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Saturday, May 14, 2011


RECIPE - Cassoulet

I’m including a recipe for a cassoulet in this week’s blog as I made this dish recently and just loved the layers of flavor.  I’m not sure where I got the recipe from but I’ve changed about half the ingredients to suit my tastes – I like to nudge things towards the bolder and more interesting aspects of flavor and in life too.

A cassoulet is really a peasant stew from the countryside of France.  Beans, remnants of wine, broth made from left-over bones, herbs growing in the fields and produce growing in the garden are all ingredients that weren’t hard to come by and not terribly expensive.

Serves 8 – 10

Prep time: 1 hour                    Cooking time:         1 hr. 30 minutes

2 lbs. white cannellini beans (in can/jar)
1 lb. sage sausage
1 lb. Italian sausage
1 onion, diced
1 lb. fresh mushrooms, washed and sliced
1 carrot, diced
4 thyme sprigs
4 bay leaves
½ lb. thick cut bacon, cut into ½” pieces
8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups red wine
2 cups beef broth
1 small can tomato paste
1 tbls. Salt
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Add the bacon to a large skillet and cook until crispy.  Remove the bacon and reserve on a dish lined with a paper towel.  Add the carrot, diced onion, mushrooms and garlic and sauté until translucent approx. 15 – 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the two types of sausages to a Dutch oven/stock pot and cook breaking up large clumps.  Cook until meat is approx. half done about 8 – 10 minutes.  Next, add in the vegetable mixture and all the rest of the ingredients, i.e., beans, thyme sprigs, bay leaves, wine, broth, tomato paste, salt and pepper and cook stirring from time to time breaking up the tomato paste.

Bring the cassoulet to a simmer for 20 minutes until the wine has been absorbed by the mixture.  Serve by spooning portions into generous sized bowls and topping with the crispy bacon.  I made a crusty baguette to help mop up the brothy goodness before, during and after.
I served the dish with a side of haricot verts and a potato galette with compound butter (shallots & blue cheese).

Last Class of the Semester
Our meat fabrication class is a very different class indeed.  Where else do you get to cut up ducks, chickens, pigs, cows and sheep just for fun and then prepare all these cuts/primals into delicious morsels of edible wonderment?  This was one of my favorite classes because of the activity of learning the different cuts of meat called “primals”.  These primals are the primary divisions of muscle within an edible portion of an animal carcass.

The week after performing our cuts and butchery of each featured animal, the class engages in a specified cooking technique identified by the chef instructor.  It could be braising, grilling or sautéing….Chef Spicer only had one rule for these cooking sessions and that was to go sans recipes.  My partner Jonathan and I loved this as it stretched our imaginations and tested what we have learned so far concerning our technique, flavorings and creativity.

Little did we know that this early training would serve us quite well for the end of the class.  All our previous final exams for cooking labs have been in the form of a highly organized and structured practical complete with specific ingredients, methodology and no regard for flare or artistry.

You can imagine our surprise when about a month prior to exams; chef told us that our practical would be in the form of an “Iron Chef” competition.  That’s right; we were to have a secret ingredient that would be featured in each dish that we prepare.  Our grade would be based on how we incorporated that ingredient, flavored, presented and developed the dish for originality.  Oh yes, our technique, sanitation and cooking method would be scrutinized as well.

The weeks leading up to the competition students were lamenting how they weren’t going to win as they thought Jonathan and I were the sure favorites.  This revelation both startled me and made my chest swell.  My father always told me to beware of false pride.  It is wise to heed such wisdom.

I was flattered that my fellow students thought so highly of our skills that they should just mail it in but on the other hand I felt silly that such thoughts ran through their heads.  After all, we’re just students with varying backgrounds trying to pass a class.  The thing is …. Jonathan and I try to pass it with extreme prejudice.  We’re constantly trying new things and always wanting to be the best and this effort shines through like a quasar competing for the sun’s attention.  Too melodramatic?  Maybe.

The day has come and our secret ingredient has been revealed to be Foie Gras.  I asked Jonathan if he’d worked with fattened goose livers before and received a few shakes of the head resulting in a team without any experience using this product ever.  Hmm…what to do, what to do?  I got out a piece of paper and started writing down ideas then ingredients and then methods and voila, we had a game plan.

We would theme our dishes as a walk around the Mediterranean.   First up Jonathan would prepare a small Italian frittata with pancetta and veggies sautéed in foie gras. Then we did a Greek salad topped with chicken strips baked with foie gras fat pasted over the exterior of the meat.  Our main course would feature a French dish of chicken roulades stuffed with peppers, onions, sausage and foie gras served atop an herbed potato pancake with herbs de Provence and then sauced with a red wine reduction and tomato concassee.  The roulades would be accompanied with summer squash, cauliflower and mushrooms braised in brown stock and white wine and topped with a hollandaise sauce.

Greek Village Salad with chicken strips seared in Foie Gras

We were determined to win this thing and went down the road of sophisticated cuisine at break-neck speed.  As we worked we began to notice that most of our peers were staying with the “tried-and-true” methods and flavorings that they grew up with as a kid.  I felt that this would help us with the judging as we were sure that chef wanted ideas that were out-of the-box and we delivered this philosophy in spades.

Chicken Roulade stuffed with Foie Gras atop an herbed potato pancake

WE CAME IN THIRD!!!  Ugh!!!  Chef said that .75 of a point separated 3rd place from 1st place.  That didn’t give me much comfort and at the time I wasn’t that upset that we lost because my partner and I had both gotten “A’s” in the class and no one else did.  We lost the Iron Chef battle but won the advantageous position of acing the class.  I was fine with that…..

…..until I started thinking about how we went about organizing and managing our approach.  Jonathan and I were both on the same page and pulled off a flawless array of delicious food that I felt was head and shoulders above the rest of the classes efforts.  Apparently not eh?  I can over-think this thing all I want -- the bottom line is we lost and we need to glean as much experience and knowledge from this fantastic experience as we can.  I’m determined to do just that!  Wow, what a great time we had and look forward to similar opportunities in the future.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

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