Saturday, 10 December 2011

Cassoulet with Pheasant Leg Confit

A pot of cassoulet and confit being browned for serving.
A bit more than two years ago, in a fit of obsessive frenzied desire for confit, I bought a gallon of duck fat.  The internet is an astounding resource for those of us not living anywhere near a major city.  The fat was ordered through Amazon came from Hudson Valley Foie Gras.  A gallon of duck fat cost less than forty dollars but the shipping accounts for 2/3 more again.  I've been keeping mine frozen, but even frozen, fats can go rancid. I'm just now using the last of that stash, it's almost two years later and it is still good.  At the time of my first confit attack I made batches of Canadian Goose, Blue Grouse and Jackrabbit confit.  I occasionally use the duck fat to brown meat for stews but until recently, I have not gone on another confit making binge.

Pheasant legs in duck fat ready for the oven.
Confit (pronounced in English as "con-fee") is a ancient method of preserving meats and goes back at least to the Romans. Traditionally, the meat is salted and rested for a day or more and then submerged in its own fat and simmered in a stoneware pot very slowly until tender.  When stored in a cool place, the fat congeals and forms a barrier against air.  To eat a confit, the pot is heated again until the fat softens and the meat is plucked out and the pot is returned to the cool storage.  Meats preserved in this way and stored in a cool place can be good for months. Most commonly confits are made of duck, goose and pork but rabbits, hares and game birds are excellent. Other fats and oils can be used to make confit and even olive oil.  Of course game birds are lean so do not have enough of their own fat for confit; but if you gave a gallon of duck fat it is an astoundingly rich way to prepare them.  A game bird leg and attached thigh, submerged in fat and slow cooked will not dry out, it just gets falling off the bone tender.

Cassoulet is a baked white bean dish originating in southwest France that often includes, among other things, pork belly, pork rind, pork sausages and duck or goose confit. The bible on confit and cassoulet is Paula Wolfert's book The Cooking of Southwest France.  The one linked to here is a new edition. The book was first published in 1983 and my own copy is an early one which is unfortunately still in a box in my basement waiting for me to build bookshelves.  Wolfert's book popularized these dishes and she acknowledges that there are as many "authentic" cassoulet recipes as there are cassoulet cooks.  Because of the difficulty of obtaining exotic ingredients in  locally I often have to improvise, but that is part of the tradition of the dish.

Other cook books that are on my shelf (and not in boxes) that have confit and cassoulet recipes are Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook,  Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, and Hugh Fearningley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book   Hank Shaw's wild food cookbook Hunt, Gather, Cook includes confit recipes for game.  Hank's recipe (also available online here) uses a kind of Sous Vide method which requires the meat be sealed in plastic with just a little of the fat and slow cooked in a water bath; I don't have one of those sealers. Hank uses Olive oil and specifically warns against using duck fat claiming it will overpower the flavor of the pheasant - obviously I don't agree with him.  I'm thinking that the commercial duck fat I'm using must be far milder than what he is used to because the pheasant certainly is not overpowered by ducky flavor it in my experience.

A plate of cassoulet and confit.

I make my cassoulet using the fattiest pork bits I can find. Bourdain uses two pounds of pork belly. This time the best I could find were some fatty loin chops.  Ribs can be good too.  I dusted the chops with flour salt and pepper and browned them in duck fat. Of course if you don't have duck fat, just use some bacon fat. Add the browned chops to the bottom of the pot you will cook the cassoulet in. I cook mine in a large cast iron pot. In the same frying pan, saute a chopped onion and a hand full of garlic cloves. When the onions are browning up nicely, add 1/4 bottle of white wine, a bunch of thyme, salt and fresh pepper.  Let the wine boil for a few minutes and then pour that into the pot over the meat.  Pour in the haricot beans (which have been soaked overnight) and top up with 1/2 trotter gear and 1/2 water - to just cover the beans. If you don't have trotter gear, just use chicken broth.  Put the whole thing in the oven (uncovered) and cook at about 230°F for six to eight hours.

For the confit.  Rub the legs well with salt (this is a salt cure) and sprinkle them with some finely chopped thyme and pepper. Put them into a baggie in the refrigerator overnight while the beans are soaking.  To prepare the leg-thighs for cooking, remove as much of the salt as possible, dab them dry and place them in a casserole dish and cover them with duck fat. Put them into the oven at 230°F for six to eight hours. If they are not completely covered by the fat you may need to turn them occasionally.

When the cassoulet and confit is cooked, finish up the confit by browing the leg-thighs in a hot frying pan.  Serve a leg-thigh with a healthy serving of cassoulet and a bitter salad.  I have previously been publicly chastised for recommending a white wine with this meal but, barbarian that I am, I stand by my recommendation.  Most recommend a hardier red but perhaps because I do not have as much pork fat as some recipes call for (Bourdain wants two pounds of pork belly) my dish is lighter fare.

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