At first glance, you would think that title — Cassoulet, or Cooking With What You Have — was almost demonically contradictory. All these years I’ve been looking at those cassoulet recipes…you know the ones, you who read cookbooks: recipes discussing the authentic dish of Carcassone, or Toulouse. Recipes arguing about whether it’s a true cassoulet if you don’t include duck confit, or shoulder of mutton. Recipes that call for about half a ton of goose fat, which when you look for sources on the Internet, costs roughly about as much as half a ton of semi precious stones. All these years I’ve been reading those recipes, and thinking ha! Well, maybe when hell freezes over.
I mean, you read these recipes and you think: forget cassoulet. At least, that’s what I thought, given the way I cook, which is based on a.) what I feel like at that moment and b.) what I have easily available at the moment and c.) what fits in, cooking wise, with my schedule at the moment.
So imagine my surprise, even my sly delight, when a little light went off the other night, and I realized that ALL THREE of those requirements were met by, of all things, cassoulet.
1.) I was home alone for a week, which meant I could eat meat, since the vegetarian husband was safely at work in another state, 2.) I felt like having something hearty, that could cook undisturbed while I worked through a large-ish pile on my desk, and that would smell wonderful while I did. 3.) I actually had all the ingredients, just hanging about…if not for the Perfect Cassoulet, or even for an Authentic Toulouse Cassoulet, or even for Just Any Old Recipe for Cassoulet, at least I had all the stuff you would need if you were a peasant wife in the south of France in the nineteenth century trying to figure out what she was going to do that week for the family’s meals.
All those years of reading those cassoulet recipes, and those articles in food magazines about cassoulet. They suddenly converged into one absolutely clear, outstanding fact: Cassoulet is baked beans. Baked beans and miscellaneous meats and herbs cooked a really, really, really long time.
Now I had about 3/4 of a pound of white beans lying around from the last time the organic ones were on sale at the Co-op. And I had a bunch of herbs drying, left over from a late autumn foray into Indigo’s garden. I had canned tomatoes. I had ends of bread in the freezer waiting to be made into bread crumbs (cassoulets have a crumbly topping, just perfect with the unction underneath). Most important of all, I had all these little bits and pieces of meat in the freezer that I’d bought when I found something cheap and interesting at the market. Lamb neck. Lamb riblets. A pork hock. When I see stuff like this, I bring it home and hoard it, figuring I’ll do something with it later, when I’m alone, and the Vegetarian Husband is elsewhere.
I had thought I’d make a tiny stew from the lamb neck. I’d thought I’d bake the riblets. The pork hock had been mainly destined to bake with some sauerkraut. But somehow none of these things had occurred, and there they were, cluttering up my freezer en masse.
Most importantly, though, I had a small container of melted duck fat from the last time I roasted a duck. One of the rules of my life is that I always save the duck fat, since it’s secretly just about the most delicious part of the duck. It’s great used for sauteeing potatoes. For cooking onions and garlic before you mash in the cooked pinto beans. As the fat base for sauerkraut.
And then — ta da! — there was that pork skin I found in a market that caters to our local Latin American and Southeast Asian cooks. I’d looked at it longingly, in its huge five pound packages, every time I’d gone by, remembering what smooth silkiness it used to add to my pot roasts, in the days when I cooked a lot of pot roasts. But what on earth would I do with five pounds of pork skin?
But the last time in that market, as I stood there looking longingly once again, a butcher appeared with a tray of meat to put out. I said, almost before I knew what I was doing, “I don’t suppose you could let me have just a half a pound of that pork skin, could you?” And she gave me a look like I was nuts, not for wanting the pork skin, but for thinking for even a moment that she wouldn’t be delighted to cut some up for me. (This market, by the way, is called Food For Less, and it looks like an industrial warehouse, and it stocks more local stuff and has more happy employees than just about any market I’ve ever been in. And its butchers, who mainly deal in locally raised animals, are second to none. I mean, you know where that liver came from.) I went away clutching my half pound of pork skin in triumph, and cut it into little rolls and froze them when I got home.
So I had pork skin, the main ingredient that adds the oommpphhh to your average cassoulet. (You can use olive oil, but it won’t be the same. And, honest to God, stop worrying so much about eating fat. As my sister in law Cindy says, “Just don’t eat so damn much!”)
Here’s what I did, a leisurely and pleasant three nights cooking, very little time spent at the stove. The first night I brought the beans to a boil in water to cover by an inch, then let them sit, covered, for an hour. (While this was going on, I made myself a very simple dinner of a lamb chop cooked on the griddle, with a carrot salad on the side — took about ten minutes, start to finish, and boy was it good.) Then I drained them, put them back in the pot, covered them with more water, added a couple of branches of dried thyme, a stem of parsley, a pinch of dried oregano, a bay leaf, a chopped carrot, a chopped half onion, eight crushed cloves of garlic, the pork hock, and about a quarter pound of pork skin cut into small pieces and tied in a piece of cheesecloth.
(Now about that pork skin. You can add a whole piece and fish it out later. You can add the little squares cut up without tying them in the cheesecloth, and eat them with the beans later. Or you can do the cheesecloth routine. I cut the pieces up to get that extra unction, then tied them up because I didn’t really want to eat them, and I figured — correctly — that they would, after they’d done their bit for me, make the dogs go wild with joy.)
I let this cook (on top of the woodstove, which was going anyway) for an hour or so, till the beans were tender but not overcooked. Then I pulled it out and let it cool overnight. Next day, I fished out the cheesecloth, what was left of the stems of the herbs, and the pork hock. Cut the skin off the pork hock and tossed it in a dish with the pork skin bits decanted from the cheesecloth — that was for the dogs, later. Then I chopped the meat off the bones, and put the meat back in with the beans — that was for me. Put the beans in the frig.
While I made a small dinner for myself the second night (again a lamb chop, I’d liked it so much the night before, this time with an avocado and mesclun salad, and a small piece of whole meal toast with peanut butter and cherry jam for dessert), I cooked the other meats. Melted a little duck fat in a big skillet, browned the lamb neck pieces. Added the lamb riblets and browned them. Added a chopped carrot, a chopped half onion, and about eight crushed garlic cloves. Another piece of thyme, another bay leaf, another pinch of dried oregano. After it had all browned a little, about ten minutes, I added a cup of canned tomatoes and half a cup of white wine (needless to say, you don’t need to be fussy about these measurements, you’re just adding liquid to what’s essentially a little meat stew). Cooked that down a bit. Added about a cup of duck broth I’d had lying around in the freezer from the last time I roasted that duck and made a broth from its bones. I let the whole thing cook on low while I turned the ends of bread from the freezer into breadcrumbs in the Cuisinart, then I ate dinner, oh, about an hour, then I added the stew to the pot of beans. Covered the top with a satisfying blanket of bread crumbs and dribbled some melted duck fat on top.
Now it was all ready for its final cooking, to take place, effortlessly, on a day I had specially chosen since I would be very distracted by work, and in need of a little solace after. On THAT day, I popped it in, three hours before I wanted to eat it, uncovered, into a 300 degree oven.
Oh my, the smells that started wafting through the house about an hour later. And then two hours later. It was a good thing I had so much work to do, or I wouldn’t have been able to keep from wading into it early. After about three hours, I looked in, and there it was, bubbling away in a friendly and inviting sort of way. I turned the oven up to 500 degrees, to brown the crumbs for a last five minutes, tossed myself a heap of mesclun leaves with a tiny bit of walnut oil and lemon juice, and then, as MFK Fisher says, served it forth with a big honking glass of hearty red wine. That first night I had one of the chunks of lamb neck and all of the riblets. And it was absolutely, soul searingly, happiness inducing, delicious.
And you know what? It wasn’t a hassle. Not because it wasn’t a lot of work and a lot of ingredients, but because the work and the ingredients fit exactly with my life at exactly that moment in time. That’s the important thing, I’ve discovered: is it the right thing at the right time? Does it work with what’s around you? And is it really who you are and what’s around you right then, not what someone else has told you, but you, what you know about you. Is it that? Because if it is, then even making a cassoulet is a breeze, even if I had to wait about thirty years till I hit that exact moment in time.