Sunday, September 30, 2007


I made something approximately like cassoulet the other night. It turned out very tasty, but I'm not sure it's exactly cassoulet.

Here's what went in it:

Toulouse sausage
1/2 a rabbit (poached & taken off the bone)
2 duck legs
1 1/2 cups (dry measure) cannellini beans
1 1/2 cans tomato paste
a bunch of onions
lots of bay leaves
chicken stock
parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme, all chopped up
red wine
a couple of carrots
a couple stalks of celery

Construction was a little haphazard. I made the chicken stock the day before and put the beans on to soak - in salted water on the woodstove, although the woodstove went out sometime in the night and wasn't relit. Then I remembered at about noon that my duck and bunny were still in the freezer. I took them out, dumped the bunny into a large stock pot with water, an onion and some bay leaves and stuck the duck legs directly in the chicken stock. I simmered both until they were tender enough to remove the meat from the bone, then I threw the rabbit bones back into the water and made some more stock out of that, reducing it as it cooked. Final construction went as follows:

1. Cooked bacon in dutch oven until crispy, then tossed in mirepoix.
2. Added sausage, cut into chunks (not cooked yet).
3. Added herbs. Cooked until sausage started to look a bit done.
4. Deglazed with red wine.
5. Chopped and threw in lots and lots of garlic. Mmmm.
6. Added half the rabbit, chopped (I kept the other half and it found its way into a curry the next night), and all the duck meat, chopped.
7. Added the beans, drained and rinsed.
8. Eyeballed the amount of stock to add (oh, and I'd skimmed the fat off the chicken stock. The rabbit stock didn't have any to speak of.) I ended up putting most of both stocks in, but I've no idea the amounts.
9. Added the tomato paste.

Then I brought it up to a boil and stuck it in a 375F oven for a couple of hours. The liquid condensed and got absorbed by the beans to a certain point. I thickened it up a bit more with some flour combined with the fat from the stock and a bit of butter. Then I put it back in the oven covered with a topping of breadcrumbs mixed with a bit of salt and thyme. Half an hour later, I cranked the oven up to broil for a minute or two, then declared it done.

It was fantastic. Rich, meaty and satisfying, with a ton of deep, complex flavour. The beans were tender without being mushy, the duck and rabbit were melty and delicious, and the sausage just sort of fell apart in a most pleasing manner when nibbled. Altogether an unqualified success. I don't care if it wasn't a thoroughly authentic cassoulet, it totally worked for me.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

on the state of food in Europe

We (Rowan and I) just got back from our 3-week epic journey to Europe. England, Portugal and France, to be exact. I thought I'd post a food report.

England (the good part): Fresh, local, organic produce was very much available and good where we were (in Cambridgeshire), dairy products were generally good although the scourge of ultra-high-temp pasturized milk is encroaching (they call it, ironically enough, "long-life milk"). The butter is excellent, and the golden colour I expect butter to be. (I'm going to research and write an article on why butter here, even organic stuff, is always a consistent pale yellow colour.) The beef is primarily grass-fed, and consequently less marbled than ours, and has excellent flavour. Pigs seem to be housed in reasonably nice outdoor pens with their own little shade huts and wallows and whatnot, and although they're probably fed nasty grain-based feed, I still felt less bad about eating British pork than Canadian, which is good because I looooove me a good pork pie and the butcher in Wisbech makes VERY good pork pies. I must admit though that I'm suffering from a slight pork pie overdose now. Cheese cheese cheese - the brits do decent cheese, although the only raw milk cheddar I found was - get this - imported from Canada. It was darned good too, I think we're exporting the good stuff, although I'm virtually certain it was the same L'Ancestre brand I buy from time to time here. It's from Quebec and it's very good. What's really wonderful though is how if you avoid packaged food and out-of-season fruit, eating locally in most parts of England happens almost by default. Oh and they've discovered the joys of maintaining several different varieties of commercial strawberries and thus have fresh local GOOD strawberries all summer, right through September apparently, and they're WAY better than ours.

England (the bad): The entire country is horribly addicted to things in tins and packets, and according to my friend Helen, tinned beans are actually considered (and promoted as) a vegetable by the governmental nutrition council. Eating out is horrifically expensive, vegetables are NOT respected (except again by the aforementioned Helen who cooked - properly! - some lovely kale when I was there) and there are several chains of stores devoted solely to packaged, frozen food - much like our M&M Meat Shops, but bigger, with a broader reach, and apparently more widely used. Bleh. Also the grocery stores are as bad as ours for imported rather than local fruits & veg. Also in addition to the usual "cookies" and "crackers" section of the grocery store, they have a section called "cakes". Many peoples' teeth seem to reflect this.

Portugal (the good): chorizo. Yum. Also many other lovely traditional dishes, good salads, fresh squeezed orange juice for cheap everywhere, still a strong market-based food buying tradition, lots and lots of good fish (although I was reminded strongly of the turbot wars...) tons of local (although not organic) vegetables. Dishes like "blood rice" which actually uses the blood that comes out of chickens when they're butchered, and is also very very tasty. Excellent steaks, well-prepared. Marinated octopus, gazpacho soups, excellent roast chicken, good wine, and custard tarts (pasteis de nata/pasteis de belem)... I didn't get enough custard tarts, I don't think I ever could. LOVE the custard tarts. And fantastic cheese. Rowan just kept asking for "more cheese, more cheese". Oh and lovely fresh grapes and pears and other fruit.

Portugal (the bad): nothing but ultrapasturized crappy milk, which made Rowan's face break out in spots. It seems the only good thing that comes from cows in Portugal is cheese. Fair enough. Organic food is in its infancy here, and it's rare to find any bread other than white.

France (the good): not much to say here, everyone knows how good french cheese, charcuterie, wine, honey, etc. is. They also have very entertaining (if you're 2) fishmongers, and fruit stores on every block (it's fig season, yum!). Butcher shops have more than chickens, pigs and cows. Restaurants *really* know how to do duck confit. Yogurt is fresh, comes in little glass jars, and is made from raw milk.

France (the bad): The horrors of the EU food homogenizers have hit, and it's no longer legal to sell raw milk in French stores. I was very disappointed. This is obviously a pretty new thing since one of the fromageries I was in still had a sign out for "lait cru" but the nice lady said they couldn't sell it anymore. She totally agreed with me that it was nasty and stupid of the government to do that but c'est la vie. But, raw-milk yogurt's still ok for some reason so I ate a bunch of that and was happy.

The upshot of it all is, we spent 3 weeks eating exceptionally well, and I need to go make some custard tarts.