Sunday, February 7, 2010

Le Super Bowl

Yeah, it's been almost a year since I've updated. My excuse? I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue with the blog. I started working again, and things were busy. Every time I considered making a post I realized how long it had been since my last update, and I felt that any new content would sort of imply that I was going to continue maintaining Viva Robusto with more new content, and I just wasn't sure I wanted to do that.

Well. I guess I'm back on board, at least for now. Liz and I are still cooking a lot of interesting stuff, and we take pictures maybe 30% of the time. But we haven't made anything so remarkably wonderful or unusual that I just had to go out and blog about it. Until now.

I finally made a cassoulet. I had never even heard of the dish until Christmas 2008, when Liz's father Don made some around Christmas time. He went all out, using his own duck to make duck confit, ham hocks from his own pigs (I believe) and his own homemade kielbasa sausage. It took him three days, and believe me when I tell you that the result must have been worth every minute.

I decided that I'd like to give the dish a try at some point, but I never got around to it last winter. This year, Don made Cassoulet again for Christmas, and I renewed my vow to make the dish before the weather started getting warm again. But for what occasion? Cassoulet isn't the sort of thing you whip together on some random Tuesday for one or two people. No. A feast so grand requires a major event or holiday to justify the effort and expense the chef lovingly pours into the dish.

Enter the Super Bowl. I love the Super Bowl, for the game and the commercials and the chance to get together and eat some really unhealthy food with friends. I have only missed one Super Bowl broadcast since 1985, and that was because I was in Bangkok and the game was on at the ungodly hour of 6am.

So this year, the New Orleans Saints made it to the big game. For reasons I can't quite express or explain, I like the Saints. I like New Orleans. New Orleans has a strong French background. If you squint your eyes, Cassoulet is kind of like a French chili of sorts -- you know, meat, beans, fat -- and chili is practically the official dish of the Super Bowl. It all made sense. I was going to make cassoulet for the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately I arrived at this decision the day before the big game. No time to get my own duck, render the fat out of the legs and then ferment the meat in the fat in the fridge. In other words, no duck confit. But what's that old saying? No duck confit... no problem! My favorite part of the dish is the rich smokiness, and that comes from the ham hocks. And there would still be plenty of meat between what I scraped off the hocks and the sausage. So, after consulting Don three or four or eleven times over the phone, I armed myself with the Saveur recipe for cassoulet, and headed to the store to pick up ingredients.

First up, ham hocks. These things look disgusting in real life, but they're oh so delicious.

You start by boiling the hocks with some onions, thyme, salt and pepper for two hours. Here they are, ready to start imparting delicious smoky flavor to my stock.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I soaked my beans overnight.

While the ham hocks are rendering, you puree the raw garlic and onions with a little water.

When two hours are up, drain the ham hocks and keep the stock. Shred all the useful meat off the hocks and discard everything else. Pour the stock over the beans, bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes.

Here's the part where the duck fat and confit comes in. Usually you'd use the fat to cook the sausage. I just used butter. After browning the sausage, add the garlic/onion paste and cook a while longer.

Now you assemble the cassoulet in the baking dish. Put most of the beans on the bottom, then layer the pork on top of that. Put the sausage and garlic/onion on top of that. Then put even more beans on top of that. Finally, add about 3 cups of the stock. It looks messy, but it's going to taste great.

Bake for about an hour at 350, then reduce the heat to 250 and bake for another 3 hours. You're supposed to check every now and again to see if the cassoulet is forming a crust. If so, break the crust by pushing down on it with a spoon, and add more stock if it looks dry. I had to switch venues (from my house to a friend's) so mine didn't develop an ideal crust, but the pieces on top did get crispy enough. And here's how it turned out, pictured with a rib in the background.

I was extremely pleased with the results. The beans and sausage were melt-in-your-mouth soft with a deep, rich, smoky flavor. I suppose it couldn't possibly have been as rich as the real deal with duck confit, but I honestly couldn't taste the difference.

Typing this out, it doesn't sound all that complicated, but I would rate this meal as one of the most complex and effort-intensive I've ever produced. I'd say I spent three to four solid hours in the kitchen all told. Obviously that's not much compared to someone who's making their own duck confit from scratch, but it ain't exactly like microwaving a pizza either. Still, it was completely worth it. And I've discovered the joy of boiling ham hocks firsthand. If it were up to me, I'd start using them in just about every soup we make, a statement that no doubt terrifies my wife.

That's it for now. If I'm feeling inspired later, I'll post a write up of my first attempt at beef bourguignon.


Barbara said...

Looks really delicious. I feel inspired now to try something ambitious, too.

The Inn at Crippen Creek Farm said...

Looks like you did a great job with it. Classic dishes like this are worth the effort.

william said...

Wow! I am impressed. Wish I could taste it! I made plain old chili for the Super Bowl. I used the Joy of Cooking recipe which is the same one your grandmother (your mom's mom) used to make.

John R said...

looks good Dan!