Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cassoulet does not rhyme with "bet"

French.  It's French.  And it's pronounced "Cass-oo-lay" or, if you are language impaired, a simple "Cass O'lay" will do.  Although I can pronounce all things French (thanks to 8 years of the language in my public school system) the thought of all those fancy dancy sauces and stuff put me off, too "frou phooey".  I like simple that tastes complex.  Well, I thought I knew French cooking until I read Julia Child's autobiography, My Life in France.  I used to watch her shows as a kid, but none of it really sank in.  She made me laugh with her big voice that increased in pitch and intensity in direct proportion to the glasses of wine consumed during the making of a particular dish.

I loved her autobiography.  It showed me a side of Julia you didn't see on TV.  She was a woman that embraced life and opportunities, even if they weren't always ideal.  She loved France and its people with a capital "L", and they loved her.  Julia showed me that real French cooking isn't all these fancy dishes with ridiculous long sounding names - Sometimes I think restaurants feel the longer the name, the more people will buy the dish and the more they can charge for it.  It doesn't matter if it is really French cooking or not - somehow, by inserting some French words in the description, it sounds ritzier for lack of a better term, and people will think " has french in the description - it must be good because I don't understand it! let's buy it" Meanwhile, it's about as far away from French as you can get - a meat with some reduction of one sort, with a demi glaze of another, topped with some sort of confit of another flavor laying on a bed of risotto of ANOTHER flavor, garnished with some veggies yet...ANOTHER flavor.  Ok...tell me really - what am I supposed to taste in this mish mosh?

I was surprised to see that true French cooking is really quite simple.  2-4 ingredients that are in perfect balance with each other to allow the flavor of the main course to shine through.  Wow.  Of course, there are other recipes that have more than 4 ingredients, but it's all pretty simple stuff, like Cassoulet.  It's really a dish eaten by people in the countryside.  You put whatever you have in the pot with some beans (usually white beans) and meat, stuff it in the oven, let it cook, and voila! when you come in from the fields, it's ready and yummy.

I made a shortcut version of Cassoulet the other night - I think next time I might not take the shortcut - although it was very good, the beans from the can were not as flavorful as they would have been, had they been cooking with the sage sausage I threw in there for 3 hours.  The thing about pots like this, is you can use whatever is in your kitchen, with a meat and bean base.  Do you think the French farmers actually said Zut! Je ne prends pas des carrottes! Je ne peux pas faire le cassoulet!  No, they didn't.  They said Ohhh! J'ai les haricots blancs, le lard, et quelques légumes. Cassoulet pour le dîner ce soir!  They used what they had available.  And so can you.  I'll break it down for you.

Chicken (bone in)
Sausage (sage preferable, but any you like)
Beef -chuck roast, stew meat, whatever cheap, fatty cut

Cannelini (white kidney)
Kidney - any color
Black eyed peas
lentils (any colors)
black beans

Potatoes - any kind
Turnips - any kind
1 can tomatoes - diced - with seasoning or without
Spinach (add later)

Salt and Pepper

Wine (any color)
Stock (any flavor)
Butter, Olive oil, or bacon fat
Garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, scallions - pick one or more, but at least ONE

Ok...pick anything you want from any of the lists, but you must have at least one item from each list, except the MUST HAVE list of couse.  How easy is that?  I used sage sausage, white beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant and shallots...Oh...and wine.  Now, I know some of you are getting anxiety attacks because there is NO RECIPE DAMMIT...take a deep breath...exhale... Good!  Now...another deep breath...exhale...Good!  feel better?  I'm telling you, it's impossible to muck this up.

First thing you want to do is throw a bit of butter/oil in the pan and saute your garlic or onions, shallots whatever...add any vegetables they may have a tendency to get soggy if cooked for a few hours, i.e. mushrooms, eggplant, and brown them up to give them a bit of flavor and hold their shape.  If you use bacon, brown it first, and use the fat to saute your veggies in.

Now, brown the meat of choice.  If you are using spinach or chard, throw it in the pan. Add about 1/4 cup of wine (white or red) cook for a few minutes to let the alcohol burn off, then add 1 can of beans, drained, and about a can of stock of choice, and a can of chopped tomatoes.  Put the whole thing in a casserole dish or pan, sprinkle with some panko bread crumbs that you've tossed in a bit of butter and garlic, then grate some parmesean over the top, pop it in a 375 degree oven until the crumbs are browned and the cheese is melted.  Voila! Très facile, n'est-ce pas?

Pour 1/2 cup of wine over it and enough broth to come to cover beans and pop it in the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours.  Check it every half hour, the beans can soak up a lot of liquid.  Add more broth if needed.  Remove from the oven, and then sprinkle with 3/4 bread crumbs of choice (please make these fresh, not the dried out stuff you get in the store unless you use panko) you can season them if you want, with some garlic, S&P whatever, or leave them plain.  Toss the bread crumbs with 3 tbs of melted butter.  Sprinkle over the top and cook for another 25-30 minutes, or until the topping is crisp and browned.  Serve with a nice glass of wine, salad, and some crusty bread, and in the words of the immortal Julia Child - Bon Appétit!*

You can use canned beans, but if you use dried, they will take on the wonderful flavors of the meats, seasonings, and veggies.  Please, please please wash them thoroughly before tossing them in the pot.  Beans are dirty.  They don't really get rinsed in their processing, because it can start fermentation, or they can get moldy, so they are dirty.  If you don't believe me, grab a Q-tip and a bean from the bag, moisten the Q-tip and wipe the bean.  That should convince you.  Because you are cooking this for a few hours, you really don't need to presoak the beans, and lentils never need presoaking, they cook pretty quickly.  Of course, if you are a Crockpot Queen like Tina, you can just throw everything into the Crockpot and cook 6-8 hours. :-) *

Interesting History lesson -

The French usually use haricots blanc beans in their cassoulet.  I found various websites that said it was hard to translate haricots blanc into English, but I found a French website that explained the origin of haricots blanc, which I found amusing.

For all the "difficulty" they have translating haricots blanc into an English equivilent, in reality, the bean came to Europe in the 16th century from Central America, courtesy of the Spanish and Portugese explorers.  Basically, haricots blanc is simply a white kidney bean :-)

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