Cassoulet

Sunday Dinner – 15 April 2018

Cassoulet

This is a dish that I’ve been wanting to attempt for some time, but the prospect of finding duck and preparing the confit was daunting. Fortunately, I ran across this article from the Serious Eats Food Lab explaining that cassoulet shouldn’t be prescriptivist, but is actually a “medieval peasant dish designed to make do with whatever was around.” Writer and Chef J. Kenji López-Alt explains that with so much flavor packed into the cooking liquid you can use chicken and won’t miss the duck. Moreover, in head-to-head tests fresh poultry was actually juicier in cassoulet than the preserved duck, since it was cooked only once.

I did take some other liberties with the recipe, substituting thick cut bacon for the salt pork, and leaving the vegetables in. I also left out the cloves and added a few other spices, and some diced tomatoes.

I started at about 9 AM, frying up a pound of hickory smoked bacon in the Dutch Oven. Once it was removed, I seasoned four chicken leg quarters with pepper, and cooked them in the bacon fat, two at a time, skin side down first for 6 minutes, then the other side for 3 minutes or so. Next I browned some mild Italian sausages.

I drained all but a few tablespoons of fat from the pot, and sautéed chopped onion, carrot and celery, adding a few cloves of minced garlic after a few minutes. Just a little red wine went in to deglaze, then came a pound of small white beans that had been soaking overnight in salt water, some bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, and paprika, a can of diced tomatoes, and a quart of chicken stock with three packs of Knox unflavored gelatin dissolved in it. This simmered, covered on the range top for 45 minutes.

The bacon and sausages went in next, and the chicken nestled on top before the pot was placed in a 300°F oven, uncovered. After a couple hours, I kicked the temp up to 350, and checked every half hour, disturbing the crust with a spoon. The chicken was plenty done after four hours, so I pulled it off to a plate and let everything else cook for one more hour before serving.

I don’t think I’ve ever tasted more tender, juicy or flavorful chicken, and this grownup version of “beanie weenies” is the heart and soul of comfort food – perfect for a dreary, chilly Sunday. We served the meal with Wulff Salad, a couple baguettes, and a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux.

For dessert, Claudia made chocolate mousse with fresh whipped cream. Absolutely incredible.

Chocolate Mousse

When I think of “French Cooking” in the abstract, it seems so high tone and refined and snooty. But it turns out that my favorite French dishes (coq au vin, beef bourguignon, cassoulet) are all hearty peasant food. This meal did take some planning and quite a bit of work to prepare (more than two hours before it was assembled and in the oven), but it was certainly worth the trouble.

Our favorite local butchers, Southside Meats, do carry duck, so I’ll be tempted to try it next time. Although at 99 cents a pound, the chicken will be pretty hard to beat. :)

The Kentucky Hot Brown

Kentucky Hot Brown SandwichFor Sunday Dinner each week we do our best to prepare a special meal and usually invite my wife’s parents to join us. After seeing a recent Throwdown episode where Bobby Flay traveled to Louisville, I decided to try my hand at Kentucky Hot Browns this past weekend, and to cook as much of the dish as possible on the grill.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Hot Brown, it’s an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich with Mornay Sauce that originated at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. It’s since taken its place alongside such regional delights gone large as The Manhattan, The Monte Cristo, The Reuben and The Horseshoe which are all now legendary sandwiches around the world. In fact, Flay notes that it’s one of his own most favorite sandwiches.

Here’s how I prepared our version.

I started with a seven-and-a-half-pound turkey breast, cooking it on the rotisserie atop my Weber Kettle grill, using skills and methods I learned from the authoritative book on the subject, Rotisserie Grilling by Mike Vrobel. I would highly recommend that you read the book, but you can get the short course on rotisserie turkey breast over on his Website.

I used Mike’s basic process and recipe, then added some Herbs de Provence to the bird before grilling and a cup of Hickory chips to the coals. The smell of the smoke and charcoal, and the sound of drippings vaporizing as they hit the drip pan were marvelous as I enjoyed my Sunday morning coffee.

Once the breast was off the spit and resting, I warmed up the Weber Genesis gas grill to cook some thick cut bacon. I’d never tried it on the grill before, but it worked out perfectly. I used a large foil roasting pan that we had left over from last Thanksgiving, arranging the bacon across the bottom, and cooking it over medium-high indirect heat (side burners on medium-high, middle burner off, and the pan in the middle of the grill). I watched the bacon pretty carefully, turning it every few minutes with tongs until it was done.

Now it was time for the cheese sauce. One of our favorite pasta dishes is Giada De Laurentis’ Baked Rigatoni with Béchamel Sauce, and I decided to borrow the sauce from that recipe. It’s actually a Mornay sauce, since you add grated cheese to the Béchamel. In this case, I used a wedge of Fontinella that happened to be on hand. My wife helped to tend the sauce while I grilled some thick tomato slices (a little olive oil, pepper and kosher salt) and warmed up some Texas Toast on the Genesis.

Since I’m terrible at carving — I know, it’s a character flaw — she also sliced some nice thick cuts of the turkey breast, and we were ready to assemble our Hot Browns. We split a piece of toast diagonally for each plate, heaped the turkey on top along with two of the tomato slices, covered it all with the Mornay Sauce and then added a couple of the crisp bacon rashers criss-crossing over the whole mess.

The result was one of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. The turkey was done to perfection. I had checked the temperature a little early while it was grilling, and that was fortunate because it had already hit 160 degrees, which is where you want it for the peak of juicy tenderness. The cheese sauce was incredibly rich and thick, the tomatoes added a bright counterpoint to the other savory flavors, and the bacon…oh, my.

We served these with some green beans and onions that were also cooked on the grill (in a foil packet with some of the bacon grease) and a wonderful salad with my wife’s family recipe vinaigrette.

There are a couple of things that I might do differently the next time I make Hot Browns (which will likely be standard fare in our home on Derby Day in the years to come). Firstly, a little cayenne in the cheese sauce might have been nice. Secondly, I think the whole dish could benefit from just a few moments under the broiler after assembly to get the cheese bubbling and bring all the flavors together. I reckon that these two additions ought to take the recipe about as far as it can go, as it was awfully good without them.

The only downside to the whole experience is that my wife liked the turkey so much, she asked again when I’m going to practice with a whole turkey on the rotisserie in anticipation of this year’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Help! Mike!