not specified, sliced. I’d bought three, of various sizes, because I wasn’t sure how quickly they’d ripen or how much flesh I’d need. As it turned out, the largest one made plenty. Now, maybe Raymond Oliver could neatly slice a mango, but I can’t. I got two or three decent slices, and after that it was cut around the curve of the pit and take what shapes I got. Which didn’t matter, anyway, because when I put them in a pan with a little kirsch and simmered them until tender, they pretty much lost all shape.

Then came the tricky part — the sauce. It’s apparent that Monsieur Oliver never had to be alone in the kitchen. Two totally different major steps had to be taken, essentially at once, to bring together the sauce. Happily, I have another pair of hands available, those of my blessed husband. So Tom took the duck out of the roasting pan, put it on a platter in the turned-off oven, deglazed the pan juices with broth, reduced the results, drew off some fat (no duck is totally lean, after all), and put the liquid through a fine sieve.

Meanwhile, I was melting sugar in a saucepan until it turned golden. Two tablespoons of dry sugar, stirred constantly, took an inordinately long time to melt, and then it turned golden in about six seconds. My next step was to stir in some wine vinegar, and I was sure it would explode from the heat that had built up by then in the sugar. But it didn’t: the syrup first frothed and then madly clenched, turning into an amoeba of amber in the liquid. I added Tom’s reduced, sieved pan juices, stirred like a maniac for five minutes over low heat, and – whew! – the amber dissolved.

The sauce was excellent – a complex combination of duck essence and subtle fruit sweetness. The same interplay of flavors occurred with each forkful of the tender duck meat and the soft, fleshy mango. With a dish of potatoes Anna alongside and a bottle of 1988 Chateau Gruaud-Larose, it was a memorable dinner.

P.S.  A few days later, I added the leftover sauce to a braise of beef short ribs and made the two now-very-ripe unused mangoes into jam.

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