New year, old theme. Yep, time to re-open that authenticity can of worms again, and while I’m at it, to kick off what may well turn out to be another recurring theme on this blog, namely recipes that start with the phrase “three days beforehand…” Seriously, who has the time, the patience, or the forethought? Certainly not me.
Cassoulet. As I mentioned in passing in my first post on the subject of authenticity, this, along with Bouillabaisse, must be just about the most tediously, and pointlessly, argued over dishes in the world. Both of them French. Funny that. Because if there’s one nation on Earth more pedantically precious about authenticity, or more pig-headedly parochial, than the Italians, that’d be the French. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s entirely a bad thing. It’s symptomatic of a culture that encourages pride in culinary tradition, that cherishes regional specialities and promotes the artisan over the factory. All of which seems sadly long lost in Britain, and having to be re-learned by what I’m sure is, still, a very small number of professionals and hobbyists.
Anyway, as a French regional speciality, with infinite local variations within that region, all treated as holy writ, it doesn’t really matter how well (or badly) you make a cassoulet, any purist who so much as smells it will tell you that you’re doing it all wrong anyway. And a second purist will confirm that yes, you are wrong, but that so also is the first purist. And so on ad infinitum. And as it is simultaneously one of the dishes most likely in the world to have a recipe that starts with the words ‘three days beforehand’, it’s also one of those dishes it’s most easy to be put off tackling at all. So I wouldn’t bother. Instead, here is a hearty stew that seems to have all the basic characteristics of what we might generically call a cassoulet, is thoroughly delicious and satisfying, and can be made in a couple of hours from scratch. I call it ‘cassoulet-ish’.
I’d like to say that the duck legs I’ve used here are essential, but to do so would undermine my “anti purist” stance, so I’ll say they come strongly recommended. However, feel free to substitute (or even add) duck breasts, strips of pork belly and/or big meaty pork sausages. Even guinea fowl or chicken. Best of all - and if you’re doing it as a special dinner party dish, I’d recommend this - add the lot. By all means develop your own version and declare it to be the one true, definitive version and all others false. You have every bit as much right to do so as any Carcassonnais cassoulet snob
4 duck legs
6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut into postage stamp sized pieces or strips (or equivalent quantity diced pancetta/lardons)
1 tin of beans (cannelini/haricot/pinto/borlotti)
1/2 tin chopped tomatoes
mushrooms (about a dozen chesnut mushrooms, halved or quartered depending on size or a couple of large flat mushrooms cut into big chunks or thick slices)
1 dozen small round shallots, peeled and left whole
fresh red chilli pepper, finely sliced - about two inches worth, more or less depending on taste and strength of chilli
2-3 cloves of garlic, or 4 depending on taste and size of cloves, finely sliced or crushed (I generally prefer my garlic in recognisable slices)
1 glass red wine
250 ml good strong stock – beef/chicken/mushroom)
Score the skin of the duck legs or stab them repeatedly with a fork, season with salt and pepper and fry them, skin side down both to brown and to melt off some of their fat.
While the duck legs are browning, heat a heavy, lidded oven proof pan or casserole and gently sautee the bacon, garlic, chilli and shallots in olive oil, with salt and pepper and a pinch of thyme (dried or fresh), taking care not to burn the garlic.
When the duck legs are nicely browned, and their pan swimming in drained fat, add the mushrooms to the main pan and cook for a minute or two before adding the duck legs.
Add the wine, letting it simmer and reduce slightly, then add the tomatoes and a bay leaf or two, then the beans and the stock (be sure to add the stock hot). You don’t want too much liquid at this point so modify the amount of stock you add accordingly. If you think there might be too much liquid, leave the pan to simmer uncovered on the heat for a few minutes to reduce.
Put the lid on the pan and transfer to a preheated oven to cook until the duck legs are well cooked through and the shallots nice and soft. About 180, for 45 minutes to an hour will do it, but, as (almost) ever, it’s even better, if you have time, to turn the oven down and cook it longer, lower and slower. I really should have a keyboard shortcut for ‘150 for about 3 hours’ because that should certainly work here, although I’d be inclined to check it at about two and a half. When it comes out of the oven, the sauce should be thick, gloopy and shiny with duck fat, and the meat on the duck legs should be ready to fall off the bone. If it’s too fluid, again, reduce it on the stove, if it’s too dry add a little wine and/or stock and allow to simmer for a few minutes before serving.
This is best served with mash. Best of all if you use some of the melted off duck fat from the frying pan where you’d normally use butter (or I’d use extra virgin olive oil) on the potatoes. Perhaps even with some chopped spring onions softened in the fat stirred in to it too.