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Cassoulet: rabbit & pork to quicken the pulse(s)

We’ve written before on more than one occasion of our shared love for all things pulse and porcine. Pretty much every pork-eating culture in the world has at least one melt-in-the mouth classic which taps into both of these elements, exploiting the extraordinary harmony and symbiosis of flavour and texture which comes from such comfort food. These are truly made for each other, and it’s a massive favourite here with us at North/South Food.

Inspired in part by a great holiday to Languedoc (and armed with a few goodies on my return) I decided to make a semi-proper cassoulet as a way of warding off the rather autumnal weather which has blighted the north of England since coming home. Not a proper proper cassoulet (with all the regional rivalries that seems to stoke up) but my own interpretation. After all, it’s a genuine classic, and something I’ve never cooked before, so it was well worth having a go at…

I used my well-thumbed copy of Elisabeth Luard’s ‘Classic French Cooking as reference: her recipe for ‘Cassoulet de Castelnaudary’ seems pretty authentic. I deviated on a few occasions, perhaps most heretically by using rabbit rather than duck or goose. You see, I’ve had a bunny in the freezer for a few months, and coming home with a lovely artisanal French sausage, I thought something casserole-y would make for a perfect combination. After a bit of reading I warmed to the idea of cassoulet.

First things first, I had to make the rabbit confit. After a good defrosting I jointed the bunny… legs off and the body / saddle in three. I had some goosefat lurking in the fridge in a kilner jar (really not sure how long it was since I last cooked a goose but I decided to take the risk) and I had a tin of store-bought stuff as well. Tip: buy reduced-price tins of goose fat from supermarkets in the weeks after Christmas. It lasts for ever, and I’m sure you know just how good roast potatoes & Yorkshire puddings are, made with real goose fat.

I melted the fat down in a saucepan, then poured them over the layered rabbit joints in a stoneware pot. I’d also sprinkled salt over the meat (using wonderful fleur de sel from the Camargue), chucked a few peppercorns into the pot, and added a couple of bay leaves. Once the meat was covered by the warm, clear goose fat, it went straight into a pre-heated gas oven at the lowest setting, covered by tinfoil, and I left it overnight.

Next day a delicate aroma greeted me when I opened the kitchen door: inside the oven the meat had blanched and warmed through. very pretty looking too. I took out the legs, ate one of the other bits for breakfast on toast (chef’s perk!) and put the rest in a kilner jar, carefully covering with the fat. That was the rabbit sorted, now for the rest.

A quick trip to Stansfield’s in the market secured some belly pork (I got Paul to remove the skin for me) and some lean escalopes. I decide not to buy some fresh sausages, determined to subvert tradition and use the dried Aveyronnais saucisse instead. This is almost as heretical as using rabbit, but I thought the rich, fatty dry sausage would work well in such a slow-cooked dish.

So I diced the belly meat, and added it to the bottom of a cast iron Le Creuset (heretical decision #3… it should of course be cooked in stoneware but I didn’t have anything large enough). I opted for canned haricot beans over dried (life’s too short for soaking pulses) and added three tins of these, together with a couple of roughly chopped carrots, a bouquet garni, a red onion studded with cloves, and a head of garlic which I’d blackened quickly over a gas flame on the hob. Also in the pot went the rolled-up belly skin. Everything was covered with water, and raised to a rolling boil, before simmering for an hour or so.

After that was done I drained everything, reserving the cooking liquor carefully. I browned the rabbit joints in a heavy frying pan, then did the same with the lean pork and a couple of diced red onions & some garlic, letting them shimmer and glisten in the hot goose fat. I unfurled the pork skin on the bottom of the cast iron pot, and layered up the beans, veg and meats on top. A tin of plum tomatoes was ably accompanied by some home-grown toms, which looked as pretty as they tasted. As the ingredients stacked up I was worried by a deficit of beans to cover everything, so I added a extra tin of cannellini beans. Then I poured the cooking broth from earlier in until everything was just coated, lidded up and put it in the oven at gas mark 2 (150°C) for about two hours.

It was about then I realised that such a long cooking process was going to severely test my patience: the smell when I opened the oven was enough to make me want to gnaw my own arm off. However the next stages would mean it was some time before I could exepct to finally tuck in. After notching the oven up to 160°C the pot went back in, uncovered, to help develop a crust. This took closer to an hour as a fair amount more liquid had been drawn out of the tomatoes, but eventually there was enough of a crust for the next stage. I spooned some goose fat over the top, and broke the crust several times before adding a layer of breadcrumbs. Breaking the crust seems to be one of the defining differences between Castelnaudary and other towns in Languedoc which lay claim to cassoulet as their own. I opted to break the ‘croute’ seven times, as Larousse Gastronomique suggests this is the Castelnaudary way. Then back in the oven again to thicken up and cook for another half an hour or so. Cue more groaning stomachs – it was at this stage I cracked open some rather good anchovy-enfused Camargue olives.

We enjoyed this with a bottle of excellent Saint-Chinian red (sticking to the Languedoc theme) and some crusty white bread to soak up the juices. Dead simple, and all that was needed to really savour this dish. It tasted wonderful, and was well worth the anticipation and wait. Better still, as so many one pot meals do, it just got better over the next couple of days.

I’d give this 7/10 for adherence to tradition, but 10/10 for flavour. The sausage was excellent, adding a complexity and richness to the dish, and the rabbit was succulent and delicious. Sometimes traditions are there to be subverted! If this heralds the season to eat rich, slow-cooked one pot wonders, then I’m glad to wrap up warmer and take things slowly. Meanwhile I’ll be rationing out the goose fat from the confit for future cooking exploits… it’s a wonderful by-product of this dish. What’s good for the goose is certainly good for me…

A warm salad for warm summer nights

So, I’ve recently returned from a week’s holiday in the warmth and civilisation of Languedoc. It’s not a part of the world I was familiar with, and as well as good weather, my companions and I enjoyed a week of superb local food and wine. As they’d been to the area before I enjoyed some local delicacies under their guidance, and we made plenty of new discoveries too. We ate simply, and tried as much as the short timescale could allow (finally ticked bouillabaisse off my list of ‘to dos’, cooked superfresh whitebait, and gingerly tried freshwater clams which we’d sourced ourselves from Lac du Salagou). Plus freshly picked figs & plums everyday, moules et frites at the local village knees-up, and a host of other delights.

I’ve only warmed in recent years to classic French cooking – my reference point was always further south in Italy – and I associated French with more courtly and less rustic cooking. However there’s a healthy overlap between the high-end and the more accessible, so I’ve been expanding my repertoire and gaining more confidence talking mirepoix rather than soffritto. In part this helps when you’re in an area where the aroma of herbs hangs heavy in the air – wild thyme and mint nestling next to tall fennel plants in the verges – and bushes and trees are laden with fruits and nuts. Foraging and gathering becomes a daily constant, not an occasional novel experience.

I’d mentioned previously I was working on the forthcoming Parlour Café Cookbook: before going on hoilday I’d worked up several of these recipes into postcards, and one in particular stuck in my mind: a warm salad of Puy lentils and goats cheese. It’s one of the star recipes in the book and supposed to be a favourite with the regulars,  so I decided to give it a whirl.

We picked up most of the ingredients in the local supermarket before a trip up country to visit Roquefort and Millau – great cheese, rather dull tour of the caves, although I did pick up some sheep’s butter there – and on the way home had to make our respective ways through an enormous, spectacular and somewhat frightening electric storm. Everyone was a bit frazzled by the end of the trip, so it was rather relaxing to potter around in the kitchen, unwinding with a glass in one hand and a stirrer in the other, unwinding while knocking this oh-so-simple recipe up. Mind you, it’s always fun find your way round somebody else’s kitchen for the first time, making the most of what you find lurking in the cupboards.

It still makes me smile that this most Mediterranean of dishes actually comes via Dundee, but using local ingredients (and some great local wine) meant it was perfectly transposed to a more Gallic setting. Rather than rewritng this I’ll use Gillian’s words from the cookbook, annotated slightly.

Puy Lentil and Goats Cheese Salad

Serves 4

●200g Puy lentils [oddly they weren’t labelled as Puy but verte]
●1 onion, chopped
●1 carrot, chopped
●2 stalks of celery, chopped [wonderful dark green celery, still with all the leaves]
●A handful of fresh thyme [straight from the local hills]
●1 bay leaf
●150ml extra virgin olive oil
●3 – 6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped [I used the full six cloves, and it was extremely feisty… I guess due to the freshness of the garlic. No worries about being bitten that evening!]
●50ml red wine vinegar [I couldn’t find any in the store cupboard so I used a mix of balsamic & some red vin du table instead]
●100g goats cheese [we used a local, strongly flavoured little number]
●a large handful of parsley, roughly chopped
●sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the lentils in boiling water for 20 minutes, until they are absolutely tender.

Meanwhile, fry the onions, carrots, celery, thyme and the bay leaf in a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil until soft and lightly coloured. In a food processor or with a hand blender, blend the garlic with the rest of the olive oil. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the vinegar and blend until it’s emulsified.

Drain the lentils and pour out onto a flattish dish. Smother in the garlicky dressing and turn gently so everything is glistening. Once the vegetables are cooked, gently mix them into the lentils and leave the salad to cool.

Then toss gently with the goats cheese, torn into chunks, and the parsley. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper if you think it needs it.

The only major change I made was that a couple of our party didn’t like goats cheese, so we served their portions first – they had comté instead – then crumbled the cheese in afterwards. We’d also picked up some smoked sausage to add some savoury notes to the dish. Otherwise we kept it simple – a hunk of fresh bread, a fresh green salad on the side, and some local wine to help everything go down.

This is such a good recipe: it doesn’t take long to make, tastes stunning, and it’s most evocative of warm summer nights and lazy times. I can see why it’s a favourite at the café, and I think it will be with you too. Delicious!

Vive la fromage!

A few weeks ago we got an invite to attend a wine and cheese tasting in Manchester, as part of an education campaign for Vive le Cheese, which aims to get us Brits enjoying the pleasures of French fromage. Needless to say it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to sample cheeses (and quaff wine too) so I made a beeline for the Soup Kitchen in Manchester’s Northern Quarter to check out the ‘chewtorial’ last Tuesday (or should that be Chewsday?)


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