Books, Cooking, Food, Recipe

Eat This While You Read That: Leo Champion

highway westI was kidding around with Leo when I asked him for a dish to write up for ETWYRT. I don’t even have to ask, I typed, I can just make pizza and serve it with Mountain Dew. Hey! He came back, I’m eating a lot healthier now! After some time to think, he told me he wanted me to make something he hadn’t ever had, but had always wanted to try: cassoulet.

I’d never had it, either, and didn’t even know what it was. Off to google… and there I learned that it’s French (which I’d assumed) peasant food (oh, that’s promising) and it’s basically a bean soup (hmm…). While I was doing my usual research to create a recipe variation, I hit a bunch of different sites, not merely looking at what’s in the dish, but why. Why was this made this way? What’s the history behind it? I discovered a wonderful explanation here, and I highly recommend you read it if you’re interested in food history, and preparing more than a recipe, but a method.

Cassoulet is slow food. While there are methods to speed it up, I think you will find that you lose a lot of the magic if you take the shortcuts. Not that they aren’t valid if you’re in a hurry, but this dish is worth the wait. While you’re waiting, check out Leo’s latest book, Highway West. The post-apocalyptic world might not be conducive to creature-comforts, but at least we’ll have the time to really cook.

Cassoulet
Cast iron, and the right shape to have plenty of surface area ratio.

I took three days on this, but you really only need two. One to pre-soak the beans (which can be done overnight) and one to cook it. And I do mean all day. The flavors in this meal take their time to reach their peak.

halfway cooked
This is why you need the skin: it’s not attractive without it!

Cassoulet

Ingredients

  • 1 lb beans (I used Great Northern, but plan to try it again with Tarbais Beans)
  • 6-8 oz salt pork or bacon
  • 2 sausages (raw, garlicky, not breakfast sausage)
  • 4-6 chicken legs or thighs
  • 1 qt chicken broth or homemade stock
  • Note: if not using homemade stock, add 1 tbsp of unflavored gelatine.
  • Handful of tarragon or parsley
  • 2 carrots, cut in half
  • 2 celery stalks, cut in half
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped

Instructions

  • The night before, put the dry beans in more water than you think you need, with some salt dissolved into it. Let them soak for at least 6-8 hours.
  • In a heavy pot or dutch oven, fry up the bacon or salt pork (in small cubes) until crispy and the fat rendered out.
  • Remove the rendered meat to a bowl. Put the chicken in the hot fat and brown it, keeping the heat at med-low to allow browning without burning. Once browned, remove to the bowl.
  • Brown the sausages, and put in the bowl.
  • Slowly cook the onion in the fats until it is translucent and almost caramelized. Drain the beans while this is cooking. Put the carrot, celery, and herbs into the pot, then the beans, and finally the stock. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes.
  • Uncover the pot and remove the large pieces of carrot and celery. Discard.
  • Mix the pieces of pork/bacon into the beans.
  • Carefully nestle the meat pieces on top of the beans, making sure there is enough liquid to fully cover the beans. Add water if necessary.
  • Place the pot into the oven at 300 deg f. Check every 30-40 minutes, and either add enough water to keep the liquid just over the beans, or simply break the crust and gently ladle the liquid over the meat. After two to three hours, let the dish bake for another two hours without disturbing - if you need to add more water, do so carefully at the edge of the pot.
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    Cassoulet
    The finished product. Yummy caramelized skin on the top.

    The result was… Well, let me put it this way. I tasted it, put the spoon down, and called the First Reader into the kitchen. He took a bite. His eyebrows went up. He took another bite, and then another, and then picked up the portion I’d served out and cradled it possessively to his chest. “You didn’t need this, right?”

    Cassoulet
    Broth, beans, meat cooked into velvety doneness…

    I’ve eaten a lot of dry beans, canned beans, beans are cheap and filling and provide protein when meat is too expensive to indulge in. This is probably – no – certainly the best bean dish I have ever eaten. The complexity and depth of flavor is phenomenal, the beans are creamy rather than gritty, and the richness satisfies without feeling greasy.

    I froze the leftovers (yes, there were some) and plan to make this again very soon. Should be interesting to see what variations on the meat and beans will do to it. Infinite variables… just like books. You can take the same plot ingredients and come out with something amazing and different almost every time.

    You can find the index page for ETWYRT here.

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