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Cassoulet, as French as boules and berets

Cassoulet, the classic French peasant stew that is far more complex than it may seem

I won’t mention the part where, while preparing this week’s special dish, I accidentally set fire to my 22-year-old copy of Richard Olney’s French Menu Cookbook.
Cramped for space in my dwindling kitchen – it gets smaller with each new purchase – I cunningly balanced the book, open to the recipe for a French cassoulet, on top of a clean frying pan which was on an oven plate that wasn’t switched on. Well, I thought it wasn’t. So, thinking I had switched on the rear plate, where a leg quarter of duck was rendering its own fat, I went off to write while the plate got hotter and hotter and the book started to smoke. Did I mention I have a cold? So I could not smell the smoke. Luckily, I went through to check on the book while the dustcover was still blackening, but before it took flame.
But I won’t mention all that. Rather let’s talk about the cassoulet, which is as French as boules and berets, the kind of French country recipe that has a thousand variations, each of which will be defended to the guillotine as the right one.
Olney, an American who had the sense to relocate to France in the 1950s, is a food writer to be trusted. His instincts are classical yet he preferred simplicity in the fine art of cooking. Olney encapsulates a cassoulet perfectly when he writes: “There are said to be three cassoulets (Castelnaudary, Carcasonne, and Toulouse), but their definitions vary too much to be taken seriously and it would be more correct to say there are as many as there are cooks, and to define a cassoulet, in a general way, as a slow-cooked gratin made up of two or more separate preparations, one of which is always a pork and bean stew, the others of which may be chosen among preserved duck or goose, braised lamb, and roast or braised partridge.”
Immediate difficulties here for the Cape chef: partridge and goose are not exactly roaming wild on Green Point Common (although those Egyptian ones are looking tempting), and our shops are hopelessly inadequate at even attempting to stock the occasional game bird or indeed anything other than the most common cuts of the most ubiquitous meats.
I decided to use duck, thinking that I’d find some with relative ease. Pick ‘n Pay, Checkers and Woolworths had none, so I popped into Melissa’s which never has what I’m looking for. I eventually found frozen duck legs at the little Swiss butchery in Kloof Street.
I rendered the fat over a low heat, and let it cook slowly in its fat. Keep this duck fat for later use.
Get the bean stew going. Cover dried white beans generously with cold water and bring to a boil slowly. Drain (and peel if they have a shell) and return to the pot. You need a pig’s trotter, three rashers of unsmoked pork belly, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, drain off the liquid, rinse the pork under cold water, and return to the pot. The traditional cassoulet requires Toulouse (garlic) sausage. Again, I could find none, but the German butchery had smoked garlic sausage, so I opted for this. Add slices of this with two sliced carrots, two peeled cloves of garlic, a whole onion stuck with two cloves, and a bouquet garni (I tied together parsley, thyme and fennel with kitchen string). Cover with tepid waterng to a gentle boil and simmer on alow heat for two hours. After 40 minutes, remove the sausage and keep aside. When it’s done, salt carefully to taste, put the trotter wherever the sausage is, and throw out the onion and bouquet garni. Now drain the liquid into a pot, but keep it. Keep the bean etc for later use.
Next: the lamb. Saute two sliced onions with two carrots cut into thickish julienne in some of the duck fat until nicely browned. Keep to one side, then turn the heat up to brown the pieces of lamb neck, which you salt, in the same fat. Sprinkle with flour, return the carrots and onions to the pan, cook a while longer, then add chopped fresh herbs and three peeled cloves of garlic. Transfer all of this to a heavy casserole, making an effort to scrape up all the flavourful bits stuck to the pot. Now add a can of chopped tomatoes and pour over, through a sieve, enough of the liquid from the bean stew just to cover everything. Cover and simmer until the lamb is tender – anytbing from an hour to 90 minutes.
Finally, assemble the cassoulet. I used an old crock pot. Cut a garlic clove in half and rub it all over the pot (the inside, Daisy). Cut the pork belly with its rind into small pieces and scatter at the bottom of the earthenware dish. Cut the duck leg into smaller pieces and place on the pork. Add half the beans. Add the remaining ingredients of the bean stew, including the carrots etc from the lamb strew, but not the sauce. On this, place the pieces of lamb beck. Now put the pieces of garlic sausage all around. Pour over the sauce from the lamb stew.
Only three more steps left before it goes into the oven for two hours (yes, you do need to set aside most of a day to make cassoulet).
Tear up a small baguette and turn it into breadcrumbs in the blender. Scatter three quarters of these all over the surface. Carefully ladle the liquid from the bean stew over the breadcrumbs, so as not to disturb them. Spread the rest of the breadcrumbs over the surface. Finally, spoon the remaining duck fat over the breadcrumbs.
Cook in a low oven for two hours. Every now and then, check it. If it is drying out, ladle more liquid over. After an hour, break the surface of the crust with a spoon, Repeat once or twice more.
Oh boy, it’s a lot of work. But it’s worth it. Just don’t set this column on fire along the way.

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