Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Confit on the Cheap (Cassoulet Pt. 1)

Crispy Confit on the Cheap

This is a somewhat nutty entry. It's about confit and it's about Nathalie Dupree (hey, that rhymes). Mastering the art of Southern Cooking doesn't include a confit recipe, it has a Cassoulet recipe. A Dixie Cassoulet. That Dixie cassoulet does not contain confit. Did I lose you yet? Cassoulet is a well-debated dish. What it is brimming with depends on the region, the cook, the availability, the inspiration. My inspiration for this week's cooking is a absolute favorite quote of mine.

"Just make something that tastes good."

Ms. Nathalie said this, and I remember hearing it like it was yesterday. She said it during an episode of her PBS program from way back, but I remember. 

I took that notion with me through years of professional cooking, and now, cooking for simple pleasure. 

"But the confit?" you ask. Well, I love it. Especially in cassoulet (ta-DA). I think it just tastes good.

My first introduction to Nathalie Dupree was through her cooking programs that aired in the 80's and early 90's. I was a teenager who loved cooking. My Mom was a professional chef and my house was filled with wonderful food and smells almost all of the time. When I wasn't helping my Mom with her catering business, I was watching food shows on TV. There was no Food Network, it's was public television that brought out the greats: Graham Kerr, Madeline Kamman, Jacques Pepin, Pierre Franey (who's voice made me giggle!), Justin Wilson and many more.

Ms. Dupree in Charleston
My favorite was always Nathalie Dupree. She was so lovely, relaxed, funny, sweet, and Southern. She rolled with it! These were the days before slick editing and big  money productions. She was taped live, and well, stuff can happen! If the hot lights melted her pie dough, she smiled and plowed through. If she omitted an ingredient, she went back and owned up ("Silly me, I forgot the onion. You won't forget the onion, you'll be perfect" said with a sly smile).  She did what we would all have to do, and made it work. It's amazing what she could fit into a 25 minute segment. Full meals, starter to dessert, even fresh breads."The dough will feel like a baby's bottom." she would say. Totally does. And when she took on Cassoulet in a single episode, I was glued to my parent's Ethan Allen wingback, about to get schooled.

I knew about famed Cassoulet. I was born a Julia Child groupie, after all. This was the stuff of real French cooks: days of preparation, pots and bowls everywhere and serious mise en place. This was going to be really good. And it was. Sausage, duck, lamb, beans, vegetables and that incredible crusty topping. How she managed to get it all in was amazing. Here was this calm, charming, sweet-as-pie Southern lady taking on the King of all French recipes. It was the coolest! I usually had a pen and some paper near the TV to painstakingly copy down recipes as they were being prepared (this was a very long time ago,  you youngin!)  Or, I could wait until the end of the program when a voice would provide an address to send a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) and an episode number to refer to for a copy of the recipes. I tried to write this one down but I think I got too mesmerized and hungry. Finding the episode on youtube was like striking oil (or duck fat, hehe).  I dare you not to have a
screaming stomach by 14:30.

Cassoulet is not Southern. Nathalie Dupree was classically trained, a  Le Cordon Bleu graduate! Many of her recipes include French techniques and sensibilities, but it's the Southern charm that always shines through, making seemingly impossible dishes a possibility. Her spin on Cassoulet in Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking is genius. It is a scaled down method utilizing readily available ingredients. She substitutes black eyed peas for French white beans and replaced garlic sausage with the Italian variety. She took her original flourished PBS version and made it an easy Southern supper.

It's been many years, but when I purchased Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking in November it reminded me of my PBS addiction and obsession with cassoulet. I decided to make the dish for a special celebration this week (Happy 47th Mom and Dad!). I used the recipe as inspiration but want to stay closer to the French origins for the evening. I'm not sure what will be more fun, eating it or the challenge of creating it. A week of soaking and cooking beans, braising meats, chopping vegetable, making gallons of stock is something I get jazzed about (I know I'm a freak to some, bear with me).

Then there is the confit. Oh baby, the confit. 

Confit is essentially salt curing and slowing cooking in fat. Traditionally it is duck legs and duck fat rendered from the rest of the bird. Obviously this began as a perservation method but we humans have been smart enough to realize that some things are just meant to be. It is striking to see the drumstick popping up through the partially opaque, partially transparent fat. If the thought grosses you out, go no further. You are not allowed in the club.

Slightly Cooled Confit (in my favorite bean pot!)
I considered making duck confit but cost was prohibitive and my husband and father are "eh" for duck. Using reasonably priced chicken legs makes enjoying the most luscious meal a no-brainer. Well some brain is required as there is a lengthy curing process and a super long slow cook in the oven. It's really very simple, it just takes time. Replacing the rendered duck fat with olive oil will certainly make things easier.

This method involves sandwiching chicken legs with garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and salt & pepper. The legs are left to marinate/cure overnight. The chicken is rinsed, placed into a heavy vessel, and covered with olive oil. I don't recommend using expensive extra-virgin olive oil for this. A nice light, reasonable olive oil will do really well absorbing all the flavors of the chicken, garlic, and herbs. After 10 hours in a 225 degree oven you have something so special! Crisp up the skin to a golden brown and serve or remove the cooled meat and add to cassoulet--or anything for that matter. The now-infused olive oil can be strained and saved. It makes everything it touches more delicious. Fry an egg, sautéed potatoes (audible sigh), dip toasted bread...outstanding.

I've talked about aroma before. It's it's very important to me that when guests walk in they start to spontaneously salivate. This one is SO incredible when cooking (and I decided to cook overnight) that it permeated my dreams and I woke hours earlier than needed to a rumbling stomach.

**While a dozen legs were lovingly braising away in the oven yesterday, my son (we'll call him Pavlov)  came in from school and his nose shot into the air like a puppy.

"Can I have a snack?"

I'm training him young. That is how you want people to react when they enter your home. Spontaneous
salivation. **

I served half the legs with a super-bright and acidic salad to balance the rich fattiness of the chicken. Some nice bread and that is it! You have a royal meal. The best part? The remaining legs will end up in Friday's cassoulet! Yahoo!

Confit of Chicken Legs

Serves me
(I kid. Serves four)

4 chicken legs with thighs, skin on 
1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled 
4 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
1 Tablespoon Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
4 cups good olive oil

Preheat oven to 225 degrees

Lay two rinsed and dried chicken legs, skin down in a glass baking dish. Place garlic cloves, bay leaves, and thyme evenly over the meat. Season well with salt and pepper. Layer the remaining chicken on top, skin side up (mirrored) and sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper and a couple of thyme sprigs. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 

Bottom Layer, skin down
Top Layer, skin up

Unwrap chicken and remove garlic & herbs to the bottom of a heavy oven proof vessel. Sprinkle on the peppercorns. I used both a LeCreuset chicken fryer and a ceramic "lasagna pan" to accommodate the legs, as I tripled my recipe. Both worked wonderfully! 

Rinse the chicken under cool water and dry well. Place into your pan atop the garlic and herbs, skin side down. Pour the oil over the chicken and cover tightly. Bake for 10 hours, your chicken will all but fall apart when you tug on a leg.

An Olive Oil Bath
Let cool a bit.The chicken will firm up and be much easier to handle-but who cares if it falls apart? As my dear, late father-in-law would say, "it's all going da the same place." He was a New Yorker :)

Still Warm Confit Landscape
Strain the fat and place into an airtight container. Float the chicken in the fat where it will remain absolutely delicious for at least a month covered well in the refrigerator. I set a jar of the strained fat aside for sautéing, etc. If you are eating your legs right away, you can let them drain on a wire rack over a baking sheet before crisping. 

Well Cooled, Well Preserved
Heat a nonstick or well seasoned pan over medium high heat. Sear the chicken skin side down until crisp. I've also broiled the legs very successfully!

I thank my fellow Charlestonian, Ms. Dupree. I am having such a fun week preparing for Friday's feast. My cassoulet will have pork ribs, confit of chicken legs, garlic sausage, and black eyed peas! I'm thoroughly enjoying every step and not sweating if it isn't perfect. I'm inspired.



  1. Wow...looks amazing but my head is spinning from the labor of it all. I know it's gonna be worth it, but damn! You go, Jill!

  2. Labor shmay-bor. How hard is it to log on to Expedia, eh, B.E.??


  3. Jill, I have to say, not only does your cooking look yummy, but you iz a gud writer too. lol (And I say that as someone who writes for a living.) I'm enjoying your blog. :)

    P.S. -- I used to watch the PBS cooking shows too! And from when we were really little -- remember the Galloping Gourmet?

  4. Thank you so much, Alba. Your comment made my day.

    Oh, I loved Galloping Gourmet. Mr. Kerr was the Benny Hill of food shows! He "cleaned up" and was back on the air years later making heathy versions of his original dishes. He was still so charming and quite sober!