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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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The proper Italian way to eat pasta is as a primo – a first course – with a secondo of (usually) meat, fish, or fowl to follow. That pattern doesn’t always fit my everyday dinners. Sometimes the pasta dish is so good that I want a lot of it: so much that I’ll have no appetite for another substantial course afterward. And sometimes I don’t want to (or can’t) spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing the evening meal.

LTIBut Tom and I do like to have two interesting courses at dinner, and we do love pasta. So on those days I need to choose pasta recipes that are not too elaborate to make, and in amounts that are not too filling. In the past week I made two from our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana. Though the book’s recipes are scaled for one pound of pasta, these two are easy to cut back for only a quarter of a pound – a nice, modest amount to begin a homey dinner for two.

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Tubetti with Broccoli

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This is a dish from Puglia, a region in southern Italy where they do excellent things with small amounts of vegetables and large amounts of pecorino romano cheese. The pasta sauce base is a brief sauté of garlic, onion, hot red pepper, and chopped anchovy in generous olive oil. For this meal I used only the florets from half a pound of broccoli.

broccoli for roastingThe recipe says to boil them until done but still firm, which is what I usually do — saving the cooking water and using it again for the pasta. This time I tried a variation: I coated the florets with olive oil and lemon juice and roasted them in a 425° oven for 15 minutes, stirring them around once or twice.

Then it was just a matter of boiling my four ounces of pasta, tossing it with the broccoli and the anchovy-flavored oil, and serving it with freshly grated pecorino. Very tasty! I liked my roasted-broccoli variant very much. It gave a little more richness and some textural crunch to this very simple dish, which we followed with an equally simple second course of baked whiting and green salad.

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Rigatoni with Sausage and Ricotta

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This peasant dish is from Basilicata, the region just west of Puglia. For two primo portions I needed only ¼ pound of luganega, ¼ pound of pasta, ⅓ cup of ricotta, and – again – freshly grated pecorino. (The south of Italy loves pecorino as much as the north dotes on parmigiano.)

luganega 1Luganega, a sweet sausage made with parsley and cheese, is widely available here from Italian specialty butchers, but our book has a recipe for making it from scratch, in case of need.

I skinned my sausage, crumbled it into a small pot, added ¼ cup of water, covered that, and cooked it gently for 10 minutes. While the rigatoni was cooking I pushed the ricotta through a sieve into a serving bowl and gradually stirred in the sausage cooking liquid to make a light cream. Then I added the sausage bits and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. When the pasta was done I added it to the sauce, tossed with two tablespoons of grated pecorino, and served.

The smooth white sauce tastes creamy and remarkably sophisticated, given how little there is to it. The hot pasta absorbs some of it instantly and wears the rest as a coat. The sausage bits provide additional rich flavor. A truly good little dish! We followed it with broiled lamb chops and plain boiled spinach.

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I’m not mad about cream sauces for pasta. Too often I find them either insipid or cloying; sometimes, in restaurants, even faked up with floury white sauce. But one of the first recipes Tom and I ever developed for our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, is a pasta sauce with cream that we still love whenever we make it for ourselves.

In Italian, the recipe is called alla contadina – peasant-style. Preparations of that name can vary greatly in different regions of Italy. This version is from the north, because of the cream and the fresh egg-based pappardelle (which, if you don’t know them, are a little like fettucine on steroids). But cream is not what you principally notice as you eat. The robust main flavor is from crumbled Italian-style hot sausages, sautéed with chopped onions in butter and olive oil. Thinly sliced mushrooms provide a gentle foil, and the cream (and more butter) is just a soft, silky medium for their meeting.

The published recipe calls for homemade sausages as a preference, as well as homemade pappardelle. Tom and I did actually make our own sausages some years back, but we can get such good ones in stores now we rarely go to the trouble. But homemade pasta is an essential part of the dish for me, even though it’s also easy to buy now – and in fact, any fairly sturdy commercial egg noodles will do, as well. If you make your own pasta often enough, the process stops seeming like a lot of work and is just one of the things you do in the kitchen. This time I made just enough for two servings of pasta.

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The sauce is also easy to make. Rather than describe the steps, I’ve taken a photo of the recipe’s page in our book – complete with one of the food stains that adorn so many pages of my frequently used cookbooks!

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And here’s the result – just waiting to receive a topping of grated parmigiano and freshly ground pepper on our individual servings.

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If you try the recipe, first taste it just as is; you might find it spicy enough from the sausage. But the cheese and pepper gives it a little extra oomph. And, as Julia Child might have said if Paul had taken her to Rome rather than Paris, Buon appetito!

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