Category Archives: Recipes

Warning: Seasonally Inappropriate Post Ahead

I’m so far behind in things I want to write about that it’s still February as far as the blog is concerned. Never mind that it’s eighty degrees outside and every flower in my yard is blooming at the same time. I should be writing about artichoke soufflés and roasted asparagus with Meyer lemon and smoked salt, but am I? No, today I’m writing about the king of cold weather food, cassoulet. I shouldn’t even utter that word until next October, but I’m the boss of this venture so I’m going to do it anyway. Maybe I’ll tell you about the asparagus next time, or maybe I’ll wait until August when you can’t get any and tell you about it then. I’m such a rebel.

So, I turned 40 back in February. I wasn’t quite ready for it, not because I don’t feel 40, or look 40, and not because I’m trying to avoid being a real grown up, but because there are some things I thought I’d have a handle on at this point in my life that I just really don’t. Here I am, middle aged (!) and I still can’t walk in heels very well. If a problem with my computer can’t be fixed by restarting it then I’m completely dependent on someone else. I don’t know how to apply bronzer correctly. I have horribly uncomfortable, hand-me-down seating at my dining room table that maims people when they come to my house for dinner. I still don’t really know what WWI was about. I’m a lost cause with a curling iron. I’ve never owned a decent mop. I’m afraid of driving in cities. And I’m totally baffled by how our TV is connected to the DVD player and we have all these cables but the wifi has to be connected and I can’t get Netflix to work because maybe there is something broken but I’m not sure and what the hell is ethernet, and oh my god, how did make it this far in life without learning these things?!

Not to mention the lack of profitable career and all that.

One thing I do know how to do is plan a dinner party and I used my birthday girl status to plan the meal I wanted to eat at the dawn of my new decade. Cassoulet. Butter lettuce with fresh tarragon vinaigrette. Baguette. Triple cream brie. Cheesecake with raspberry and orange blossom coulis. Good, French, red wine. You know, a light, refreshing sort of meal. Ha.

For those who haven’t been initiated into the world of cassoulet, it is traditional French peasant food from the Languedoc region. It’s a dish that is made with white beans and an assortment of fresh and preserved meats. Every town has their own version, as does every cook. Duck or goose confit and some kind of sausage is pretty much required, but the rest of it is up to personal preference. I’ve made it a number of ways, and all were delicious. Pork, lamb, duck, goose, rabbit, mutton (not that many of us eat mutton in this country) and even boring old chicken can find a home in cassoulet.

Advance planning was key to my enjoyment of this meal. I wanted candle light, I wanted other people’s kids to keep my kids entertained and exhausted, and I wanted to eat my cassoulet in the snow. Not literally, but, you know, in a place where I could see snow out the window, so we rented a house in the mountains and rounded up some friends who aren’t afraid of eating fat. The cassoulet prep actually started weeks before when I placed my order with D’artagnan. Though they have a stupid name, this company sells amazing meat products. This is the place that a once sold me a ten pound bucket of duck fat, one of my finest purchases of all time. Classic cassoulet calls for a number of ingredients that are hard to find at most grocery stores, even fancy ones. You can definitely round everything up if you’re willing to work a little, but D’artagnan sells a cassoulet kit that is really high quality and convenient. The price isn’t bad either when you consider that it makes enough to feed a small army and that it’s all delivered to your door.

It's so exciting to have this box show up on your porch. At least if you are me.

It’s so exciting to have this box show up on your porch. At least if you are me.

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The kit contains six legs of duck confit, ventrèche (basically French pancetta), French garlic sausage, duck and armagnac sausage, coco tarbais beans, duck fat (in case you don’t already own a ten pound bucket), and duck and veal demi-glace. I’m not going to include a recipe here because I doubt many of you are going to go out and make cassoulet for 20 anytime soon, and if you do, the recipe that comes with the kit is pretty good. I have made it my own over the years and I will continue to make changes as long as I make this dish. Infinite variations. This isn’t a how-to guide to cassoulet, I just enjoy making it so much that I wanted to take pictures of these lovely ingredients and share them.

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Sliced garlic sausage ready to cook.

Ventrèche and bouquet garni.

Ventrèche and bouquet garni.

These heirloom beans are the best for cassoulet because they are remarkably creamy inside yet resist falling apart during the long cooking of the dish. They are also huge, about an inch long.

These heirloom beans are the best for cassoulet because they are remarkably creamy inside yet resist falling apart during the long cooking of the dish. They are also huge, about an inch long.

The greasy splatters you have to cope with during the cooking process are not for the faint of heart. Poor Robert, a ‘clean as you go’ type of guy just can’t be around while I decimate the kitchen with this work. It would be more than he could take. The floor, the inside of the oven, the counters, every one of my six burners, bathed in grease. Such a mess, but beautiful in it’s own delicious way.

Duck and armagnac sausages.

Duck and armagnac sausages.

The ventrèche is first cooked with the beans, then chopped and crisped in a skillet.

The ventrèche is first cooked with the beans, then chopped and crisped in a skillet.

Duck confit.

Duck confit.

Carrots, celery and onion cooked in the leftover fat from the ventrèche.

Carrots, celery and onion cooked in the leftover fat from the ventrèche.

I find it incredibly satisfying to line up all my cooked, chopped, shredded, and sliced ingredients and start layering them into my two big casserole dishes. Making sure each portion will get a lovely brown hunk of sausage, ample shredded duck, and bits of crisp skin surrounded with beans, veggies and thyme feels a little bit like love to me. I’m not going to just throw it all in a dish, mix it up and hope for the best. No, I need to count the slices, portion out the mirepoix, and divvy up the demi-glace. Because that is how much I care about you and your dining pleasure. Plus, I’m kind of crazy.IMG_1805

Those are dabs of duck fat on top, in case you're wondering.

Those are dabs of duck fat on top, in case you’re wondering.

I froze my cassoulets and brought one with us on the birthday trip. To me, real luxury is having a thoughtfully prepared meal in the freezer so you can spend your day having fun and still eat well. All I had to do was sprinkle the top liberally with buttery bread crumbs and put it in the oven to bake for a couple of hours. (The bread crumbs aren’t traditional, but I highly recommend them. There aren’t many things in life that won’t be improved by buttery crumbs.)

This little photo journey has a disappointing ending because I forgot to take a picture of the finished dish. Shame on me. I do have this picture of my leftovers, but I regret not getting a shot of the whole bubbling casserole because it is a sight that makes me happy. Next time.

This dish of leftover cassoulet is less than glamorous but it gives you the idea.

This dish of leftover cassoulet is less than glamorous but it gives you the idea.

After a day of sledding and snowball fighting with our kids we banished them to a playroom with enough electronic devices and macaroni and cheese to keep everyone occupied for a good long while. We ate and drank and danced stupidly until midnight, which is pretty much like staying up all night when you’re 40, and it was just exactly what I wanted.

I’d like to think that by the time I’m celebrating another milestone birthday I’ll have less items on my list of Things That Make Me Feel Like an Idiot, but I highly doubt that will be the case. All the Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos in the world won’t be able to save me from that. But I wish and hope that I will still have friends who overlook these things and are willing to raise their forks and glasses and laugh with me at the absurdity of being human.

 

 

Good Riddance January, You’re A Bitch.

Whew. That last month was a killer. I felt like I was drowning in the chirpy kind of new years optimism that makes me hate people. There was way too much talk about how 2016 was going to somehow make up for the fact that last year sucked ass for a lot of us or instantly transform us into healthier, happier versions of ourselves. I don’t know how many times over the month I heard (or read on Facebook) “2016 is going to be amazing! This is MY YEAR!” or “I’ve been to the gym every day this month and I feel so great!” or “I’ve given up sugar and I’m never going back!” I want to punch these people in the mouth. Because here’s the thing. January. It’s the worst. If you want to be part of the club then it’s all diet and exercise and fiscal responsibility. I’m sorry, but that is stuff to be endured, not stuff to be celebrated.

The first half of the month I felt too crappy to be in the club. I was in a “screw it, who cares, I’m going to eat this whole bag of candy and this block of cheese, and wash it down with a couple glasses of wine while I mope around feeling sorry for myself” frame of mind. It just so happens that two of my favorite people have birthdays early in the month which ensured that there was enough cake and party atmosphere to keep me from going down the tubes completely. Even when your birthday is in January you get cake. And when there is cake around, I eat it. It was a dismal, yet delicious couple of weeks.

Legion of cupcakes.

Legion of cupcakes.

 

It was very important to Fe that his cake say 'Happy Birthday DEAR Felix' and have balloons on it. Not one of my prettier cakes but it was for a three year old so I let myself off the hook.

It was very important to Fe that his cake say ‘Happy Birthday DEAR Felix’ and have balloons on it. Not one of my prettier cakes but he’s three years old so I let myself off the hook.

Then, half way through the month I miraculously felt better. Better enough in fact to decide I was going to pull myself together and join the January club. For the last three weeks I’ve been “eating light” and “working out” and “cutting back on all the foods that make life worth living”. I’m drinking enough water to cause a minor drought and force feeding my family quinoa. Our meals suddenly look like this:

Beet and quinoa salad with chicken breast, goat cheese and balsamic dressing.

Beet and quinoa salad with chicken breast, goat cheese and balsamic dressing.

It’s not fun, but it hasn’t been so bad. I go between feeling virtuous, deprived, and discouraged. I think that if everyone else in your house is eating potato chips and you are choosing not to, you should instantly lose three pounds. Ditto if you have raw oatmeal (which, crazy as it sounds, I actually kind of like) or sugar snap peas for breakfast. Honestly, I’m glad to be cleaning up my act a bit because I know it’s essential to detox from time to time, but my physical self doesn’t feel that different. A little stronger, maybe, from all the squats I’ve been doing, in a better frame of mind, perhaps, but there is no amazing transformation for me because of eliminating sugar or quadrupling my intake of leafy greens.

My poor husband is anxiously awaiting my fall back into culinary hedonism (don’t worry Honey, it’s coming). He has been working physically hard, outside, in the nastiest Pacific Northwest weather and all he wants to eat is meat. Or meat on bread. Or meat on pasta. And what counts as meat? Not chicken breast, I can tell you that. He tries to be supportive, since I am cooking dinner every night after all, but when he hears the words ‘squash tacos’ or ‘lentils’ or ‘kale salad’ in the same sentence as ‘dinner’ it’s hard for him to hide his disappointment. So there have been compromises all around.

I was ever so glad to turn the page on the calendar and leave January behind. There will be no more ‘Happy New Year!’ wishes, no more humble brags about resolutions, no more pinning hopes on 2016 to solve our problems. Now we are all just here, healthy or not, happy or not, having an easy time or a difficult one. The pressure is off and that feels just right.

I’m going to leave you with my un-recipe for French Lentil Soup with Sausage and Kale. It’s very much a compromise meal, healthy, but still satisfying for those who aren’t putting limits on their diet. As you may have gathered by now, I don’t cook from or write recipes very often so these are rough guidelines. Feel free to make it your own, but don’t skip the mustard seeds, they take the soup from blah to gourmet-ish.

French Lentil Soup with Sausage and Kale

1 pound sweet Italian Sausage (bulk, or removed from the casings)

1 large onion, diced

6 stalks of celery, diced

6 carrots, peeled and diced

2 cups French lentils

2 quarts chicken stock, vegetable broth or water

1 bunch Lacinato kale (this is the flatter, dark green kale sometimes called black or dinosaur kale, my favorite by far)

1 Tablespoon brown mustard seeds

Fresh or dried thyme

1-3 Tablespoons sherry vinegar, or red wine vinegar if you don’t have sherry

Salt and pepper

Brown the sausage in a large soup pot, breaking it up as it cooks. When it is most of the way cooked, add the onion and celery. Cook until the veggies are tender. Add the lentils, carrots, stock and mustard seeds, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are soft, at least an hour, adding more stock or water as needed and stirring occasionally. Add the thyme and kale and cook for another 20 minutes or so (it’s soup, the timing is not critical). If your sausage was particularly fatty, there may be oil that collects on the top as it cooks. Skim it off or leave it in as you see fit. The soup will taste a little one dimensional at this point but a couple tablespoons of sherry vinegar and some salt will transform it. Just make sure to add the vinegar a little at a time and taste as you go, too much will not be yummy.

This soup freezes well. You could be super organized and freeze it in individual portions for future lunches.

Serve with bread and cheese or salad or nothing at all.

Not the best picture as I was eating this soup and then decided to photograph it. You get the idea though.

Not the best picture as I was eating this soup and then decided to photograph it. You get the idea though.