Food On The Hill: New Mexican Cassoulet
A New Mexican Cassoulet
Our family was in Cleveland, Ohio recently and had the pleasure of dining at L’Albatros Brasserie, a very fine restaurant near Case Western Reserve. Older son Alex ordered the Cassoulet, a traditional French peasant dish of beans with multiple meats – usually pork, duck and mutton or lamb. The duck portion of the dish is often duck confit, which typically requires professional skills, epic amounts of duck fat, and lots of time.
I returned to the Land of Enchantment determined to try to approximate it without too much fuss, and to put a New Mexican spin on it. Fortunately, the New York Times published a recipe for “easy duck confit” (lightly modified below). Although a dish with this many elements requires some hustle to assemble, most of the time involved is passive time. The results were noteworthy, and I’ll be making it again soon. If I were to make only one part of it again, it would be the duck confit. I didn’t see duck legs in town, but I did find them at a certain large natural grocer down the Hill. While duck breasts cost $16.99/lb, duck legs cost only $4.99/lb. (Eight duck legs were less than $24. Best deal ever.) Call first to assure availability/place an order.
Why the New Mexican spin? Cassoulet is earthy and rich. I wanted to add a touch of spice, flavor and color. Specifically, I added Mexican oregano along with the thyme and bay leaves to the bean cooking water. I added cumin, cinnamon, Chimayo chile powder and New Mexican merlot to the lamb. I used pork sausages with green chile, and added two types of mild-moderate heat New Mexico chile peppers – the bright red Fresno and the deep green poblano. The additions did not change the essential nature of the dish, which is simultaneously comforting and luxurious.
Although I noticed that recent cassoulet recipes have included a sprinkling of bread crumbs on the dish, I believe passing a crusty bread on the side is preferable, along with a fresh green leafy salad.
A New Mexican Cassoulet
I needed three pans to cook this dish – two large skillets and one large roasting pan. To serve it immediately following preparation, begin the “curing” of the duck legs about 28 hours before you’d like to serve. All active cooking, including roasting, occurs in the last 3 ½ hours of that 28-hour period. The cooked elements of the dish, including the duck legs, hold well for several days in the refrigerator, too, if you’d like to prepare all or part of it to serve later. Reheat gently in a slow oven.
For the Duck Confit
- 8 moulard duck legs, patted dry and left untrimmed
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf, crumbled
Mix the salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf crumbles in a small bowl. Lay the duck legs skin side down in a single layer in a roasting pan. Sprinkle the seasonings over the legs, especially the meaty part of the legs. Cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Place the duck legs in a single layer skin side down in one or two large skillets. (Cook in batches if necessary.) Heat the duck legs over medium heat for about 20 minutes. The duck fat will render, and the skin on the bottom will crisp and turn a toasty color. When there is about 1/4 inch of rendered fat in the pan, return the duck legs and the fat to the roasting pan, skin side up this time, cover the pan with foil, and place it in the oven. (Don’t wash the skillets right away–use them to cook the lamb and the sausages and you won’t need any other oil.)
Roast the legs for 2 hours, remove the foil, turn down the heat to 300 degrees, and continue roasting until the duck legs are golden brown, about 1 hour more. Remove the duck legs from the fat; the fat can be reserved for other uses such as cooking vegetables or eggs.
For the Lamb and Beans
- 1 pound lamb stew meat
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon red Chile powder (not cayenne); either Hatch or Chimayo Red
- 12 ounces red or white wine or chicken stock
- 2 stalks celery, trimmed and diced
- 6 carrots, trimmed and diced
- 1 white or yellow onion, trimmed and diced
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
- 4 cups cooked white beans (I used the delicate pale green French flageolet bean, soaked overnight and cooked for 90 minutes with a chopped onion, 8 cloves chopped garlic, several fresh bay leaves, and sprigs of thyme and oregano. Remove the herb stems before mixing and serving.)
Brown the stew meat on all sides in one of the skillets used for the duck legs, and sprinkle the cumin, cinnamon and chile powder over the meat. Cook for one minute, and add the wine or stock, deglazing the pan. Add the celery, carrots, onion and thyme. Cover and simmer over the lowest heat for approximately 90 minutes, until the meat is tender and the vegetables very soft. Mix the meat and the sauce with the cooked beans; heat through and keep warm until serving. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (I used about one teaspoon each.) If more spice is desired, stir in ¼ teaspoon of cayenne.
For the Pork Sausages
- 1 pound chicken with green chile sausages (4 bratwurst-size sausages)
- 4 Fresno chile peppers, stemmed, seeded and sliced into thin strips
- 2 poblano chile peppers, stemmed, seeded and sliced into thin strips
Brown the sausages over medium heat on all sides in one of the skillets used for the duck legs and add the pepper slices. Continue cooking on low heat until fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Cut each sausage in half; keep warm until serving.
To Assemble the Cassoulet
Plate it all in the kitchen, or combine the bean/lamb mixture with the sausage/pepper mixture in a serving dish, and nestle the duck legs on top to pass at the table.
Felicia Orth is a local home cook; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.