Monday, November 30, 2009

Cassoulet Results

Some fairly educational cassoulet making for me this Thanksgiving... and probably the longest cooking experience of my life... topping out last year's turkey and Gigot de Sept Heures at somewhere in the 10-11 hour range. While the Saveur recipe I used only calls for 7 hours of oven time, and 2 hours of prep, I also made my own duck confit, which added in some time (though I did the prep while the duck was in the oven) and, of course, things often take longer than you think they will... specifically, in this case, bringing the cassoulet up to a simmer in the oven took more like 1.5 hours both times, and I had some trouble finding the exact right oven temperature to keep it on a very low simmer. But other than being up until 3:30 am on Wednesday night/Thanksgiving morning, it was pretty painless and straightforward... and the beans were absolute nirvana.

As I suspected, there was nearly no meat on my ham hocks. I knew this was likely, since I've cooked with ham hocks from Savenor's before, but probably suffered a bit from some recipe fundamentalism (but the recipe says...) and was unable to adapt when the butcher showed me the hocks were like half a pound, instead of the whole pound suggested by Saveur. I don't know if that's just the peculiarities of my butcher, a difference between France and the US, or something that's changed over the last 10 or so years since the recipe was first published... but regardless, I see the wisdom of buying a couple of ham hocks for flavoring the beans (getting out any meat you can), but generally counting on something like pork shoulder for the bulk of the pork in the stew. As it was, I spent two hours boiling some ham hocks that produced maybe two and a half tablespoons of meat... pretty much a waste, and I would have been much better served coking them in the beans for flavor. I also was not super impressed with the pork rind (i.e. pork skin)... I had never cooked with it before, so that was interesting, and the little bits looked tasty while rendering, but after simmering in the cassoulet for seven hours they were just soft and chewy with little flavor of their own. It's obviously impossible to know how much flavor it imparted, but I think I lean towards cubed pancetta as my favored source of pork fat.

I really liked browning the sausages and cooking them in the garlic paste... that paste seemed to give some nice garlic kick to the cassoulet without being overpowering. I also liked the traditional "layering" of the ingredients in this recipe. The duck confit was also my best effort in that area to date... though credit for that goes to Cook's Illustrated, since the fall issue was where I poached the recipe. The crust formation and breaking (pictured above) was pretty interesting (though a little mysterious - what is that crust exactly?) but I really like the bread crumb raft in other recipes, and am loath to give it up.

I'm not entirely sure how I'll apply these lessons to the next batch of cassoulet I make (other than being pro- pancetta and bread crumbs), but it was definitely informative to make this more... elemental... version, to see exactly how everything works together in their most basic combination. Not sure I'd recommend the recipe for somebody who just wants to try this "cassoulet thing" out, while still hewing to traditional approaches... you'd probably be better served in that regard with the other Saveur recipe I blogged last year... or perhaps the Cook's Illustrated one I linked above (haven't tried it, but it looks solid).