Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rich Sister's Hearty Winter Fare

Julia Child has a nice phrase about consuming the South-West French dish, cassoulet: "We who are about to diet salute you." Yes, you can dine on the hearty gladiator's dish which they undoubtedly ladled themselves from a big pot in Toulouse (or Nimes or anywhere they still have those arenas now devoted to bull-fights and rock concerts - the Red Hot Chili Peppers were performing at Nimes last time we were there). But you don't want to eat this stuff at the height of summer. Summer is for lighter fare and lots of black olives. Cassoulet is something even a Cro-Magnon might recognize and be grateful for after a long snowy walk in a quest for food, so long has it probably graced the tables (or big flat rocks) of the region.

What is a cassoulet? It's basically pork and beans, with some duck thrown in. Every little region in the south of France has its own formula, and perhaps the closer you are to the Pyrenees, the more violent the disputes about how it is made (check out Ariane Daguin of  D'Artagnan on YouTube, describing her traditional methods, alongside her chef friend from Cercle Rouge). They are opposed to smoked meats in the dish, forbid the use of lamb, and also despise the breadcrumb toppings of the uninitiated. The lady comes from Auch, France - musketeer country - where her father was or perhaps still is a chef.

As it happens, you can succeed in duplicating a proper Gascon cassoulet with a kit from D'Artagnan which consists of fat-preserved cooked duck legs, ventreche (a piece of salt pork belly rolled up and lightly spiced), two types of duck sausage (one made with the garlic, the other with Armagnac), Coco Tarbais (d'origine controllee) large white beans, duck fat and demi-glace made with duck (basically a bouillon to add liquid and flavor to the beans as they cook in the Dutch oven for about three hours). Supply lots of your own garlic, some herbs in a little sack (bouquet garni), onions, carrots and celery, and you can make quite a satisfying feast to serve, as we did, about ten people, three of them young men who would make good gladiators if the need arose. Even if the diners go back for seconds, you'll still have enough for leftovers. The kit is nothing if not generously proportioned. Of course you can duplicate it, but in my opinion, you ought to stick to the Coco Tarbais beans or other Tarbais bean, because they just melt in your mouth like nothing you ever ate.

I made this dish in December in Massachusetts, and in January during a frightful cold spell in Pasadena, California, in which the temperature dipped during the day to about 45 degrees. I tell you, the Pasadenans were shivering worse than the Patriot Nation while losing the hope of the Super Bowl to the Ravens. "Quoth the raven, Nevermore," or at least not until next year.

And not until next year on the cassoulet either. It's a sometime thing, most appealing in January.

We also have been trying fresh game from Scotland, such as wood pigeon and red-legged partridge, also from D'Artagnan (which also sells locally sourced meats and foie gras). Right now, there is a wild hare marinating in a concoction of wine and brandy to create "jugged hare", a useful technique to know how to prepare given the ubiquity of rabbit and hare in this world. Plus, if our squirrels ever get out of hand again - well, the principle is the same. I'll let you know how it tasted. Soon the menu will become more austere - Lent comes early, and it has probably pre-dated Christianity by millennia. I'll bet our ancestors the Cro-Magnon had a version of it. Lent comes early this year: Ash Wednesday happens on the eve of Valentine's Day, so all that guilt can overwhelm those of us who attended Catholic school (if we choose to experience it) as we indulge in that box of chocolates with the ashes still clinging to our foreheads (so to speak).  The nuns though would have had the last word as the bathing suit goes on and feels like an overly tight girdle. "Repentance is good for the soul," to say nothing of what it does for the derriere.