THE CASSOULET DINNER DIARIES AND GROUNDHOG JUICE

The Cassoulet Dinners 

Cassoulet dinners are very special events in our house.  This is a wonderfully hearty dish and should be served in the cold of winter for it truly warms body and soul and fills (perhaps ‘stuffs’ is the proper word) the belly.  It’s not a particularly complicated dish, nor does it require extraordinary culinary skills.  However, you don’t approach the making of this dish casually, nor can you do it justice by making it in a day.  Just follow the recipe, taste, taste, taste again and you’ll be fine. 

To make it properly is to truly understand the value of the friends that you’ll be joining with at the dinner table.  When you serve this dish you have to be joined by as many people as your dining room table can hold. You want a warm, raucous, bonhomie atmosphere to envelop all.  The cooking of the Cassoulet is finished in a single bowl and served from that bowl so, in that way, to me, it represents a more communal dining experience than other dishes might have.  Such a wonderful dish and again, as simple as it is, you can screw it up – I’ve seen recipes where it’s made with hotdogs.  As you know, I believe that hotdogs are superb – in their place.  Their place is not in a Cassoulet.  When it is the star of the dinner menu magic happens, as shown in the following Cassoulet Dinner Diaries.

March 16, 1996

 

This was probably my first time with Cassoulet.  En France, ‘Cassoulet de Porc de Mouton’.  A dish that I have come to love, have much reverence towards, is a winter staple in our house and that tastes so good that, as I’ve been known to say, I would roll in it like an animal.  So good that it’s like getting a nice big hug from your lover and best friend.  Another of my top 50 or 100 God-I-Love-This-Dish, dishes.  In this diary entry I wrote, “Fatty pork is fine without additional fat.”  Get real! 

How dare you say that it’s just beans, lamb and pork!  Let Julia and I tell you about this; make it for yourself or wrangle an invite to one of our Cassoulet dinners and you will no longer make that statement.  In her classic I think that Julia has presented us with one of the best recipes for this dish.  As with so many other dishes its peasant roots show in the variety of ingredients that one can use in assembling this dish.  However, any Cassoulet worth the name must be built upon the foundation of beans, pork and lamb.  If these rules aren’t followed a big bad wolf will come along and blow your Cassoulet down.

Howard, Micelle and Andrew were our neighbors once upon a time.  Good neighbors and good friends who are, as many of our friends, no longer closeby.  Andrew was very young at the time of this dinner.  I hope that he’ll always remember his first taste of Cassoulet.  Well, I can hope can’t I?

 

January 25, 1997

 

This is one of those dishes that take more than one day to make.  I start with the pork loin.   The loin is herb seasoned in accord with ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ and marinated in its seasoning rub overnight.  By the way, this is a very flavorful rub (I love fragrance of the bay leaves as they’re pulverized in my old coffee bean mill-now spice grinder) and works well with both feathered and fin-ed ingredients.  I’ve found that the sausage cake recipe that Julia provides as a substitution for ’Saucisse de Toulouse’ is also well served by marinating overnight.  Ah, the preparation of the ingredients and the assembly, the ceremony of it all: roast the pork loin, sauté the sausage cakes, braise the lamb, cook the beans, make the brown sauce and finally assembly and cook this gift from the Gods.  It’s one of those dishes that drive Bonnie crazy.  She’ll say, “Honey, can you help me with this or that?”  And I’ll scream in reply, “NOT NOW!  I’m busy with the Cassoulet!”   

Yes, I have learned things over the years.  I make more pork sausage than the recipe calls for, I add the cooking juices with each layer, always reserve the water that the beans were cooked in until the last of the leftovers are finished,  leave room beneath the rim of the huge beautiful dutch oven that I bake and serve this in for the crusty topping.  Sometimes I add duck, sometimes a good kielbasa.  Always the foundation of bean, lamb and pork and as I’ve repeated and repeated in regards to so many dishes – in the end it’s more than the individual ingredients, more than the sum of its individual parts.  A magic trick of the first order.  

Rick and Brenda, Alison, Bill and their daughter Amelia.  They’ve appeared in the diaries before and will again.  Do I remember the particulars of this dinner?  No.  Do I have any doubts that all of us enjoyed ourselves?  No again.

 

November 12, 2002 

 

My menus are usually pretty good with the Cassoulet dinners.  Usually.  Appetizers are nice to warm up the guests but all you really need for dinner is a good bread, salad and something with apples for desert.  It’s a winter hearty dish and that’s when I serve it.  Simple appetizers are fine.  While puff pastry with smoked trout and snails in garlic cream sauce was memorably good, it was unnecessary.  Soups are unnecessary, but also good; best if they’re on the lighter side.  Julia’s onion soup is superb.  ‘Thelma’s Coconut Cake’ , despite the fact that I wrote, “OK”,should be avoided as a dessert, door stop, night-light or anything else.  A nice little palette cleanser, Melon Granite (melon in November?) is very nice, but I prefer just the apple pie or an Apple Tarte Tatin to pumpkin AND apple pies.  

 

February 3, 2007 

 

DO NOT EVER mess with Maida’s Lemon Mousse recipe – unless you can do it right.  My dessert did not come out well this time.    I was trying to riff off of a lemon mousse recipe using caramelized apples instead of lemon and layering the mousse between sugared-crusted-baked Phyllo dough.   I have to keep trying – the caramelized apple mousse concept has merit.   

For better or worse, the Dinner Diaries are now on the computer rather than handwritten.  Feel lucky, you probably couldn’t read my writing.  As I’ve written previously, for the best Cassoulet experience you’ve got to have a house full of freinds.  The guests’ experience begins at the door.  They cross from the winter cold, hopefully snowing a bit air, into the warm house to be enveloped by the mélange of aromas of lamb, pork, beans, garlic and apple pie and breathing red wine (trust me, the garlic and apple pie work).  You’ve got to have lots of wine, some good strong reds, and prepare to get a little louder than you might normally.  Prepare to laugh a lot, hug a lot, drink more wine than you usually would, tell ‘secret’ stories that you might not normally tell and – eat lots of Cassoulet – two helpings – and the Tarte Tatin or apple pie with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for dessert.  At this 2007 Cassoulet Dinner Party one of the guests related an absolutely hilarious story about him and his brother crossing an honest to God mountain range in a two wheel drive car: the car breaking down, the car being fixed, almost going over the side of the mountain, arguing which of them was crazier, near freezing to death at night – and finally making it over the high pass and getting to the valley below.  The story had everyone laughing until they cried and rolling on the floor with enjoyment.  As funny as it was I don’t believe that anyone wet themselves – we’re all pretty mature folk ………. most of the time.   

To this day I can’t remember the details of the story, but the fact that I remember it at all, that “a good time, with a lot of wine, was had by all”, and that the Cassoulet was almost finished is enough.  The perfect Cassoulet Dinner Party.

 

January 9, 2010

 

 

This was a very special Cassoulet Dinner Party because my two brothers, Kev and Mitch and their wives, Shawn and Chris journeyed down from New England to our home in rural New Jersey.  It had been a long time since they’d been down here and we were looking forward to seeing them for the weekend.

We’re brothers and strong willed to boot.  Consequently we don’t see eye to eye all the time.  There have been periods where we’ve been each others best friend and times where it was hard to even talk to each other.  Our wives understand this and are smart enough to stand back when it’s warranted and let the situation play itself out.  I know that many siblings and families are like that, especially if they’re independent-stand on your own two feet-kind of folks.  Well, regardless of the falling outs we are brothers, we know that fact and it is important to us.  We were together this weekend and it was, as I wrote, a hoot.

As for the dinner, I didn’t consider my efforts my best.  Not bad, just not the best.  The mussel in an aromatic broth was very good.  The pears had not ripened enough and therefore were less flavorful than I had wanted.  Some chef out there.  Please tell me how to get pears and avocados to ripen on demand.  The Cassoulet had more liquid in it than I wanted and consequently the crust didn’t form perfectly – the broiler fixed that.

On the other hand Chris’s appetizers were spot on, the Asagio Stuffed Dates with Bacon and Smoked Paprika especially so and Shawn’s dessert, though it may not have been up to her standards, was engulfed by the hordes.

My Dad took a lot of photos of the family.  The time span runs from the day that he and my Mom got married until he could no longer do so.  So we’re talking form the late 1940’s until, I’m guessing the early 1990’s.  A whole lot of time and a whole lot of  family history on film.  So, after dinner it was a trip through the family photos.  The trip back through time found us laughing a lot, a lot of ‘ “Oh God! I’d forgotten about that”, some melancholy and a few, “Does anyone know who that person is?”  Digressing only a bit we’ve got the black and white movies of Mom and Dad’s wedding circa 1947.  They are particularly interesting, and amusing to everyone except my Mom, because they show the happy couple walking out of the church, approaching several flights of hard granite stairs leading to the street and Mom, in full wedding dress regalia, falling on her butt down that first long hard flight of stairs.  Yes, after the fall she stands up, plants a smile on her face, waves to the crowds and continues down those steps.  In the places in my mind where I shouldn’t go I imagine the conversation that night, “Don’t you dare touch me I’m black and blue all over my backside!” 

So, we look at our shared family history and reminisce and talk of things that were, where we are now and we wonder with individual degrees of anxiety what the future holds.  Obviously, my brothers and I have shared many meals and as lives were lived there have been many times that the six of us could be found together at the dinner table.  Food has always been a centerpiece for our family, the shared common ground, but it is not the core.  Through my cooking I’ve discovered that the core is indeed family, friendship and love.

 

With Crust Unbroken  –  Leftover Cassoulet

 

 

Dinner Diary – Groundhog Day                                                        February 2, 2008

Groundhog Day Cocktail Party at Paul and Amy’s!

 Paul and Amy were nice enough to invite Bonnie and me to a Groundhog Day Cocktail Party. Not a lot of our friends throw parties (or maybe they just don’t invite us) so we were thrilled to accept the invitation.  I’m usually thrilled (usually, not always) when someone is good enough to invite us to a dinner, or party, where someone else is cooking.  I’ve even learned new recipes and ingredients.  I’ve had very good times.  In this case I very much appreciatedthe fact that there was gin and vermouth available (usually I have to bring my own martini in a ‘Snapple’ bottle).             

Paul and Amy did a nice job with the party; a nice mix of food drink and friends.  I particularly liked the mini-cocktail shakers for martinis. 

Do you ever think that there could be a humorous side to my culinary effort, to any part of my life?  There is!  I find many incidents, facts and happenings in life to be humorous and of course this carries on to the culinary field.  Once Bonnie was knocked down by a huge wave on the Cape, tumbled in the wave as if she were a rag doll in a washer and spit back onto the beach.  I thought that was pretty damn funny for a short while.  Well lookee here. I didn’t want to arrive at the party empty handed so I mixed up a container of, what else, Groundhog Juice! 

I created the front and rear labels and stuck them on a bottle.  The bottle was then filled with Dave’s Long Island Ice Tea and it was ready for presentation.  Paul and Amy thought that it was hilarious.  Some partygoers thought otherwise.  Well ….. they’ll just have to get a sense of humor. 

 

 

Front Label

 

GROUNDHOG  JUICE

A SOUTH JERSEY TREASURE

SINCE ….. YESTERDAY      

BREWED FROM THE FINEST NATURAL JUICES OF RIPE AND MORE RIPE ‘FOUND’ GROUNDHOGS! 

THE PERFECT EARTH FRIENDLY BEVERAGE – NOTHING IS WASTED EXCEPT YOU! 

BASED ON A TRADITIONAL PINE BARRENS RECIPE HANDED DOWN FROM DAUGHTER TO FATHER TO MOTHER TO BROTHER TO SISTER TO FATHER TO DAUGHTER TO UNCLE JOE BOB 

INGREDIENTS: AREN’T YOU THE BRAVE ONE TO ASK!

IF WE COULD GUARANTEE THAT IT WOULDN’T KILL YOU WE WOULD

BOTTLED BY EARTH FRIENDLY ROADKILL

FIND US WHERE YOU CAN – WE MOVE AROUND 

According to the Surgeon General women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.  Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.

SHOW ‘EM THAT THEY’RE WRONG!  

Rear Label

 

  Groundhog Juice Ready To Go!

 

As it is the day before Groundhog Day there was no way that this was not going to make it into this posting.

It was a great party with a nice group of folks, Amy’s a good cook and there’s always something fun – in this case the miniature cocktail shakers.  I’ve mentioned those before haven’t  I.  I was very taken with them.

As for the groundhog on the cover shot, the cover girl as it were – she’s not dead she’s just resting.  No groundhogs were harmed in the making of this beverage.  I guess that depends on how you define harmed. 

 

Next week: More Dinner Diaries from the late 1980’s, a waitress in distress and a waiter from Hell  

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2 Responses to “THE CASSOULET DINNER DIARIES AND GROUNDHOG JUICE”

  1. pawsinsd Says:

    What wonderful memories you have, and that you’ve collected them over the years means kudos from fellow foodies. I’ve other things to do this week but next week may make a cassoulet. Thanks for the inspiration to do so. Best wishes from snow country! dee@cookingwithdee.net


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