Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Alchemist's Feast

Medieval alchemy must have been easier than this...

It's been in the planning for months, in the cooking for a week, but on Saturday night we finally all assembled at Ms. Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen's home for the fabulous Alchemist's Feast.

The whole idea for this dinner started when somehow Mr. Thirteen and I had a conversation about making traditional cassoulet. But of course, we can't just make cassoulet. Far too simple-- even boring. We needed a whole theme--and this time, because the the dish is so earthy, we settled on the Elements.

The Alchemist's Feast

Aether: Gruyere Gougeres

Air: Hoch Ybrig Souffles in Phyllo Cups

Water: Soupe de Poisson with Littleneck Clams, Halibut, Kombu and Rouille Crouton

Intermezzo: Green Salad with Shallot Vinaigrette

Earth: Cassoulet of Flageolets with Duck Confit, Sausage and Lamb

Fire: Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes with Blood Orange Sorbet

Wines: Domaine Jean-Pierre et Jean-François Quenard,Chignin-Bergeron “Vielles Vignes,”
2006 Vin de Savoie, France
Sean Thackrey Pleiades XVI, Bolinas, CA

As always, the company was terrific, so much so that the evening stretched on well past the witching hour. (I was turning into a pumpkin, or at least something pumpkin-shaped by the end.) The guests for the evening were all of an artistic bent, including the extraordinarily talented La Divina and her handsome Il Divino, who came along to the last of our "Four Seasons" dinner series, the Tuscan Convivio. We're on to new inspirations and joining us this time for the food extravaganza, were Ms. Five-and-a-Half's long-time partner-in-crime The Maven and her husband Mr. Coffee, along with the gallant Prince Charmant and his lovely bride La Belle.

A few times during the evening, my Omnivore and I were asked how long it took to make all this. Honestly, we started Tuesday, with the duck, and well, it pretty much continued all week long. Wednesday it was beans, Thursday it was fish stock, Friday it was cassoulet, souffle base and blood orange sorbet. Saturday was everything else.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I sat up for the fourth time and said, "Wait, why are we doing this again? We're making cassoulet and soupe de poisson and souffles? Hello?! We're making French food ...for FRENCH people. I'm not QUALIFIED." More than once I tried to convince my Omnivore that we ought to maybe try a bit of a twist on the traditional -- just to ease the pressure a bit. Maybe a Vietnamese style fish soup, or an Asian duck confit in the cassoulet? No. I was denied.

I still managed to sneak in a few little twists, like the kombu strips in the fish stock, an admittedly Japanese trick, but one that made it taste like the sea.

Fortunately, Ms. Five-and-a-Half's table was gorgeous enough to make anyone overlook lapses in tradition.

Among the other pleasures of their house, their trees are bearing fantastic fruits, including oranges and these monster Meyer lemons, which absolutely dwarfed our store-bought lemons.

As usual, we were so busy slinging hash at this "do" that I forgot to take pictures of some of our prettiest courses.

When I did have a sec to take a photo of course, I was actually just killing time, to keep from impatiently checking the souffles every two minutes.

"You know, a watched souffle never rises," said my Omnivore casually.

"Shut up."

So our final recipe for Cassoulet -- non-traditional, but pretty darned good.

Cassoulet with Flageolets, Duck, Sausage & Lamb

2 carrots, cut into 2 inch chunks, plus 2 diced
2 stalks celery, cut into 2 inch chunks plus 2 stalks diced
1 yellow onions, split in half and studded with cloves, plus 1 diced
1 1⁄2 cups parsnips, peeled and diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup dry white wine or vermouth
3 cups dry white beans (Tarbais, flageolet, cannellini are good options)
6 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 bouquet garni (Parsley, thyme, peppercorns, cloves, etc)
6 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 tomatoes, halved and seeded, and grated into 1 1⁄2 cups of pulp
1-4 lb duck, cut into 8 pieces, or duck confit
1 1⁄2 lbs unseasoned bratwurst or sausage
1 1⁄2 lbs lamb stew meat, cut into chunks
1 cup chicken broth
10 garlic cloves
2 cups unseasoned bread crumbs or panko
1⁄2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1⁄2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3 more tomatoes, cut into 6 wedges
8 fresh sprigs of thyme

1⁄2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic minced
zest of 1 lemon finely minced

Begin 1 day ahead with the beans. I'm not kidding.

Sort the beans on a tray, removing stones, dirt or shriveled beans. Then soak for 24 hours in a bowl of enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Drain and rinse, discarding the soaking water.

Heat the 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a large soup pot and add the chunks of carrot, celery and clove-studded onion. Cover and sweat for about 15 minutes. Deglaze with the white wine or vermouth and simmer 1 minute. DO NOT ADD SALT!

Assemble the bouquet garni. Add the rinsed beans and 6 cups of chicken broth so that the broth covers the beans. Bring to a boil. Add the garni to the pot and reduce heat. Cover and let simmer 1 to 1-1/2 hours until the beans become tender and edible. Drain, reserving the liquids, but picking out the veggie chunks and bouquet garni and cool the beans and broth slightly.

In a food processor, process the 10 garlic cloves until finely chopped. Add 1 cup of chicken broth and process til blended, then set aside.

To prepare the meats, heat a large sauté pan over high heat. Liberally season the duck or duck confit pieces and lamb chunks with salt and pepper. Then sear duck in batches, skin side down. Cook until golden and remove. When finished, pour off all but 2 Tbsp of fat and return the skillet to the burner.

Add sausages to the skillet and cook until browned, turning once. They need not be cooked through. Remove and set aside. In the same skillet, brown the lamb in batches. Don’t crowd the pan. Remove browned meat and sear another batch. Return all lamb to the skillet and deglaze with garlic broth mixture. Bring to a boil and simmer 1 minute, scraping up all the bits from the bottom.

Process slices of dry French bread to make crumbs and combine with salt pepper, and
chopped parsley.

Combine beans with the lamb garlic mixture in a large bowl. Add tomato pulp, and diced tomatoes, salt, pepper.

To assemble the cassoulet, spread half the beans in the cassole. Place 4 pieces of duck (if using uncooked duck) on top. Repeat layer with remaining beans and duck. Pour the reserved bean broth liquid over the cassoulet. You may need to add more broth to ensure the level is within 1⁄4 inch of the top of the dish. Sprinkle 2/3 cup of bread crumbs on top of the cassoulet. Place the dish on a baking sheet and bake at 375F for 1 hour.

Turn crust into the beans. Sprinkle with another 2/3 cup of bread crumbs. Continue baking another hour. While the cassoulet is baking, cut two more tomatoes into 6 wedges each. Pick out some sprigs of thyme for the top.

Turn the cassoulet one more time, and add the lamb
and the sausages (also nestle in the duck if you're using confit) into the beans. Put the wedges of tomatoes whole on top. Add the fresh thyme sprigs and sprinkle with remaining bread crumbs.

Return to the oven and bake 1 hour more. The cassoulet is done when the top of the crust is crisp and bubbly.

Mix together gremolada ingredients and serve alongside the cassoulet.


I might as well relate that there was some battling over the duck. I called in Il Divino, Mr. Thirteen, Mr. Coffee and my Omnivore to consult over how to split up the four pieces of duck confit among ten diners.

"Well, it just may be that everybody doesn't get a piece of duck and that will be okay," said Il Divino, quite reasonably. "But," he continued as he placed his plate down in the front of the counter where we were setting up. "I'm gettin' some duck."

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes, made with Gran Saman and Bucare chocolate from El Rey, awaiting their turn in the oven...

We used David Lebovitz's very tangy and refreshing Blood Orange Sorbet recipe to contrast with the intensely chocolatey chocolateness of the um... chocolate.


L Butler Bishop said...

OMG, to die for -- I'm so envious. I have not had a group to "cook and dine with" like this in a number of years. You have inspired me to get some friends together and cook with the Gods !!! Hooray for you and your friends! On to more glory !!!

Anonymous said...

Does Mr. Thirteen ever help cook or does he just eat and grow giant lemons?

-Mr. Thirteen's Brother

ME said...

Hi, L Butler-- thanks so much! We have so much fun making these extravaganzas. As exhausting as it might be, it's always worth it in the end. So hey, send me pictures of your dinner, I LOVE seeing foodies having fun!

And Mr 13's Bro, welcome! Yes, indeedy, in fact in our summer feasts, he's the one attending to the deep-fried turkey! I also must report that for the Alchemist's Feast, he helped us with the extremely delicate, and politically tricky, task of divvying up the duck!