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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.