It's about 2 p.m. here in Portland, and I'm starting to cook my cassoulet. I've got a pile full of meats from Pastaworks (I'm using the veal for my yummy French stew). I'm a little jittery, as there are so many steps and so many different kinds of meat! I'm looking forward to finally attempting this legendary French country dish (the ultimate in slow cooking, if you ask me).
I'm going to start by cooking the white beans and, while they're simmering, I'll broil the duck confit. I'm
terrified by duck, so I need a clear head and a clean kitchen.
Step One: the white beans.
I have two cups of dried white beans, bought in bulk from Fred Meyer. I'm going to cook them entirely without adornment or pieces of carrots and garlic - just salt - in a big pan with water to cover them. I picked them over, quickly, before dumping them in the water to make sure there were no stones, clots of dirt, or very discolored beans. This batch looks pretty good, but I've seen some where I found several tiny stones. I set the burner to high, but I'll turn it down once the beans start simmering.
Step Two: the duck
Here's my duck confit, wrapped in plastic, as I brought it home from Pastaworks. My instructions say to put it under the broiler, but aren't very specific. I'm setting the oven to "broil" and I'm putting my rack one notch from the top. I have a broiler pan, the kind with a rack set over a larger, high-sided baking sheet. Once it gets hot, I unwind my plastic wrap, removing the duck.
My instructions say to "wipe the confit" clean of its fat, but I know that I need duck fat to cook my vegetables. So I scrape what I can into a bowl and save the plastic wrap. I set the leg on the broiler pan and stick it in the oven to cook while I start my other prep work.
Step Three: the bacon
I use about five slices of bacon (fortunately, I have just that amount left from a big breakfast earlier this week). I could have used salt pork - some recipes call for it - but I like bacon better. I cut up the slices into 1-2 inch lengths and start a-cooking over medium-high heat in my heaviest-bottomed skillet. I cook them until they're crisp - about 10 minutes - and set the bacon to drain on paper towels, snitching a few slices and reserving the grease.
As soon as the bacon is done, I check the oven - my duck seems to be fairly crispy. I remove it and turn the oven off (I'll turn it on again once I get the veggies going).
Step Four: the stew meat
I picked bison meat on a whim, about a pound, and my goodness! It's so bloody! As I remove it from the fridge I'm dripping all over the place. I'm so glad I'm wearing one of my kookie thrift store aprons.
My pan is still hot from the bacon, and the stew meat comes already cut into 1-inch chunks, so I just dump it into the pan with a little salt and pepper, and start sauteing. Over medium-high heat, the bison browns quickly. It takes me about 12 minutes, and while it browns, I start chopping the mirrepoix.
Step Five: the vegetables
A mirrepoix is, essentially, a mix of diced carrots, celery, and onions. I have two large carrots, a couple of ribs of celery (I end up using three), and two large yellow onions. I dice them all in about 1/4 inch cubes (very rough measurement - they're about life size here).
Once my bison has finished browning and I remove it from the pan to wait for the combination (using my tongs to reserve any good oil or meat juices), I take the plastic wrap my duck came in and squeeze it, with my tongs, like a toothpaste tube to squirt all the remaining duck fat onto the pan. I also add in the duck fat from the bottom of my broiler pan.
I have a good bit here, but you might want to add in butter or olive oil to make 2-4 tablespoons for cooking your vegetables.
I turn down the heat on my pan a bit to just a touch over medium, and start sauteing my mirrepoix. I salt and pepper liberally, and add in about one teaspoon of dried thyme.
Step Six: the layering
Nowhere was I instructed to cook the two links of garlic sausage, although it's completely uncooked in every sense of the word. I slice it as best I can and start layering in a large casserole dish, a couple cups of my now-tender white beans (I've drained them); a couple big spoonfuls of cooked mirrepoix, and an assortment of bison, bacon, and sliced sausage.
It's not until the second layer that I realize I've done nothing with the duck. I tear it apart with my fingers into chunks (luckily, it's now completely cool), and poke it into the top layer along with the remaining bacon and bison. It looks good to me. I reserve the skin to chop up along with my bread crumbs for the top.
I've already turned on the oven to 325 degrees - a slow oven - and it doesn't take long to heat up. I pour about two cups of chicken broth over the mixture, which is enough to just about cover the mixture.
Step Seven: baking and more baking
I just leave the stuff alone for a long time, about two hours, and then check it. It smells amazingly. I decide it's time to top with the bread crumbs, so I put about three inches' worth of a French bread loaf on my cutting board and dice it as small as I have the patience for. I also chop my reserved duck skin very finely. I toss everything together with some melted butter (about a tablespoon) and sprinkle the mixture over the cassoulet, returning it to the oven and turning up the heat to 375 degrees.
I'll cook it about 30 more minutes, or until the bread crumbs are browned and crisp.
Update: the finished product is delicious! I'll definitely make this again. I could do it! I'm ridiculously proud of my achievement. It's just casserole. But such casserole, full of the flavor of hours of cooking and several kinds of meat. Totally worth the effort.