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Cassoulet – improvisations in the key of bacon

Cassoulet Les Halles

Dear Chef Bourdain;

Let me just say, this cassoulet was one of those dishes that made me appreciate the time and trouble really good food can take. And be completely worth it. Your method of cassoulet takes three days, and each of them requires a bit of work, especially day two. Since I was going on a skiing vacation with a group of friends, and would be snow-bound in Lake Tahoe, I’d have the time and the appetite. Perfect.

Day One

The night we arrived I put the legs in a dish to sit overnight with salt. Easy. I also soaked the beans overnight in a bowl of cold, clear mountain water. Easy. Drinking ensued. It’s not strictly in this particular recipe, but so many of your recipes do include compulsory drinking, I figured it was ok.

Naked Duck Legs

Day Two

I hadn’t been able to find the duck fat in which to confit the duck legs. I had to make do with some substitutions. Since I was make Tartiflette, aka “The Triumph of  Bacon” in the afternoon one day, I got a lot of extra bacon and skimmed off rendered bacon fat. In this, I confited the duck legs, with the garlic and herbs required. The smell was absolutely unbelievable. Especially after I sauteed the sausages.

Like jell-o, there's always room for sausage.

There’s a lot happening here in day two – all this confiting, sausaging, and also some bean-cooking with pork rinds. I couldn’t find that, so I used what essentially boils down to a giant hunk of bacon instead. It was some sort of cured pork belly I found at Whole Foods. I hate Whole Foods’ politics, but they do have good food, so I end up shopping there even though it means lining the pockets of a Right-Wing Libertarian extremist. But bacon? Yeah, well, that’s my kryptonite, and it knows no politics or national boundaries.

There are beans down there somewhere. Under all the pork.

After all this was done, the final triumph of smells occurs. Magic happens here.

This is magic. Can you smell it?

There’s thyme, and beans, and duck legs, and sausages, all swimming in fats of various sorts. It cooks slow and simmers. Your recipe doesn’t call for it, but traditionally cassoulet has crumbs on top, so I rolled with that. You mention a crust that needs breaking – I figured a little bit of bread crumbs would soak up some of that delicious fat and set up nicely. So I called an audible and threw it in there.

Cassoulet by Bourdain. Crumbs by Krieger.

Day Three

Everyone came back from skiing and was heartbroken at the amazing smell of day two, and were fairly well raring to get at the finished product. I’d been tasting and nipping here and there, too, so I was pretty excited. But it was that overnight soak with the beans that made the sorcery go down.

When it came out, my friends were hovering like vultures. Cold mountain air, steady snow, and a day of sledding and skiing, and everyone was starving for some good comfort food. And this is kind of the granddaddy of comfort foods – the meats melt right into the beans and make a soft, chewy fatty blend that is beautifully flavored with the garlic and thyme.

Literally hovering like vultures, in this case.

With much anticipation, we divvied it up – everyone got a sausage and a duck leg, with plenty of beans for all. That duck was superb – soft and silky and very tender. The sausages had soaked up a lot of the bacon fat, and were  EVEN fattier. I mean seriously – this is sausage crossed with bacon, essentially, creating a sort of super-pork.

But to me, the best part was the beans. They were so incredibly rich, so smooth, and bursting with the fatty flavor. I had a fairly small bowl just to get a taste of everything, and was basically full afterwards. I can’t imagine a more perfect apres-ski food. Though actually I didn’t go skiing, but HAD I, I would have wanted this. I mean, even more than I did. My fiancee, who hates cassoulet, liked this. Apparently her experience of it was tins of franks-and-beans in France. I’m sayin’ – this was a lot more than just that.

It was fantastic. A friend paid me a compliment and said, “Davy, you can cook.” Given that she grew up in a house full of Southern women who express love by feeding, it was high praise. And in this case, at least a little bit deserved, since I hadn’t slavishly followed the recipe. I mean, MOSTLY I did, but not completely.

When I depart from the plan, it usually involves bacon.

What could go wrong with that, Chef?


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