Our January 2011 Challenge comes from Jenni of The Gingered Whisk and Lisa from Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. They have challenged the Daring Cooks to learn how to make a confit and use it within the traditional French dish of Cassoulet. They have chosen a traditional recipe from Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman.
Not surprisingly, given my track record of following recipes, I didn’t exactly make a cassoulet. I did make a wonderful confit of red peppers and onions, which I will get to momentarily, but first I’d like to reminisce about cassoulet…Cassoulet is a traditional French stew that has approximately twelve-hundred and sixteen different types of meats and fats in it (well, maybe not exactly, but it does usually have at least 5 or 6), takes about 3 days to make, and is pretty much the most astoundingly hearty, warm you to the very core of your existence and stick to every bone in your body foodstuffs mankind has ever derived. (It also has beans in it, which is why I can no longer eat it – sigh ) I have had true cassoulet just once, back when I studied abroad in Paris. By chance, one of the weeks I was there, the parents of one of my dad’s best friends were vacationing in Paris. In spite of the obscurity of my connection to them and the fact that I didn’t really know them at all, as soon as I learned from my parents that these lovely people wanted to take me out to eat, in a rather nice neighborhood, I was immediately determined to become their new favorite granddaughter-stand-in. I went and found them at the gorgeous, extremely French country-style, hotel where they were staying, and when the concierge tipped us off to a tiny bistro, tucked down at the end of a cobblestone rue where generally only locals go and where the wait staff didn’t speak a lick of English (so much the better, French is far better for the digestion), we knew exactly what we were doing for lunch. It was a cold, rainy, profoundly grey spring day. Just the sort of day when rustic French cooking is exactly what is needed to drive the damp-chill out of your joints. The bistro did not disappoint. I was served a steaming cassoulet redolent with bay leaf and bacon fat, and flecked with rich duck confit. Followed by a creme brulee that was so perfect, I can’t even describe it. It was the ideal type of creme brulees, the creme brulee that is exactly what you imagine creme brulee ought to be, and to which real life versions almost never live up. That meal was amazing. I can never be thankful enough to those friends for taking me out to lunch.
I also have very little hope of having a cassoulet like that again. The challenge from the Daring Cooks really ought to have been the perfect impetus to at least try to create an acceptable version. But, though I do consider myself relatively daring in the kitchen, all things considered, I’m afraid my daring-do does not include buying 12 pounds of obscure meats when I already have many pounds of meat for the month, which I have received from farmer Kim. The central component of the challenge though, was not meat-centric, it was confit-centric. A confit is pretty much anything slowly cooked in a hefty amount of fat, and it is one of the oldest methods of preserving foods. You can make duck confit and pork confit, but you can also make garlic confit or even carrots confit. One of my favorite confits is onion confit, which is where I started from making this one. But, somewhere in my memory I had a stored vision of an onion and bell pepper confit, and that sounded even more appealing. I wish I could remember where it came from. Anyway, all it took was a handful of raisins, a dash of vinegar, and a sprinkling of sweet paprika to make a sweet-sour concoction that was melting into itself. In keeping with the spirit of cassoulet (that is, heavy on various preparations of pork), I served the confit over pork cutlets, but it would also be a perfect topping for pan seared fish, chicken breast, pork tenderloin, or a sandwich.
Confit of onion, bell pepper, and raisins
1 large red onion
1 large bell pepper
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 Tbs. olive oil
1/4 cup raisins
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar (or sherry vinegar, or apple cider vinegar would also be good)
1/4 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
Peel the onion and chop it into small (1/2 inch) pieces. Remove the stem and seeds from the bell pepper and cut it into 1/2-inch chunks. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a a large skillet until it is shimmering. Stir in the onion, the pepper, and the garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions and peppers are nicely browned (this took about 8ish minutes). Stir in the raisins, 1/4 tsp. salt, the paprika, and the vinegar, and stir well, scraping the browned bits up from the bottom as the vinegar steams and bubbles (watch out, it may make your eyes water!). Then, turn the heat down very low, cover the pan, and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are extremely soft and caramelized. Serve warm over whatever you please, or put into a container and store in the refrigerator for up to several days.
If you’d like to make pork cutlets to serve the confit over, just take 4, 1/3-1/2-inch thick loin-cut pork cutlets and dredge them in a mixture of flour, salt, and pepper. Then heat a Tbs. of butter over high heat in a large frying pan. Once the butter is bubbling, put the cutlets in. Fry them for about 2-3 minutes per side, until they are brown on the outside and the middle of them is no longer pink. Transfer them to a serving platter and scatter a whole bunch of freshly grated Parmesan over them. Serve accompanied by the confit.