We Tackle the Big One: Whole Duck Cassoulet

Last week, our last week of vacation, we made our first cassoulet.  In a total departure from the theme of this blog, we made the real thing, which included about $65 worth of meats.  It was the ultimate holiday indulgence.

There’s a plethora of easy cassoulet recipes out there, but I wanted to try a traditional cassoulet so I’d have something with which to compare them.

We used a Mark Bittman recipe from The New York Times.  And once again, Mark Bittman has lied.  He said it wasn’t difficult.  It was fun, though, even if it did turn into a four day project.  The end result was more than worth it.  It was sublime.  Perfection.  Joy.

If you want to try it, do it when you have some blocks of time every day for four or five days.  Here’s the New York Times recipe we followed, broken down in a manageable schedule:

Days One and Two:  Thaw the duck.  We got ours at Hobe Meats. Get some good bread and let it get stale.

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Day Three:  Carve the duck and marinate the legs (over-night) and make the stock (if you don’t have time, you can make it early tomorrow, too).  Early in the morning,  thaw the lamb in the fridge (Our lamb was from Double Check Ranch–a new favorite of ours for hot dogs, beef and lamb.  They have great meat.)

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Day Four: If you have not already made the stock, do so early in the day so it has time to cool.  Make the confit, make the beans (we got white beans from McClendon’s) and buy the andoulle sausage (we got ours from Whole Foods).

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Duck Stock and Confit

1 whole duck, 5 to 7 pounds

Salt

10 garlic cloves, smashed

10 sprigs fresh thyme

1 shallot, peeled and sliced

1 large onion, cut in half (don’t peel)

1 large carrot, cut in big chunks

2 celery ribs, cut in big chunks

1 bay leaf

Several sprigs fresh parsley

Black pepper

Reserved duck fat from stock

Olive oil as needed.

1. Set the duck breast-side up on a cutting board. Using a boning knife, cut along one side of the breastbone; keep the back of your knife flush against that bone and follow the curve, cutting with the tip of your knife and pulling the meat back as you go. (It’s actually a kind of natural movement; trust yourself.) When you meet up with the skin from the legs, cut through the skin and detach the breast. Repeat with the second breast. The legs are now easy to see.

2. One leg at a time, cut through the skin, pulling the leg back as you go. Bend the leg backward to crack the joint, then cut through the joint (it’s easy to see once you’ve cracked it); detach the leg. Repeat with the second leg. Remove the skin from the legs with your fingers, loosening it with your knife as necessary; reserve. Remove and reserve any fat you encounter.

3. Lightly score the skin of the duck breasts to make a diamond pattern; be careful not to cut all the way through to the meat. Sprinkle with salt, cover and refrigerate until ready to use in the cassoulet.

4. Toss the duck legs with the garlic (use more if your cloves are small), thyme, shallot and a few pinches of salt. Refrigerate and marinate the duck legs overnight.

5. Heat the oven to 350. Put the duck carcass, onion, carrot and celery in a roasting pan. Roast, turning every now and then until quite well browned. Take your time; it’ll take at least an hour.

6. Transfer the contents of the roasting pan to a large pot; pour off the rendered fat and reserve it. Add the bay leaf, parsley and about 10 cups of water to the pot, and turn the heat to high.

7. Bring just to a boil, then lower the heat so the mixture sends up a few bubbles at a time. Cook, skimming and discarding any foam that accumulates, for at least 60 minutes and up to 2 hours. Cool slightly, then strain. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate the stock overnight. The next day, take the stock out of the refrigerator and remove the duck fat from the top; it will have solidified, and you’ll be able to scoop it right off.

8. Put the fat in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the fat melts and reaches about 190 degrees, add the duck legs along with the garlic and as much olive oil (or duck fat) as necessary to submerge the legs. Discard the thyme and shallot.

9. Cook, never letting the heat exceed 200 degrees, until the meat is tender and easily pierced with a fork, about 11/2 hours. Let cool, then store the duck in the fat in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it in the cassoulet.

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Beans:

4 cups dried white beans

1/2 pound not-too-smoky slab bacon

Small bunch fresh parsley, leaves

chopped, stems saved

10 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon whole cloves

Salt and black pepper

1. Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan and add the beans. Remove from heat and let soak for 1 hour.

2. Cut the bacon slab into 4 large chunks and cover in water in another saucepan; turn the heat to medium, and when the water boils, turn it down to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes.

3. Make a bouquet garni by combining the parsley stems, thyme, bay leaves and whole cloves in a piece of cheesecloth and tying it into a bundle. (I never use cheesecloth myself but turn to my old tea ball, which is around for only this purpose.) Add it, along with the bacon, to the beans; bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook, skimming occasionally, until the beans are just tender, 45 to 90 minutes. (Add water if necessary; ideally the beans will be moist but not swimming when they’re done.) Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Day Five:  Cook the sausage, assemble cassoulet and sear the duck breasts.

1 pound boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes

Reserved fat, as needed

2 medium onions, sliced

Duck confit

8 garlic cloves, peeled

2 cups duck stock, plus more as needed

4 cups chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 pound garlicky sausage, preferably in one piece

1 cup bread crumbs

2 boneless duck breasts.

4. Sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper. Put 3 tablespoons reserved duck fat in a large pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the lamb and brown the pieces well. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 or 6 minutes; turn off heat.

5. Remove the duck confit from the refrigerator and scrape off the fat; debone and shred the meat. Add the meat and garlic cloves to the pot with the lamb, along with 2 cups duck stock, tomatoes, chopped garlic and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer; cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the lamb is very tender, 1 to 11/2 hours. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

6. When you’re ready to assemble the cassoulet, discard the bouquet garni. Cut the fat from the meat and cut the meat into small pieces.

7. Heat 2 tablespoons reserved duck fat in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, add the sausage and cook, turning as necessary until well browned; transfer to a cutting board and slice into quarter-inch rounds; don’t wash out the pan.

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8. Heat the oven to 375. Transfer a layer of beans to a large enameled cast-iron pot with a slotted spoon to leave behind most of the cooking liquid. Layer half of the sausage and bacon on top, then another layer of beans, then half the duck-and-lamb mixture; repeat the layers until you have used all the beans and meat.

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9. Put the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer, uncovered, then turn off heat. Cover with bread crumbs and chopped parsley leaves and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

10. While the cassoulet is in the oven, put the skillet used for cooking the sausage over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, cook the duck breasts, skin-side down, until they release easily from the pan, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and cook to rare, just another minute or 2. Remove the duck from the pan with a slotted spoon and pour the drippings from the pan over the cassoulet; reduce oven heat to 350.

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11. Bake the cassoulet until it’s hot, bubbling and crusted around the edges, 30 to 40 minutes; add a little duck stock if it starts to look too dry. Slice the duck breasts on the diagonal and transfer them to the pot, tucking them into the bread crumbs. Cook until the breasts are medium rare, another 5 minutes or so, then serve.

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Days six and seven: Eat the leftovers, freeze the stock and save the extra beans, bread and sauce for white bean ragout.

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Feliz dia de la Muertos

Today is the first day of Dia del los Muertos.  I went with Luther’s class to the annual show at Desert Botanical Gardens.  Lute wrote a card for Grandpa Walter, who died this past July, and put it in the basket next to the ofrende.  It felt good to do something about missing him.

He was the first person I ever watched die.  Other than babies being born, it was the most natural, peaceful thing I could imagine.  The day before he passed, we were gathered in his hospice room with the priest, who was about to perform last rites.  Two-year-old Walter crawled up on Grandpa’s bed, kissed him on the cheek and announced, “Gampa dying.”  It was this perfect moment that made us all realize what a normal, universal thing death is.  Grandpa was ready (he’d said so many times) and so were we.  The sadness evaporated for a moment and the room was filled with love and acceptance.

Today is All Souls Day, a holy day of obligation for Catholics and a day to honor the ones we love who have passed to the other side.  I am no longer a practicing Catholic–I’d be excommunicated for my beliefs and my own ideas about morality and faith–but I am still a Catholic.  And today, Grandpa has been with me every minute.

My grandfather was not involved in my life the way my parents are in my children’s lives.  He was always warm and kind, but I never felt like a knew him.  He was deeply unhappy–so much so that once he even wrote a suicide note and disappeared for a day.  He and my grandmother had a tumultuous and unhappy marriage and a contentious relationship with their sons and daughters-in-law.The last ten years of his life, though, he became a different man.  He and my grandmother learned to love each other in a way that is beyond what most people hope to experience in their lives.  They were profoundly in love and deeply happy.  When their health declined, they moved into a group home staffed by a group of Filipinos who care for their charges with compassion, love and kindness.  They lived the rest of their time together there and they both said they were the best years of their lives.

When I was pregnant with our third son, we lost our house.  We had nowhere to go.  Grandma and Grandpa immediately offered us their old house, the one in which they’d raised my father and his three brothers.  The one where I had spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter since I was born.  They insisted we pay no rent (although we always have) and that we stay there as long as we wanted.  They’re kindness and generosity got us through one of the hardest times in our lives.  They had rarely shown this kindness to their own children and everyone was astonished by the change in them and the depth of their kindness.  It showed us all that we could all be better.  It showed us that it’s never to late to be happy.  I can’t repay them the debt of gratitude I owe them.  They have been a bright light in my life and I blessed that I’ve gotten to spend these years with them.

When our baby was born, we named him Walter.Grandpa Wally was enamoured with him from the beginning.  You’ve never seen anyone more in love with a baby.  On our many visits, he would hold Walter and stare lovingly at him, caressing his tiny hands and feet and saying, “He’s so tiny.  He’s so perfect.”  He would whisper, “I’m so happy.”Walter still asks for his great grandpa.  It makes me sad sometimes that eventually he won’t remember him.  I am determined to keep the memory alive in him with stories and pictures.  For now, all I can say is, “Grandpa loves you very much.  He’s in heaven, but he sees us and loves us.”

I’ve heard several people complain about how Dia de los Muertos has been co-opted by trendy white people.  They sport tattoos of brightly decorated skulls, they paint their faces for Halloween, they decorate their houses with Day of the Dead dolls, they attend calaveras art installations and there’s even a Day of the Dead Monster High Doll.  But American commercialize everything.  I’m used to it.  I am pretty good at insulating myself and my family from this commercialization and exploitation, though.  But in many cases, under the surface commercialization is real appreciation and respect.  Dia de los Muertos is truly beautiful, both spiritually and visually.  When you live in the Southwest, you can’t help but get caught up in the celebration.

I encourage you to attend La Procesión, at the Desert Botanical Gardens on Sunday.  Mexicans march to the cemetery to visit loved ones, but that’s not exactly practical in downtown Phoenix.  But you can still celebrate the lives of the ones you’ve lost by joining this festive momento mori come to life.

 

Here are some of the ofrendes Lute and I saw today:

 

My parents went to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago last year to see the Mondragon family sugar skulls. The father is old and in poor health, so they won’t be available in the U.S. much longer. It’s a dying art–only a few families in Mexico make them in the traditional way, so my little sugar skull family is dear to us.

 

Pan de los muertos (bread of the dead–I love this) from La Purisima:

 

My Grandpa Wally

 

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