Beans 2: Cassoulet

17 03 2010

After a tasty, but nowhere near traditional cassoulet attempt, we decided to get a bit more serious.

Cassoulet is a very old dish dating at least to the middle ages. It is in some ways is a forbearer of both “franks and beans” and those casseroles that were popular in the 1950’s-70’s in the US. You know, the ones made with leftover rice or noodles, tuna, and canned cream of mushroom soup. The resemblance in taste is even worse than pate to meatloaf.

It is a rustic, country dish consisting of beans, various meats, and some vegetables layered together in a heavy, open pot and baked. This is the kind of dish that you eat in winter when there isn’t much fresh meat around and where it can simmer all day on the stove. It is a particularly good dish for us to make right now because it’s a classic bean dish, we just made duck confit (post to come!), we still have some of our bacon, and there are a couple andouille-style sausages (not traditional, but tasty) left.

It usually has large white beans: tarbais are a really pricey version, but navy and cannellini work too. Before the white beans came from America, fava beans were used. We used cannellini from a local Italian market Mona Lisa. They had some in bins at $2.29/lb, but they weren’t covered and it didn’t look like they got much turnover. So, we got a pre-packaged bag of them at $3/lb. Here they are when we first put them in water to soak overnight.

We did some web searching, but mainly looked at two cookbooks: I Know How to Cook by Ginette Mathiot (the Joy of Cooking for French peeps, translated into English) and The Complete Robuchon by Joel Robuchon. Both are similar, but Robuchon has more detailed instructions and seems to cut fewer corners: he cooks the assembled cassoulet for 4 hours at 250 instead of Mathiot’s 2 hours at 350. We mostly went with Robuchon, but we didn’t do a breadcrumb crust at the end and used the meats that we have.

The beans are cooked with herbs (parsley, thyme, and bay) and aromatics (onion, carrot, garlic) for about an hour. We put the bacon in the water in the last 15 minutes to cook it a bit and extract some of the salt. Here are the beans after they have come out.

Different regions of France (mostly the South of France) each include different types of meats. A number are added: tough cuts like lamb, mutton, or pork shoulder; and preserved meats like sausages, duck or goose confit, and pork belly or bacon. We added pork shoulder, bacon, duck confit, and our andouille sausage. We browned the shoulder and sausage. Here’s the shoulder.

Onions are cooked in the pan that was used to brown the meats, transferring all that yummy browned protein flavor to the onions.

Often, tomatoes or tomato paste is added, helping to bring out the protein flavor with their glutamates. We used paste since tomatoes are not in season here. The onion-tomato mixture is mixed up with the beans and part is spread into a dish. We’re using a dutch oven — the traditional cassole dish is circular with sloping sides.

The meats are layered on top of the beans.

And more meats are layered…

Then, the rest of the beans are put on top and bean liquid is added to cover. The whole pot is placed in the oven at 250 for 4 hours in this case where the meats continue cooking until very tender and the flavors meld. When it comes out, the top is browned, carmalized, and lightly crusty. It may be that a perfect crust is one of those things that takes a bit of work, but this certainly looked tasty.

We garnished with parsley and ate it as a stew with Bread & Cie multigrain.

The flavor whomped the previous version out of the water. There is something about the duck confit that gives it a rich complexity that is hard to describe. It may require a few more meals to describe it, but that’s ok — we’ll have enough for the rest of the week! The texture of all the meats was soft and tender, with the confit in particular shredding to pieces. I think the 250 cooking is probably essential to this because if it boils, much of the meat will be become tough.

This dish overall is only a couple hours of actual work for a pot of food that is about 4-5 meals for 2. But it is a lot of cooking time, especially if you add in the duck confit. It is perfect when you are going to be home for the day cleaning, working, or reading. Prep for dinner is very quick. Even if you make a salad to go with it, you’re looking at 15 min max. It also seems really flexible — you can add a lot of different sorts of meats, most which we usually have in the freezer.

Price wise, this is an expensive dish if you buy confit, sausages, and good bacon, but quite reasonable if you make them yourself. We used 3/4 of a duck at $12/duck ($9), $3 in beans, $1 for sausage, $1.50 for bacon, $2 on onions & carrot, $0.50 on tomato paste, and $1 on herbs. So, $18 for a generous 8 servings. There was a one-time charge of $12 for duck fat to make the confit, but that will get used up and used again. Even if we add $6 to the total cost, we are looking at a reasonably priced dish of $3/serving.

All in all, a great recipe that we’ll make again. We’ll need a few more dishes before we hit the badge, though.


Beans — Part I

4 03 2010

We’ve been looking into new ways to incorporate beans into our meals. While we’ve made them in the past, they just haven’t gotten mixed into the regular meal rotation. This time, we’d like to spend some time getting to know them again and work out a few recipes that we can hold onto.

One of the most important things to remember in buying beans is to get them fresh, as in less than 1-2 years old, but fresher if you can find them. The older they get, the harder they are to cook, and the more likely you are to end up with hard, crunchy beans instead of smooth, creamy goodness. One way to find fresh beans is to search out the markets that sell a lot of them.

We have so far mainly purchased beans from our favorite Mexican market Northgate Gonzales. Northgate is a chain that began as a small grocery in Los Angeles in 1980 and has expanded to 30 large groceries throughout Southern California. They carry a number of beans in bins that are often on sale including pinto ($0.49-$0.89/lb), black ($0.99/lb), peruano ($0.79-$1.29/lb), and flor de mayo ($1.49/lb). The flor de mayo seem like a firmer version of the pinto and the peruano are yellow beans that make really yummy refried beans.

Indian markets also sell a variety of beans with high turnover, if you group lentils in with the mix. Ker Distributors is a large market off Black Mountain Rd. with a good selection. Closer to us is the smaller India Sweets and Spices.

They carry at least 10 different kinds of lentils, white and desi chickpeas, kidney, red, black beans, and more. Most beans and lentils are $3.79 for a 2 lb. bag and $6.99 for a 4 lb. bag. We picked up a bag of white garbanzos/chickpeas and a bag of kidney beans.

The last time we made beans, we got bogged down in the time needed to cook them. It wasn’t that we couldn’t plan for it, but needing to soak something overnight and then cook for 1 – 1 1/2 hours before using it in a recipe, which might take an additional 20 minutes, was a bit rough on a weeknight. We found 2 possible solutions. One is a way to cook beans without soaking in the oven that only takes 90 minutes. The other includes soaking, but follows it with cooking in a pressure cooker for 10-12 minutes for most varieties. Along with heating and cooling down, that should take 30 minutes, which is more reasonable.

We have tried the 90 minute beans with pintos and were really pleased, although they took an extra 15 min. For today’s adventure, we’re going to test out something that is kind of close, but not really, to a cassoulet. We’re doing a real simple version adding in onions, garlic, chicken stock, diced and cooked bacon,

and our house “andoullie-style” sausage (just pork shoulder ground with spices, it isn’t in casings or smoked).

One of the posters on eGullet claimed that they make cassoulet using the 90 minute method, so we figured it *might* work. Usually, the convention is that you don’t want to add anything when cooking beans, especially salt, or they won’t absorb the water. But the 90-minute recipe threw out that rule, so why not go whole hog? We mixed everything up in a dutch oven and brought it to a boil on the stove.

We then put a tight-fitting cover on the pot, placed it in the oven at 250F, crossed our fingers and waited for 75 minutes.

When we opened the pot after 75 min, the beans were nowhere close to done. Still chalky!

Luckily, we recently purchased a pressure cooker. Here she is. The valve moves up as the pressure goes up and the double red line indicates that she is at 15 PSI.

We dumped the beans in it and after 3 tries of cooking them 5-10 minutes in each attempt, we were finally rewarded with cooked beans. Lessons learned — “quick cassoulet” is just a dream and pressure cookers are great at saving beans that just won’t cook, even if they have stuff like sausage, bacon, and stock.

We had the beans over red rice, a kind of partially polished rice from Thailand that is nutty, chewy, and slightly sweet. That’s creme fraiche on top with a little green onion.

Especially considering this dish came back from the dead, we were quite happy with this first attempt. The flavor was just awesome — the stock in particular was quite rich and brought all the flavors together. The kidney beans were mostly creamy, but a little dry in parts. No worries, though – we’ll solve that by the end of the badge. It was particularly surprising how complex the flavor was given the few ingredients. Bacon and andouille spices definitely play well together!