Cassoulet 2009

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My old friends are well-seasoned in the ritual of my annual Cassoulet. The ritual is simple; once a year, the duck fat flowing in my veins runs thin and like a fine automobile requiring its regularly scheduled quarts of oil, my body begins its craving for this unctuously rich dish, redolent with duck confit, over three pounds of pork products, duck fat, and Tarbais beans. I have written in the past how I came about using my favorite recipe, Paula Wolfert‘s Toulouse-Style Cassoulet. It takes three days to make. It is a labor of love. I have to order specialty ingredients from a local importer, Joie de Vivre. I soak my beans and season my pork. A ragout is made a day in advance and the beans and duck and pork products are layered in the specially-designed bowl by Clay Coyote and baked for several hours.

Fearing my guests won’t have enough to eat, I supplement the evening’s offering with cheese and wine, crudité and charcouterie, stuffed mushroom caps and goat-cheese filled endive studded with port wine- and spice-soaked dried figs and candied pecans, an Alsatian onion tart and caviar. There were desserts and friends. Yes, the evening is truly all about the warmth of sharing the goodness of the richness of great food with the richness of true friendship.

I have truly fabulous friends. They brought the wine; some bubbly to start the evening with, a Moet Chandon Champagne. But then the magic: Without being told it was traditional, every one who brought a bottle, contributed that special juice which is traditional with cassoulet, a California Pinot Noir or a French Burgundy (they are the same grape, after all). From California, we reveled in an ’07 La Crema from Sonoma, an ’06 Domaine Alfred Chamisal Vineyard from Edna Valley, an ’03 Marimar Estate Don Miguel Vineyard from the Russian River Valley, and a very special ’98 Olivet Lane Estate, also from the Russian River Valley. That ’98 Olivet was a close companion with the French ’95 Blagny La Piece sous le Bois.

There has been requests for a second bowl this very cold, wintery season. The fact that San Francisco is experiencing unseasonably cold weather might demand an encore; several friends have considered chipping in for the ingredients, only to divide up the portions for T.V. dinners (it freezes VERY well and I have been known to go through the effort of a second production just for the left-over factor). I was to create a second go-around. In making the ragout for the cassoulet, I was left with a quart or so of the seasoned broth. Not wanting any of it to go to waste, I seared up a few Italian sausages, sautéed some mirepoix with pancetta, and recooked the broth with some Rancho Gordo Yellow Indian Woman Beans. Heartier than the creamy Tarbais beans, the second version of the cassoulet was in some ways, more satisfying than the first — but maybe because I got to relish these leftovers over a few days in the quiet of the apartment without all the pageantry. Just a good friend stopping by for lunch, a mug of eggnot latté, and the cat who knows he gets to lick the bowl when I’m done.

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