Vive la France! Originally envisioned as a cooking class taught in French, Francis instead led us, with great aplomb and patience, through the vagaries of French menu planning and wine pairings en Anglais. The centerpiece of our efforts was the lengthy preparation of the show and heart-stopping "Cassoulet au Confit de Canard." Francis' expertise comes from years cooking in the restaurant his parents owned in Calais, starting when he was 13 years old. Not to mention the advantage of just being French and loving good food. Anything correct about our meal was due to Francis, and everything else well-intentioned Americanisms.
It doesn't seem like it should make as much difference as it does but a French meal involves a progression of separate courses, each with its own plate and paired wine. The way we eat here in the States is one of those things I take for granted but don't know I take for granted, i.e. the assumption that meals come family style with everything but dessert on the plate at once. The French way, each dish on the menu has to be considered in the context of the preceding dish with its wine. With the goal to create balance and contrast or crescendo in the progression and a pleasing harmony overall. There's definitely a symphonic quality in this.
If the idea of courses and wine pairings seems intimidatingly complex in the planning, the payoff is big in the eating. Without distraction it's possible to consider the perfection of the smallest details of even a simple course. A salad of only greens and vinaigrette comes into sharp focus when that's the only thing on your plate. Each leaf a different color and texture, each shape jagged or rounded, each taste either mustard-hot or juicily green. It's a kind of attention that expresses gratitude to the people who grew and the land that produced beautiful food. There's something grounding and deeply satisfying about one course at a time that I'd like to put into practice more.
In planning the courses, we started with 2 assumptions: that this was the perfect time of year for cassoulet (a festival of meats, really, with some beans in a supporting role) and that we would make the "surprise inside" pears (with Wasem's inimitable Spartlett pears) that Margaret has been hankering after. We quickly decided that we would need a cheese course because that is quintessentially French. Also, we always want to eat more cheese. Since cassoulet basically defines "hearty," it seemed wise to keep the other parts of the meal lighter. Instead of a complicated appetizer course (called l'entrée en Français), we would have colorful, appetite-piquing radishes with fleur de sel and move the salad course up from following the main course to a first course. Somehow, an extra dish and and extra course in addition to these came to seem essential. Eventually, the menu looked like this:
Potage Creme de Marron (chestnut soup), Radis "GardenWorks"
Wine: "Unique" Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Fougeres-sur-Bievre (2 bouteilles, not quite enough as it was very good and we were just getting started and it was supposed to go with the salad.)
Salade aux herbes d'Automne "Brines Farm" et Vinaigrette Lulu
Le Plat Principal
Cassoulet au Confit de Canard (Toulouse-style perhaps? - with pork and lamb)
Wines: "Altitude 500" Rhone 2003, Cotes du Ventoux (2 bouteilles), plus "Vietti" Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne, Castiglione Falletto, Italy 2004 (1 bouteille - delicieux! Merci John et Ami)
Intermezzo (not sure what "palate cleanser" is in French. We decided we needed this because we were changing from red back to white wine with the cheese course.)
Sorbet Pamplemousse (Grapefruit)
Le Plateau des Fromages (Francis says the cheese selection should include at least: pate moelle (soft), pate dur (hard) and pate persillé ("parsley-ed" or blue). Our selection from Morgan and York: Pavé Sauvage, Ossau-Iraty, Beaufort d'Été, et La Tur (from Zingermans).
Wines: "Wogenrain" Gruener Veltliner 2006, Wagram, Autriche (1 bouteille - quite good but tastebud fatigue is setting in.)
Poire "Surprise de Margaret" au Chocolat et Gingembre en Robe
Wine: "Rotenberg" Pinot Gris 2004, Alsace (This wine was our most expensive by quite a lot. While quite tasty, it was also dry and did not seem to show off the pear and chocolate combination as well as we would have liked.)
With this much food (and wine), it seemed unwise for only 6 people to attempt the task of dispatching it. Calls were made to deserving friends and leaves were added to the table enough so that we could set 10 places.
Observations on How To Make Cassoulet
Step 1: Go to France for a large can of "Confit de Canard" - 6 duck legs slowly simmered until tender in duck fat, then preserved in duck fat.
Step 2: Order from Bob Sparrow (or your favorite butcher) 2 lbs. garlic sausage, 1 lb. boned lamb shoulder, 2 ham hocks, 1/2 lb. pork skin (cut into 1" pieces), 1.5 lbs. polish sausage (cut into 3" lengths). Bob immediately asked - "Oh, you're making cassoulet?"
Step 3: Soak 5 lbs. dried white beans in water. Tarbais beans are traditional. Great Northern beans are an adequate substitute.
Step 4: The night before making the cassoulet, cook the beans in plenty of water with onion, garlic and thyme, also the ham hocks and lamb. When tender and just cooked through, drain the beans saving the bean juice. Remove the meat from the bones and reserve.
Step 5: In the food processor, make a paste of: 4 large yellow onions, 1 head of garlic (cloves separated and peeled), and 1/2 C. water.
Step 6: Brown the garlic sausages in plenty of duck fat. When sausages are brown and crisp, add onion/garlic paste. Cook without stirring approximately 10 minutes. Stir gently to make sure all of onions garlic paste is cooked through.
Step 7: In a very large casserole dish or large dutch oven (or a cassole if you have one), put a 2" layer of the cooked beans. Add each of the meats, cut into appropriate pieces. Then the cooked onion/garlic mixture. Cover all with a thick layer of beans almost to the top of the pan. Add bean juice so that all are moistened and liquid is just below the top layer of beans.
Step 8: Put a final layer of toasted breadcrumbs on top.
Step 9: Bake at 350º for 1 hour. At the end of the hour, break the breadcrumb crust, adding more bean juice if needed to keep moist.
Step 10: After the first hour, turn oven down to 250º. Continue baking, breaking the bread crumb crust each hour and adding more liquid as necessary. Francis said 12 hours of baking is not too much. Ours baked for approximately 7 hours. Remove from oven and let sit perhaps 30 minutes before serving.
Step 11: Bring cassoulet to the table and serve each guest with some beans and a bit of each of the meats.
Step 12: Try not to eat too much.
I'm both pleased and sorry to say that I woke up this morning with a slight hangover. The wines were delicious and it was hard to stop drinking them. The food was wonderful and I think all of us hurt ourselves eating it, some more some less.
Some highlights of the evening included: ambiance musicale by Lulu, the yummy bottle of Barbera that John and Ami brought, a round of La Tur from Michelle and Ali that we demolished, the lovely social, culinary and cultural exchange with Francis, and of course an evening of enjoying ourselves in the company of friends, one delicious course at a time.
* Thanks John for the cassoulet and pear photos!