13 January 2011

Daring Cooks Challenge: Confit and Cassoulet

Our January 2011 Daring Cooks 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.

This month’s challenge was more of a time challenge than a skills challenge, but at the same time it added to my skill set. Does that make sense? There is nothing inherently difficult about making confit (actually, it’s ridiculously easy and provides delicious results), but you definitely could not throw this challenge together at the last minute.

I remember the first time I had duck confit quite clearly. I was 26 and dining at a new pizza restaurant in Winston-Salem. I had fallen in love with duck the first time I had it at 17 and generally order it every time I see it on a menu (at least I did until I moved to Germany where it is on most menus, particularly bad Chinese places). I found a pizza with duck confit and immediately asked my gourmet friend dining with me what it was. He gave me a very accurate description (duck cooked in duck fat). I was a little wary that it would be greasy, but ordered it anyway. Isn’t pizza always greasy? A little extra duck fat couldn’t change that too much! I was pleased. My pizza was great, not too greasy, and the duck sublime. Heaven on pizza. (I have since found that true heaven on pizza includes hollandaise and asparagus, and possibly a sunny-side up egg, but that’s another post). I was hooked on duck confit and began ordering it whenever I saw it, including a duck confit salad at the local brewpub, Foothills (it's no longer on the menu). This time, however, the duck meat did not come pre-shredded like I was expecting. Instead, the chefs served it as the whole leg (drumstick and thigh still attached to each other) and the meat was not falling off the bone. I tried pulling some meat off with my knife and fork, but the meat was still glued enough to the bone that part of my salad would have gone flying across the room, if not the leg quarter itself, if I tried more forcefully to use my knife and fork. I didn’t know what to do with it. While Foothills is a brewpub (a good one at that), it still didn’t seem proper to pick up the leg and gnaw on it. So I didn’t eat it at the restaurant. Instead, I asked for a doggie bag and attacked it when I got home. It was again tasty, but not quite as good as the stuff at the pizza restaurant. It was even tasty enough that I ordered it the next time we went back to Foothills, but again I had to ask for a doggie bag so I could eat the duck in an inoffensive manner.

After making my own confit (I used chicken instead of duck), I understand what Foothills did wrong. Like theirs, mine was still a little too glued to the bone, despite being completely cooked through. It should have been cooked a bit longer at a lower temperature. Duh. Duck confit requires so little attention and skill that it seems quite unreasonable not to cook it at a lower temperature for longer.

As for the cassoulet… it’s one of those dishes I’ve heard of several times since I entered the food blog-o-sphere, but never quite understood or had the desire to make. However, once I read the recipe I knew The Dude would be all over it, so I picked a weekend after Christmas to make it. So when the rest of the world is starting to diet after their Christmas season-gluttony, I was continuing on my gluttonous path. I actually laughed out loud at when I received my weekly letter from The Splendid Table the first week in January. Lynn Rosetto Kasper was going on about how the season of pork belly was over and we should try this wonderful vegetarian dish, but that evening I went to the store and bought pork belly for the first time.

Cassoulet by Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman (as featured on the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations”)

Ingredients for Duck Confit
4 whole duck legs (leg and thigh), size does not matter (I used 6 whole chicken legs)
sea salt, for the overnight (at least 6-8 hours) dry rub (the amount varies depending on the size of your legs, so just know that you need to have enough on hand for a good coating.)
2 cups/480 ml/450 gm/16 oz duck fat (I used a combo of bacon grease, lard, and goosefat with 10% lard. 2 cups was not enough to cover all of my chicken, I probably used closer to 3.5 or 4.)
a healthy pinch or grind of black pepper
4 sprigs of fresh thyme*
1 sprig of fresh rosemary*
1 garlic clove
* I got lazy and used dried since I had it on hand and didn’t want to go to the store

Day One
1.  Rub the duck legs fairly generously with sea salt, place in the shallow dish, cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight. At all times, keep your work area clean and your ingredients free of contamination - meaning don't allow any other food, like bread crumbs or scraps, to get into your duck, duck fat or confit, as they will make an otherwise nearly non-perishable preparation suddenly perishable. (I knew I’d be using all the chicken immediately, so I used the same dish for day two.)

Day Two
1.  Preheat the oven to moderately hot 375ºF/190ºC/gas mark 5 (see note below).
2.  Render (melt) the duck fat in the saucepan until clear.
3.  After seasoning with the black pepper, place the duck legs in the clean, ovenproof casserole.
4.  Nestle the thyme, rosemary and garlic in with the duck legs, and pour the melted duck fat over the legs to just cover.
5.  Cover the dish with foil and put in the oven. Cook for about an hour, or until the skin at the "ankle" of each leg pulls away from the "knuckle." The meat should be tender. (If I were to make it again, I’d probably do it at 350F for 2 hours)
6.  Allow to cool and then store as is in the refrigerator, sealed under the fat (read: do not cover). When you need the confit, you can either warm the whole dish, in which case removing the legs will be easy, or dig them out of the cold fat and scrape off the excess (I warmed it in the oven until most of the fat had melted). I highly recommend the former. A nice touch at this point is to twist out the thighbone from the cold confit. Just place one hand on the drumstick, pinioning the leg to the table, and with the other hand, twist out the thighbone, plucking it from the flesh without mangling the thigh meat. Think of someone you hate when you do it. (I didn’t try this step)

Ingredients for Cassoulet
5 cups/1200 ml/1100 g/39 oz dried Tarbais beans or white beans such as Great Northern or Cannelini (if you use canned beans be aware that you will need double this amount!)
2 pounds/900 gm fresh pork belly
1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
1 pound/450 gm pork rind (Instead of buying pork rind separately, I used the pork rind attached to my pork belly, ~1/4 pound, and used bacon to make up the difference)
1 bouquet garni (tie together two sprigs parsley, 2 sprigs thyme and one bay leaf)
salt and pepper
1/4 cup/60 ml/55 gm duck fat
6 pork sausages
3 onions, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
4 confit duck legs (I used 6 chicken confit legs)
1 ¼ pound/500 gm bacon, sliced

Day One
1. Place the beans in the large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least 2 or 3 inches (50mm or 75mm) of water above the top of the beans. Soak overnight. That was hard, right?  (Beans will double in size upon soaking, so use a big bowl!) (I skipped this step since I used canned beans)

Day Two
1. Drain and rinse the beans and place in the large pot. (I also skipped this step and did not add the beans until step 13.)
2. Add the pork belly, the quartered onion, 1/4 pound/115 gm of the pork rind, and the bouquet garni.
3. Cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, about 30 minutes more. (I did simmer the pork belly for an hour. During this time I opted to shred my chicken meat.)
4. Let cool for 20 minutes, then discard the onion and the bouquet garni.
5. Remove the pork belly, cut it into 2-inch/5-cm squares, and set aside (I removed a LOT of the fat from the pork belly, so my pieces were much smaller than 2-inch squares). (If you plan to wait another day before finishing the dish, wait to cut the pork belly until then.)
6.  Strain the beans and the rind and set aside, reserving the cooking liquid separately. (Obviously, I also skipped this step.)
7.  In the sauté pan, heat all but 1 tablespoon/15 ml/15 gm of the duck fat over medium-high heat until it shimmers and becomes transparent. (Instead of using more duck fat, I took another Daring Cooks’s advice and added the pork belly to the pan to render more of the fat. I cooked it until brown on all sides, probably about 20 minutes over medium-high heat, turning the meat occasionally. I then removed the pork belly and set it aside.)
8.  Carefully add the sausages and brown on all sides.
9.  Remove sausages and set aside, draining on paper towels. (I then sliced my sausages so all the meat in the cassoulet was in bite-sized pieces­.)
10. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, brown the sliced onions, the garlic and the reserved squares of pork rind from the beans (not the unused pork rind; you'll need that later). (Since I did not add extra fat earlier, I did need to add more to prevent the onions from burning. I used the still-melted fat from the confit.)
11. Once browned, remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add 1 tablespoon//15 ml/15 gm of the remaining duck fat and purée until smooth. Set aside. (I did not add extra fat here.)
12. Preheat the oven to moderate 350ºF/180ºC/gas mark 4.
13. Place the uncooked pork rind in the bottom of a deep ovenproof non-reactive dish (I used bacon instead of extra pork rind and did not add more bacon between layers). You're looking to line the inside, almost like a pie crust. Arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, then pork belly, beans, duck confit, and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion and pork rind purée between each layer. (It appears I misread this part and only added two layers of beans instead of three.)
14. Add enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans, reserving 1 cup/240 ml in the refrigerator for later use.
15. Cook the cassoulet in the oven for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to very slow 250ºF/130ºC/gas mark ½ and cook for another hour.
16. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight. (I was lazy Friday night and combined day two and day three into one day on Saturday, but it did take most of the day. Instead of stopping here, I turned the oven back up and continued with day three as written… mostly.)

Day Three
1. Preheat the oven to moderate 350ºF/180ºC/gas mark 4 again.
2. Cook the cassoulet for an hour. (See my notes in the thoughts section)
3. Break the crust on the top with the spoon and add 1/4 cup/60 ml of the reserved cooking liquid. (Don't get fancy. It doesn't have to be pretty.)
4. Reduce the heat to very slow 250ºF/130ºC/gas mark ½ and continue cooking another 15 minutes, or until screamingly hot through and through.
Then serve.
Yield: Serves 4 - 8 (5 people in my case, and though no one went hungry, if I’d made more, more would have been eaten)

Oh my, this dish was good. Since Bender is not a bean eater, I did change things up a bit. I did not a have a dish large enough to cook the entire cassoulet, so it ended up being an easy fix. I used two dishes and layered one with uncooked, parboiled rice (yep, I took a packet of Uncle Ben’s and dumped it in) and one with beans. Other Daring Cooks on the forum had suggested using lentils (meh, too close to a bean) or partially cooked pasta. In a stroke of brilliance at the last minute, I asked Bender if he’d prefer rice or pasta. He opted for rice, and I think that was the best substitute.

Other Daring Cooks also suggested added a garlicky breadcrumb topping. Since we all love garlic and the dish contained so little of it, I did take their suggestion. I combined 1.5 cups panko breadcrumbs, 1.5 tablespoons garlic, 4 tablespoons dried parsley, and 4 tablespoons olive oil (I couldn’t bring myself to use butter or more confit fat). I added the breadcrumbs when I added the additional cooking liquid. I stuck it back in the cooler oven to brown them. After 10 minutes, I pulled it out again, added a bit more liquid, and moved the breadcrumbs around a bit with a table knife, pushing some towards the bottom of the dish and allowing other to stay on top. Some recipes suggest that you should repeat this process 6 more times (7 is the charm), but I only did it two more times. We were hungry!

To offset the high fat from this dish, I also served roasted Brussels sprouts and steamed green beans.

Oh, the rice cassoulet: for the folks who liked beans, they preferred the beans to the rice, but both cassoulets were demolished pretty quickly, so you can bet both were liked!

Make-again: 3 votes
I-might-make-it-again-since-it-tasted-great-but-it-sure-is-a-lot-of-effort-and-fat: 1 vote
I-didn’t-think-it-was-special-enough-considering-the-amount-of-time-you-put-into-it-and-the-confit-is-kinda-freaky: 1 vote

To see more delicious cassoulets, check out the other Daring Cooks!


  1. Great job on your cassoulet! It looks magnificent! I am glad that you enjoyed the challenge and liked the end result. You did a splendid job!

  2. Oh wow, your cassoulet looks so good! Excellent job--love all your pictures!

  3. Wow, your notes on this dish are fantastic. If only I ate meat! It would be so awesome to have a vegan version of duck fat =) Congrats on a challenge well done!

  4. @ Jenni: Thank you for a great challenge!

    @ chef_d: Thank you!

    @ veggietestkitchen: Now you've got me thinking about vegan fats and I want to try a confit with coconut oil! Thanks for the great idea!

  5. WOW I love that first photograph the confit looks so tender and juicy. Your cassoulet looks perfect well done on this challenge. In my house it was unanimously YES to make again.

    Superb result.

    Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

  6. That photo of the bacon lined pot made me want to dive into it lol Fantastic job on your cassoulet and confit! The shorter cooking time for the confit in Bourdain's recipe is probably due to the fact that it cooks another 3 hours or so in the cassoulet, but by itself, I would let it go for several more hours at a lower temp.

    Thanks so much for taking part in our challenge! You really rocked it :)

  7. Great story telling! Great reporting!

    Well done on a great result!
    Stay JOLLY!

    ps. It doesn't matter how fancy the restaurant is or is not, if they serve us up something yummy on a bone, we're doing everything it takes to get all the yummy-ness, including picking up and gnawing...

  8. Great job, though I and the rest of the family loves beans it might be fun to try a rice version it did look good.

  9. Great job, your cassoulet looks fantastic! I have not even though of using rice but it seems like a great alternative. Love your photos!


Thank you for leaving a comment! Comments allow me to see what you like and and encourage me to write more!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...