Cassoulet and Green Salad, Country Bread and Red Wine, Walnut Tart – A Dinner from Southwest France

A long titled post suitable to a properly labor-intensive and delicious cold-weather meal. Both the Toulouse-style Cassoulet and the Walnut Tart are based on Paula Wolfert’s recipes in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France“. The bread is the Pain de Campagne (country bread) recipe from Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread baker’s Apprentice“.

Making a proper Cassoulet is a good bit of work and to get the most out of this dish you really should not cut corners. Boiling some beans and adding in a couple of sausages might be good, but is really not the same animal. It’s almost “wrong” to make a Cassoulet that does not take a couple of days worth of work (mostly unattended simmering or resting). It’s part of the enjoyment that goes into it when you crack that crispy breadcrumb crust that you know how much work really went into making this sublime dish.

It helps a lot having a freezer and larder that is fully stocked. I already had home-cured pork belly (pancetta), home-cooked duck confit, good rich stock (venison in this case), trimmed and cleaned pig skins, home-made Toulouse-style sausage and a few pounds of wild boar. This means I could dive right into cooking the Cassoulet and putting these items together without having to worry about making confit or shopping for pig skins and duck fat.

So, what is involved in making a Cassoulet?

– Simmer pork shoulder (I used wild boar), pig skin, along with aromatics and vegetables (leeks, carrots, thyme, bay, a little tomato paste…)  until mostly tender.

– Add in a pound or 2 (Wolfert uses two for a HUGE Cassoulet, I used one to make half a recipe) of soaked white beans and cook until tender.

– Seperate the beans and stock from the meats. Store in the fridge overnight or for a few days.

– Enrich the stock by pureeing some of it with garlic and pork fat. Add that to the beans, rest of the stock and the pork chunks. Simmer for a little bit.

– Remember those Toulouse sausages I mentioned earlier? Cook those separately. I cooked them sous vide till done. Cut them into pieces.

– For the duck confit, just remove the skins, take the meat off the bones and leave it in big chunks.

– “Build” the Cassoulet by first laying the flat pieces of cooked pork skin (the one we simmered with the beans) in the bottom of a large pot. I used one of my Colombian Chamba clay pots.

– Top that with half of the bean mixture, then the duck confit. Top with the remaining bean mixture. Use a perforated spoon here so that you can control how much of the bean stock is needed. I ended up using all of it for the liquid to come up barely to the level of the beans.

– Bake the Cassoulet for an hour or two. A skin will form on the surface. Stir that “skin” into the Cassoulet. Bury the cooked sausage chunks in the beans leaving them slightly exposed. Top with a tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs and a drizzle of duck fat. Bake until crispy, bubbly and delicious.

– Let it rest for 5-10 minutes at least and dig in.

It really sounds like much more work than it is. Most of the cooking can be spread out over a couple of days and you will be rewarded with one of the most delicious of French comfort foods ever. It’s one of those dishes that if done right are satisfying and rich but not cloying. It should not be mushy or fatty. To get that result, one needs to pay attention to the small details.

Detail1: DO NOT let the beans boil like crazy. As soon as the stock comes up to a boil lower the heat to a very gentle simmer. This way you can control the cooking process better and can cook the beans perfectly. Rapid boil will almost insure burst beans. This will make for unpleasantly mushy beans, a thick cloudy stock and will emulsify the fat in it making it more difficult to de-grease.

Detail2: A key reason why a good Cassoulet should be stretched over a couple of days is de-greasing  the stock. Storing the beans in the cooking liquid in the fridge will form a thick layer of fat on the surface from all those meats. It’s easy to remove that before continuing with the cooking and baking.

What to serve it with? Other than red wine? You really don’t need much else, but a piece of good bread and a tart salad are excellent accompaniments. I shaped the bread specifically for the Cassoulet dinner into an epis (wheat tip) so we could just break off pieces instead of slicing…and it looks pretty neat. The salad was a simple mixed baby greens mix with a vinaigrette of raspberry vinegar and walnut oil.

It only seemed appropriate that to cap it all off, I would make a dessert from the same region. So from the same book, I made Wolfert’s walnut tart or as she calls it Walnut Tart from Masseube. This is not a typical tart, more of a cross between a cookie and a tart. The filling is a mixture of walnuts and a dark butter caramel. This gets poured into a tart shell lined with a sweet short pastry crust. Another layer of pastry goes on top and then it is baked. When the tart cools the filling sets pretty firm, like a pecan pie filling minus most of the “goo”. We really loved this with a cup of coffee and a touch of whipped cream.

Advertisements

Paula Wolfert’s Potato Gnocchi Pictorial

Paula Wolfert has a straightforward recipe for gnocchi in her Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking book. At first glance I was not sure how the recipe would work. It has no eggs at all and little flour, a portion of which is cake flour (ie has very little gluten). After making those a couple of times though, I can definitely say that the recipe works! It produces soft tender dumplings that are full of delicious potato flavor. I suppose one can add an egg to make a firmer gnocchi (Diana likes them firmer), but it really is not needed. Here is a streamlined step by step guide to making these guys.

Prick 2 lbs potatoes all over with a skewer and bake them on a 1-inch layer of salt at 400F for an hour and half. This really is the key step for success. Baking the potatoes as opposed to boiling them leaches moisture and concentrates the flavor. Baking them on a bed of salt further helps dry them out. Too much moisture in the cooked potatoes makes gnocchi dough very tricky to work with and could cause it to turn gummy.

Peel/scoop the flesh out and pass it through a ricer. Spread the potato on a baking sheet and allow them to dry for 30 minutes.

For 1 lbs of cooked potato flesh mix in about 160 gr all-purpose flour, 75 gr of cake flour and a pinch of salt. Fold the dough gently together until it forms a smooth ball.

Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Working one piece at a time, roll them into 1/2 inch thick ropes and cut the rope into 3/4 inch pieces. I got lazy on some of these and made them a bit bigger. Roll each piece gently on the tines of a fork to create ridges on the dumplings.

Cook the gnocchi in boiling salted water until they float. Move them to an ice bath and then strain. Now they can either be used right away or tossed in a little oil and stored for a couple of days.

From this point on all you need to do is toss them in some kind of sauce. I made two different sauces. One was a venison ragu; slowly cooked ground venison, a little tomato, milk and aromatics. The other was based on one of Ms. Wolfert’s recipes in the same book. She sauces the gnocchi with a mixture of gorgonzola and pine nuts. I made a gorgonzola sauce using the Modernist Cuisine technique that adds sodium citrate salt to create an amazing smooth and creamy cheese sauce. I also toasted some pine nuts and caramelized onions and tossed them in there. This was a luxurious and very delicious sauce.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Eggs

One of the most lovely looking dishes I made from a Paula Wolfert recipe. This amazing stew was the first time I use an actual clay tagine. This specific Tagine (which is the name of the pot and the dish made in it) is an inexpensive glazed clay one I bought from Sur La Table. It’s made in Portugal and as far as I can tell it worked great. In the future I would love to spring out some more cash and get one of those neat-looking ones from Clay Coyote, but for now, the Portuguese one will have to do. Maybe when Paula’s new updated edition of “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco” book comes out will be the right time for that.

This recipe is from her latest book, “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking“. It immediately caught my eye when looking for a recipe to try in my tagine in my books. I do admit that I was a bit apprehensive as to how it will all turn out since I was not sure what to exactly expect. In the intro, Paula refers to another tricky Moroccan  recipe that “encases” chicken in a cooked egg mixture and then discusses this one as similar but different in that it uses eggs but they form more of a custardy sauce for the chicken. That sounded good, but the eggs get cooked in butter in the tagine alone before adding any sauce and that concerned me. I was worried that the end result would resemble cooked chicken in an eggy scrambled sauce. If the Diana and the kids hate it, then all the work would be in vain. I really needn’t have worried because it far exceeded my expectations.

I salted the chicken (local, free-range from Yonder Way Farm) and seasoned it with paprika, cumin  and a very small pinch of cinnamon several hours ahead of time. I almost always pre-salt meat if I have the time. The base for the dish is a mixture of butter, grated onions, garlic, saffron, dry ground ginger and cinnamon (a tiny pinch of that). With water, that base makes for an aromatic liquid in which the chicken pieces gently stew. The chicken pieces get finished under the broiler for a crispy skin right before nestling back in the sauce for service. For the sauce, the cooking liquid is mixed with caramelized grated onions, olives, sliced preserved lemon peels, parsley and cilantro. Eggs get cooked very gently in the tagine in butter and mixed with lemon juice. To bring it all together, the onion-olive mixture gets mixed in to the eggs. The mixture turns to a wonderful velvety a very deeply flavored sauce. Add the chicken pieces back in and it is ready to serve.

For some starch to sop up all that amazing sauce, I made couscous and simple tangy chickpeas. The dish was a hit with everyone, the sauce was rich and very flavorful, but certainly not heavy or “eggy”. The last step of broiling the chicken pieces really takes the dish to the next level by giving it a deeply burnished and crispy skin as opposed to the soft flabby one we normally get in chicken tagines. I will be making this again and am already thinking how the sauce would work with lamb instead of chicken.