Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sir Walter's Cassoulet: A Speculative Dinner Party

Hello Beardies, and welcome back!

The Bearded Scribe is, first and foremost, a writing blog. We deal in every kind of speculative fiction there is…and every once in awhile, an opportunity arises for an unconventional post. Such was the case a few weeks ago, when I was sitting in a parking lot, cruising Twitter on my phone while waiting for a choir rehearsal to start, and ran across a tweet from our good friend Cidney Swanson. Cidney, it seems, is writing a cookbook based on her Ripple Trilogy. This tidbit of information piqued my interest right away, because when I’m not writing, I love to cook—and when I was reading the Ripple Trilogy, the food descriptions made me hungry. Intrigued, I tweeted Cidney back asking (half-jokingly) if she needed a recipe-tester. She replied that there remained only one untested recipe: Sir Walter’s Cassoulet, a decadent French dish that requires hours and hours of prep. If I was interested, she would send the recipe. Was I interested? Did she even have to ask? Soon the recipe was in my inbox and I had a new mission.  And not only was this an unconventional mission, but a post that will serve as the first in a new feature on The Bearded Scribe, a feature which will take various food and drink recipes found in speculative fiction literature and test them out... Do you dare venture with us into The Speculative Gourmet?

The first thing I noticed when I read it was that Cidney was not kidding about hours and hours of prep. The recipe was five pages long! Cassoulet is a layered casserole, but, according to Sir Walter’s notes, each layer is a dish unto itself. The second thing I noticed was that I would need a small army to eat it. With this in mind, I invited three close friends for a dinner party on my next day off and began my quest.

Salt Pork, Bacon, & Onions
I started at the very beginning: a trip to the grocery store. Cidney had warned me that some of the ingredients were quite specialized and might not be easy to come by, but in the end I got them all except for one. Vegetarians beware: Cassoulet is meat-heavy, with layers of pork, lamb, and sausage mixed in with beans, bacon, and a lot of other yummy stuff.

Herbs in Tea Ball
Salt Pork, Bacon, & Liquid
Cooked & Separated
Once I brought all the ingredients home, it was time to begin the long process of actually making the dish. I began on a Thursday morning, soaking some dried navy beans in water. When I got home from work that night, I transferred them to the slow-cooker to simmer overnight. In the morning, into a kettle they went for the next stage of cooking, along with some salt pork, bacon, onions, and herbs. Sir Walter suggested cooking the beans with a “bouquet” of herbs tied in cheesecloth. To avoid the hassle of string, I used a metal mesh ball (like the kind you use to make loose-leaf tea, but bigger). Once they were done, I had to drain and reserve the liquid, then pick out all the pieces of bacon. This was a tedious task, but I accomplished it eventually.

The next part was cooking the pork, which was quite easy. Pork roasts were a staple in my house growing up, so they were one of the first things my mom taught me to cook. A little salt and pepper and some water to keep it moist, and into the oven it went for an hour and a half. I’d been a little intimidated by this recipe at first, but I was starting to hit my culinary stride. With pork, beans, and bacon done and just two components to go, my intimidation started to melt away.

With kitchen cruise control on, I grabbed a cup of coffee, took a sip, kicked back to look at the next stage of the recipe…and almost had a coronary. Somehow I had managed to forget that I had to cook lamb. Lamb is expensive, and I’ve never even bought it before, much less cooked it. I need not have worried, though, because Sir Walter’s notes on the subject were very thorough. Draining the coffee cup, I headed back to the kitchen.

Here, I had to take some necessary liberties for the sake of practicality and money. The recipe called for a cut of lamb with no bones to be sliced into cubes and browned in duck fat. To save a little money, I bought a shoulder roast of lamb and had my wonderful father (who was visiting) butcher the bones out for me. Since I could not find duck fat at my grocery store, I substituted extra-virgin olive oil. After sautéing the lamb chunks, I removed the meat from the pan and sautéed onions in the juice from the lamb. These onions, along with some tomatoes, wine, stock, and herbs, became a sauce in which the browned lamb pieces took a long, luxurious bath, making my whole apartment smell delicious. I regret that the scratch-and-sniff computer screen has not yet been invented, because the aroma was heavenly. It was still a couple hours before my friends would arrive, but my mouth was already starting to water.
Lamb Cooking in Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Tomatoes, Wine, Stock, Herbs, & Onions Sautéed in Juice from Lamb

Lamb taking a Luxurious Bath in Tomato, Herb, & Onion Mixture
Reveling in the delicious scents of pork and lamb wafting through my home, I began the final preparations. I set the table for dinner, pulled the pork out of the oven and cut it into cubes, then picked the lamb pieces out of their sauce, found a container for the sauce, and gave the pan a quick rinse. The final stage of preparation before assembly was ordinary breakfast sausage, cooked in patties. Then, finally, it was time to assemble.

Assembling cassoulet is a lot like assembling lasagna: Beans, bacon, pork, lamb, sausage, repeat. Over the final layer of beans went a layer of seasoned bread crumbs. Sir Walter said to put melted duck fat on the bread crumbs, so here again I deviated from the recipe slightly. I used butter, because duck fat was unavailable and you really cannot go wrong with butter. After putting the assembled cassoulet into the oven for final baking, I chilled with my friends for a couple hours while it baked. When it came out of the oven, we sat down to a feast. Although the cassoulet recipe made enough to feed small army, there were no leftovers, and we all had room for dessert of crème brûlée generously provided by my friend, Jenny.

My speculative dinner party was a huge success. My friends and I talked and laughed and ate for hours, and when we finished, they proclaimed me a kitchen goddess. All the credit, though, goes to Cidney and Sir Walter for sharing the recipe. If you’re going to try this at home (and I hope you do), I suggest having a huge bunch of friends who are willing to eat, and a lot of patience. It was a long day of cooking, but as Sir Walter said in his recipe notes,
“The preparation of cassoulet is, as with the preparing of any great meal, foremost an act of love.”

Bon Appetit!

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