I am a huge fan of France, particularly the South West Mediterranean departement of Languedoc Rousillon, and specifically the area around Perpignan where I lived for a year as a student and have spent many happy, sun-drenched, heat-soaked weeks since I was 16, most recently last summer on our fabulous family holiday.
Only natural, then, that my thoughts would head south west, and with the Welsh weather at its cold, damp grimmest, to that French peasant staple, Cassoulet.
Cassoulet is not for vegetarians, and it's certainly not for the calorie conscious. The whole point of this dish is that it's warming and sustaining. Don't even think about a low fat version or, heaven forbid, some sort of tofu affair...It's not really for anyone who doesn't relish the thought of meat and beans, for that is what it is, but no less delicious for it. This may be peasant food, but to my mind, it just sings (albeit in a rather gitane-infused baritone) of Le Midi - in any weather: we ate a tinned version while we were camping outside Prades last year, and even the tinned 'convenience version' was delicious. I meant to bring some home with me for those evenings when you need a quick fix, but we ended up eating the tins on our way home, so much did we enjoy them... I did, however, come home with some lovely nets of dried haricot beans, packaged in convenient 'family cassoulet' servings.
I started out intending to follow a recipe by Raymond Blanc, but was thwarted by a lack of confit duck legs in my part of west Wales. Luckily, my friends at Llwynhelyg Farm Shop came to my rescue with fresh duck legs, and my Cassoulet journey developed, with reference to various sources, into this magnificent dinner.
I can't pretend this is truly authentic - apart from anything else, my last minute use of sundried tomato and mascarpone pasta sauce in place of sundried tomato paste (on the basis that the former was available, the latter not!) and good quality pork chipolatas in place of garlicky saucisse de Toulouse (ditto) puts paid to that. You need to start this the day before if you're using dried haricots because they need to be soaked, and you need to devote a good 5 hours to it on the day of cooking and eating. That's not to say you can't do anything else at the same time, but it's more involved than you might think a dish of meat and beans might be. Furthermore, I didn't stir it the requisite 7 times as tradition dictates. But as Felicity Cloake puts it so eloquently, tradition probably had nothing better to do than stand around stirring a pot of cassoulet. For my own part, I prepped a kilo of marmalade oranges, did the ironing and wrote most of this blog post...
So I include the recipe here, and, you'll see that for one lucky reader, I also have a competition to win a voucher for Cafe Rouge. This is my first time using Rafflecopter, so be gentle with me!
Serves around 10
500g dried haricot beans, soaked for at least 12 hours
1 onion, peeled and whole
1 head of garlic, unpeeled and whole, plus 4 cloves
1 bay leaf
a couple of sprigs of thyme
3 black peppercorns
200g smoked streaky bacon, chopped into small pieces
a pot of duck fat or rapeseed oil
2 duck legs (drumsticks & thighs)
500g belly of pork, derinded and chopped into cubes; if on the bone, take the bone out as part of the cubing process and reserve
300g good quality sausages (garlicky, Toulouse sausages if available)
1 tbsp sundried tomato & mascarpone stir through pasta sauce or sundried tomato paste
You'll also need a medium sized frying pan and a big casserole with a lid.
Start by draining the beans well, then placing in the casserole with the onion, garlic head (but NOT the 4 additional cloves) the thyme, bay leaf, the peppercorns and the bacon lardons.
Bring to the boil then cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours.
While the beans are simmering, heat the frying pan and add a tablespoon of duck fat or rapeseed oil. Start by frying off the duck legs - as you do this you'll render out a lot of duck fat which, if you didn't have any duck fat to start with, will add richness when you fry the next bits of meat. When they skin is crispy and golden and the meat is on the way to being cooked, remove from the pan, then fry the sausages and the belly of pork - including any bones you removed during the cubing process. Make sure the meat is all well browned.
Drain any fat from the pan and set aside for part 2.
Once the meat is cool enough to handle, slice up the sausages into chunks.
[At this point, I also started to take the meat off the duck legs but I think this was a mistake. Next time, I'll strip the meat off the duck legs after the dish is finished. If you do stri[ the duck meat at this stage, remember to reserve the bones to pop back in to the casserole for the second half of cooking]
When the beans have finished their simmer, remove the whole onion, the thyme, peppercorns (if you can find them) and bay leaf and discard.
Set up a colander over a big bowl, then drain the beans and bacon, reserving the liquid, and set aside.
Turn on the oven to 140C.
Finely chop the 4 remaining garlic cloves and crush with a good pinch of sea salt before scraping into a small bowl.
Squeeze the simmered garlic flesh out of their skins and into the bowl with the uncooked, crushed garlic, add the tomato paste plus 2-3 tablespoons of duck fat (or use the fat you set aside from earlier frying - and just don't think about your arteries OK?) and mix it all together to a paste.
Wipe out the casserole if necessary, and smear half the garlicky tomatoey paste over the bottom of the casserole. Add the beans and bacon, then the meat, keeping back half the sausage slices.
Pour the reserved cooking liquid from the beans back over the contents of the casserole till it's all just covered, and bring to the boil.
While the casserole is coming back to the boil, put the frying pan back on the stove with any remain duck fat or a tablespoon of rapeseed oil, and briefly fry the bread crumbs.
When the contents of the casserole have come to the boil, sprinkle about a quarter of the breadcrumbs over the top, replace the lid and pop into the oven for a couple of hours. Every half hour or so, remove the casserole, stir in the breadcrumbs and add another quarter of crumbs on top.
Serve in bowls with the rest of the sausage on top - crusty bread perhaps, or a salad of winter leaves would go well. Or in our case, savoy cabbage!
Good luck with the competition too!
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