Lambs And Clams, Fit The Third: Cassoulet

If for no other reason, agreeing to be a part of this contest has meant that you all get at least one post per month to enjoy since I’m not really feeling the blog right now and with a broken flash and darkness falling so early decent photography that coincides with actual dinner time is not possible. Having said that, though, this dish would deserve a post even if there were no such contest. I made cassoulet before my trip to France, and did a decent job of it, but Kate showed me her method and it drove home the importance of having all the component parts be as immaculately sourced as possible. I know she has a cassoulet app coming out soon, so pay attention to her Twitter feed and jump on that when it drops. The fact that her technique has continued to evolve is proof that this is a dish that warrants many repetitions and refinements in your own kitchen. This version was made mostly with lamb, since that’s what they sent me. Cassoulet is superbly adaptable to what you have on hand.

The lamb shoulder was lovely, and the first thing I did was take it apart. There were two reasons for this: one, I wanted roughly uniform cubes of boneless meat, and two, there were four beautiful chops in there that needed liberating and cooking on their own as chops. I used all the bones to make stock, which ended up forming the liquid for this cassoulet and a couple of other dinners as well. So, by my count, including leftover meaty beans the next day, this one shoulder provided us with most of six meals. Not to shabby, especially since it was free.

While I did the butchering, I took a pile of our homegrown Tarbais beans (seeds “imported” directly from the huge Agriculture fair in Paris) and simmered them low and slow in water with herbs, a bay leaf (also homegrown) and the rind of some miso-cured bacon from the most recent batch. (Pork bacon, not lamb; the lamb bacon showed up later). Once they were hydrated and approaching tender, I turned off the heat and let them soak a bit longer while I browned the meat with lamb bacon lardons, a head’s worth of garlic, sliced, and herbes de Provence.

Cassoulet traditionally includes duck confit, but that all got eaten at Thanksgiving. In its place, I used some of the precious liquid that results from the overnight cooking of the duck legs, and which is worth its weight in culinary gold:

This jellied genius is the essence of the duck legs, and a quivering spoonful of it imparts a divine luster and depth to even the humblest pan of kale. This photo is not color corrected at all; that’s just divine light shining down on this spoon like it’s the rose window at Chartres. Besides the pot liquor from the beans, I used some of the duck jelly to add character and respect for tradition.

Each layer of beans got generously studded with pieces of browned lamb, herbs and garlic clinging to them, and once the meat was all distributed throughout the beany matrix I squeegeed the meat juices into the pot so nary a drop would be wasted. Then I topped up the pot (our big iron Dutch oven) with lamb stock (made from the shoulder bones) and put it in a low oven to cook for about four hours. I have no cassole, but I aim to fix that on my next trip. Also, my crust is nowhere near as wonderful as the one Kate made, but I confess that I had the lid on for the first half because I was running errands and didn’t want it to dry out too much.

The house started to smell pretty great about halfway through. At some point I did something to some greens for a verdant and vitaminious side dish, but whatever about the greens. This is all about the beans.

I hope that some of you who may feel daunted by cassoulet are inspired to give it a shot, even if you don’t grow your own beans and make bacon from pigs and lambs and dry your own herbs and all the other Whole Earth Catalog’s worth of DIY artisanal projects that you feel guilty for not spending hours on every week. There is simply no reason to be intimidated by humble peasant food; all it requires is the things you have on hand as a natural result of your kitchen practice. The real key is to give it the time it needs to cook properly, both the first stage with the beans and the second one in the oven. That’s how the alchemy happens. And use the best stuff you can get your hands on, whether it be meat or beans or stock or jellied duck essence. Make a lot of it, and invite friends over on a dreary Sunday. Open some wine.

10 comments to Lambs And Clams, Fit The Third: Cassoulet

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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