Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to make cassoulet.

  About a year ago, the members of Léran's culture et patrimoine society went on a bus trip to Castelnaudary. Do a search for "Castelnaudary" and you can read the whole post. Briefly, we cruised on the Canal du Midi and, after a massive cassoulet lunch, went to the factory where the cassoles--the slope-sided brown dishes intended for cassoulet--are made.
Each cassole is made by hand.

  I already owned one that holds cassoulet for six, and another that feeds four. What I wanted was an even larger dish, and I left with one large enough for ten servings. There it's stayed in the cupboard above the stove until a couple of weeks ago when I promised to inaugurate it at a lunch for four friends visiting from the US.
That's a standard size colander which gives you some idea of the size of the cassole.
   Dozens of cassoulet recipes exist. I ended up combining the one from Saveur Cooks Authentic French and Paula Wolfert's version from The Cooking of South-West France. I also took a look at Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. Technique and main ingredients were fairly similar but I did notice massive discrepancies in the quantities of beans. Wolfert said two pounds (about 900 grams) would feed 10 to 12 and Saveur was fairly similar but Bourdain allowed 1100 grams for four people. All authors agreed that this was not a dish you make on the spur of the moment.
   We set the date and time. Saturday at 1 p.m. Lunch because cassoulet is a very heavy dish to eat at night.
   Thursday, I took the 500 gram hunk of couenne out of the fridge. Pork skin with a thick layer of fat. Feeling like Hannibal Lecter, I cut this into strips, rolled and tied them neatly, and simmered them until they were pliable. I simmered a fresh pork hock in another pot until I could stick a fork in it, then skinned and boned it.
Le bouquet garni et le head of garlic.
    Friday was an afternoon of work. I browned chopped onion and carrot, added cubed pork shoulder, added a kilo of beans (rinsed but unsoaked) an entire unpeeled head of garlic and a bouquet garni and lots of chicken stock. Everything burbled away for a couple of hours in a big cast iron pot on the top of the stove.
Pork and vegetables.
    Saturday, I was up early. The first job was to cut the pork skin into tidy squares and use them to line the bottom of the cassole, fat side down. On top went the bean and vegetable mixture, sans the garlic head and the bouquet garni, and everything went into the oven. Two hours later, I browned about 800 g of saucisses de Toulouse, a large chunk of pork shoulder, cubed, and the pork hock meat, shredded, and buried everything in the bean mixture. Next came the confited duck legs. I drained as much fat off them as I could and arranged them artistically on top of the cassoulet. And no, I didn't do the traditional breadcrumbs-on-top thingy because I wanted the skin on the duck legs to brown and crisp.

     A couple more hours in the oven. By now it was 2 p.m. and we were just getting into our first course, a light salad of greens, chopped green onion, cubed apple and hazelnuts.
Bubbling away in the oven. The cassole and contents were almost too heavy for the wire rack which fell off its moorings seconds after I'd taken the cassoulet out of the oven.

     The cassoulet was spendiferous if I do say so myself (and everyone else said so too). The best one I've made so far. Next time, I wouldn't change a thing, except to invite a couple more people over and add in two more duck legs. As it is, there's a cassoulet "base" of beautifully seasoned beans waiting in the freezer to use as the foundation for a winter soup--or another batch of cassoulet.
     You want to know what else we had? Cheeses, grapes and figs, and then a small attack on a box of Ladurée macarons that someone had brought us from Paris. And a great deal of big red wines.

Lovely Ladurée macarons. Two dozen, each one different and a little sheet of paper to tell you which was which. We ticked them off as we ate them.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Quite early one summer morning.

 It was one of those July days that you just knew was going to be in the high thirties by lunchtime. But at about 7:30 a.m. as I walked down to the boulangerie for croissants, the sun was up and the air was cool. Here's one side of the school...

And here, where you can see that clump of trees, is the schoolyard side...

And this is how the same scene looked about 100 years ago.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Where Did Summer Go?

 All of this seems so long now that we're lighting fires most evenings and the sycamore tree in the garden has turned yellow. July and August seemed to race by. Here's a little collage so you can pretend you're here for summer in our part of France (with captions now that I've learned how to do them).

Memo to self: plant lots of nicotiana next year. It loves this climate.
Home-grown tomatoes. Even in October, the vines are still loaded.

The weekly marché gourmand. Early on in the evening.

Definitely the most popular entertainment at the Marché Gourmand--a troupe of "Brazilian" dancers.

The Tour de France passed through Léran on a blazing hot July day.

Outdoor silent movies in Chalabre.

And silent movies by the lake with jazz accompaniment.
A mini-break in Moissac. Definitely in the top five of best cloisters in France.
Sunflowers everywhere, including our garden.

The nightly wheel of pigeons over our garden, underside of their wings catching the light.

This year, you could buy salads of various kinds at this weekly enormous outdoor dinner--but sadly the Mexican food truck didn't show up.