January 30, 2009

Confit de Canard. Duck Confit. Part 1- How to buy a 4-headed duck

To market to market to buy a Fat Duck...

That was the idea. Traditionally the Wednesday morning market in Agen has been the live poultry market. When I first arrived in the Lot-et-Garonne in 1987, there were rows of benches on which housecoat-wearing Frenchwomen and beret-sporting Gascons sat behind piles of feathered friends tied together at the ankles or next to cardboard boxes with beaks and tails sticking out. The Wednesday morning soundtrack was a low murmur of gossip and clucking.

Even in this Southwest France modern times have arrived and the buying of live poultry in an urban environment has slowly disappeared from Agen. There was but one truck of cages filled with bedraggled-looking chickens from a local 'semi-industrialized' farm. I had expected there to be a great show of fatted ducks at this time of year. What I found instead was a wonderful show of winter produce at bargain prices with a smattering of artisan poultry growers with their wares prepared for a more urban audience- fatted ducks already cut, cleaned and parceled out ready to confit.

Here are the January Market season specials:

ORANGE is good in the Winter!




Rather than look this gift duck in the beak, I took home a deconstructed duck with which to start. Those ordering duck from D'Artagnan or one of the other internet sources can relate to this piece meal approach. Although I am missing a few of my favorite 'bits'- the gesier or gizzard, the tasty heart and succulent the wing tips, the bargain of getting 4 duck necks for 2 euros more then made up for the gap.

So here is the take from this smiling enterprising Artisan Duck vendor:
  • One carcass called a 'demoiselle'
  • One 'manteau' or cloak- that is the legs and breasts removed in one piece from the carcasse
  • a big bag of fat and trimmings including the pure white inner fat from near the foie gras
  • and four duck necks and heads- les cous
These ducks were the best; they were fresh, meaty, fatty. They had been carefully butchered and handled with care. The prices were reasonable and the total 'duck' came to 23 euros, about 6 kilos of meat and fat- less than 4 euros a kilo, or about 2.50 dollars a pound. there is very little waste or scrap so making confit here is a most economical way to preserve meat.

Returning home I abandoned the duck to the refrigerator until I had a moment later in the day to salt and cure for the coming confit . Stay tuned. Salting comes next. It's the very important part.

"Patience demands, work rewards."

January 26, 2009

Fat Ducks- everything you need to know from Confit to Foie Gras

Tis the season.
Duck season. No, not hiding in a marshy blind, wet cold and waiting.

The fatted duck season, le marche au gras is more like:
hanging in a warm kitchen,
fire roaring,
cauldrons of duck fat burbling,
friendly faces pouring hot spiced wine,
sharp carbon knifes clacking against the steel,
and the smell... the scent of toasted hazelnuts as the duck fat melts and the crispy skins becomes cracklin's- Gascon popcorn.

For meat loving foodies, this is about as close as it gets to heaven. Gascon Heaven.

I read a lot about confit. A lot. And I have read pages and pages of misinformation, both well-meaning and intentional about confit, both duck and goose, and foie gras, both duck and goose, and all the bits and pieces of succulent meat like gésiers (gizzards) and cou farci (stuffed neck) and coeurs en brochette (skewered duck hearts).

I'm not THE authority here, not by a long shot. But I know a few and I thought I'd take you on a seasonal ride through my extended neighborhood of Butchers, Bakers, and Armgnac-makers to meet some of the pros, expert home cooks and above all the artisan food producers that rock my French Kitchen world. There is always room for more and new info and scientific proof, but tradition and authenticity are the foundations of what I teach here. Hang on to your duck lovin' hat because we'll be jaunting all over the Gascon countryside and then some to uncover the private kitchens, the artisan cooking studios and the traditional winter Marche au Gras or Fat Markets through out this fatted land.

Be a voyeur or cook along for the ride! We'll all come together in the Virtual French Kitchen on Feb 24- le Mardi Gras for the Fat Tuesday Camp Cassoulet Cook-off where my version of Cassoulet features silky morsels of duck confit- the wings and sleeves, bite sized portions to infuse the cassoulet with salty nutty goodness. (I save the large meaty legs and breast for main course summer meals.)

Recipes here are more like storytelling. Lean in, pay attention, and taste often. anyone wishing to join me for one of the Fat Duck Weekends this coming month (See Google Calendar on the sidebar) need only write me in a nice letter asking if there is still room.

These pictures were taken with my phone last year in Cathou and France's amazing chateau kitchen in Montcuq. I love the slightly otherworld colors and focus of what appears to be another time and place. I have been invited again this year so stay tuned for more pix and details from this remarkable French kitchen.

the weight of the five foie gras

In the meantime, hats off to Heidi B. who sent the first cassoulet picture of her first cassoulet in her brand new Not Poterie cassole.

I do believe that is a leg of duck confit I spy! When asked how it was, a one-word description was enough. "Amazing!" That's all it takes to enter the Fat Tuesday Camp Cassoulet Cook-off. Send a picture and comments, recipes and anecdotes to me soon.

January 24, 2009

French Weather- ouch!

I was going to write a lyrical little post this week called 'French Rain'.
You know the sort of thing I like to write, weather reports interspersed with nature observations, a little wistful, a little nostalgic.
Not tonight.
No photos, it's too dark.

What began in the dark this morning around 5 a.m. has subsided in the dark. I'm going to have a shot of armagnac and go to bed, exhausted but I wanted to let you know that when your read that little headline, just know that the reality was way worse.

The worst winds in French history (northern Spain got slammed too!), equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane, slammed the Atlantic coast. The BBC says it here but the map says it all; I live right where that red arrow to the east of Bordeaux is.

Lucky. We are very lucky as we have only minor damage. Lots of trees down. The roof of the chicken coop took flight, but the chooks didn't seem to bothered. A bucket of bird seed blew over and they just continued to harvest the spill. Bacon got to sleep in my cabin and sit with me on the couch under a blanket for comfort (his? or mine?), and Boudin (the barn cat) yowled her displeasure at the noise which sounded like a train coming down the canal. The new wheelhouse leaked as 100 mph winds drove the rain into the still unvarnished joints and the roof tarp disappeared over the side. There are days when I don't like living on a boat.

By late afternoon, the barometer starting rising, the clouds blew over revealing a weirdly blue sky and it is now blissfully still. Thank you. I have a good stock of candles and flashlights, oil for the lantern, and now the electricity came on.
I will sleep tonight. Peacefully.
Tomorrow, damage control.

Wish you were here.

January 19, 2009

Cassoulet- Kate's Basix French Kitchen Recipe

Cassoulet Recipe

Developed at "Camp Cassoulet"-- a Kate Hill French Kitchen Adventure.

This is the basic, bonafide, easy to prepare, authentic, traditional, real, regional version of cassoulet that I prepare, teach, cook and eat in my French Kitchen. The emphasize is on careful combining of very good ingredients, slow cooking and hearty enjoyment. I use duck confit and sausage de Toulouse, ventrèche ( salt cured pork belly), and pork rind for the meats. This is not gosple but pretty close. As much a state of mind as a recipe, this Cassoulet should feed your spirit as well as your belly. Invite a few friends- make it a party. That's what Camp Cassoulet is about.

This makes a large cassoulet that fills a 4-liter cassole and feeds 8 people easily.

Step 1: the beans


  • beans -1 kg dried beans (tarbais, coco, lingots, or other plump thin skinned white bean (for dried beans- soak several hours, over night or cover with water, bring to boil and let sit one hour.)
  • 1 onion- peeled
  • one whole carrot
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Thick slice of ventrèche (pancetta), salt pork, bacon or ham ends.
  • Ham bone or hock
  • Fresh pork rind-(couenne) about a 4-by-12 inch strip or about 100gr, rolled and tied with a string
  • Bouquet garni- bay, thyme and parsley stems.
  • black peppercorns- a dozen slighty crushed

Place all of the above ingredients in a large pot, cover with 2 litres of water; because of the addition of the ham bone there is no need to season with salt at this stage. The seasoning can be adjusted when the cassoulet is put together.
Bring the bouillon to a boil then turn down to simmer and let cook gently for 1 hour or until beans are just barely tender. How do you tell if the beans are done? The skins go papery and begin to collapse and the cooking liquid is milky.

Step 2: the meat- prepare while the beans are cooking.

Ingredients: This is where you can be flexible using fresh sausage, preserved duck or goose, ham or cured pork, lamb shanks, etc. We used:

  • Duck- confit de canard- one/half leg per person (note: after slipping off most of the softened congealed fat from the surface of the duck legs, we trimmed any excess skin so as to leave just a covering to protect the meat. We jointed the thigh from the drumstick and then teased the thigh bone out resulting in a neat little package of confit meat that is easier to cut in the plate.)
  • Saucisse de Toulouse- about 500 grams or about 15 cm/6 inches per person. This is a fresh pork sausage made from primarily the shoulder meat and seasoned with salt and pepper. Nothing else.
  • Saucisse de Couenne- I love how these succulent sausages made with lean pork meat and the soft rind taste. They sort of explode with flavour in the cassoulet.
Brown all of the above; the duck confit in a sauté pan and the sausages we cooked over the grill, however, they could have been pan browned as well. You want a nice hot fire to brown the skins and it’s preferable to not cook the sausages 100% at this stage as they will continue to cook in the cassoulet and give their juices to the broth. Note: Because we buy the sausage in one long link we made a pretty spiral that may be browned as a whole on one side then turned over in one piece to cook the other side. We did this on a grill over the hot ashes of the log fire.

Step 3: to assemble the cassoulet

The traditional cassole bottom is just half of the diameter as the top, making a deep slant-sided glazed terracotta pot (see pictures). Remove the bouquet garni, ham bones, onion, carrot and rind from the beans. I chop the onion, carrot and rind into small bean-size pieces and take the tender meat off the ham bone then return all to the beans and gently stir in. USing a slotted spoon, the cassole is then layered with the beans, the confit and pieces of toulouse and rind sausage then finished with a layer of beans. Adjust the seasoning of the broth from the beans; a little salt, some more black pepper and pinch of piment d’esplette. the tweaked bouillon/bean stock is wonderfully savoury. Now add this liquid to the cassoles until the beans are just covered. Any remaining bouillon should be saved for basting if needed or making bean soup with leftovers.

Step 4- To cook the cassoulet

Slip the cassole into a very hot oven (around 450’ F/ 275’C); turn down the oven after 30 minutes to medium heat- 350' F/175'C and then let the cassoulet bake slowly as long as you can. The cassoulet in the electric oven is nicely browned in about 1-1/2 to 2 hours; ‘break’ the crust by pushing into down into the juices two or three more times. A wonderful crust forms during cooking so there is no need for a sprinkle of breadcrumbs* as the beans and starchy sauce do this by themselves. Cassoulets are not fatty and are nicely done in about 2 hours. If you start preparing the cassoulet at around 3 pm and you'll be sitting at the table by eight pm. This could be done in advance- all or in part by cooking the beans, and or assembling before baking.

Step 5: to serve

Pour a glass of hearty red wine like a Madiran, Cahors or Zinfandel, break the crust on top at the table, ladle the steaming cassoulet into dishes and prepare to be very full and very warm as stories are told around the kitchen table well into the night!

January 16, 2009

To my Cassole waiters... a French moment.

Some days.
As I've written recently, French days in France are usually full. Varied. Rich. Full.
These are days when time moves to it's own clock, counting events and moments rather than minutes and hours. Time to stir the pot and cook slowly.

Tic, tic- 20 minutes to gather dried twigs for kindling.
Tic, toc- 30 minutes to drive across the frosty countryside to pick up more beans.
Tic, toc, tic- an hour goes by standing in line waiting for the phone shop to wait on me.
Ding, ding, dong, screammmmmmmmm. the village bells and siren announce lunchtime and EVERYONE must stop for 2 hours and close their doors- post office, banks, grocery stores. Oh, forgot? get back in your car and drive home to wait until after the 2 o'clock return rush hour to reopen!!!!
tic, tic, tic...clip, clip- the quiet time passing as 2 acres of fruit trees and roses get clipped one by one during a quiet 2 hour lunch of winter gardening.

See, that's how France works for me; harmonious units of time interrupted by screaming fits of being out of sync. Mostly it is the harmony and rhythm of these days that I so love. It takes an hour to prune an old crab apple tree. Another for the fig. Who cares? There is time enough in every season. right?

But what happens when culture clashes and the sound of a micro-digital chronometer meets the steel village church bells. It's like that old kids' game- rock, paper, scissors. The steel bells wins- every time. I call these the French Moments, the head shaking 'I don't get it' moments, when my American self gets taken off at the knees.

All this to try to explain why those wonderful Not Brother cassoulet pots that were mailed out before Christmas still haven't arrived? My local French La Poste Mistress assures me, "Madame, 12-15 days delivery time means 12-15 working days; no saturdays, no sundays and, mon Dieu, all those holidays, too. It was mailed economique, oui? (I can hear the Gallic shrug!) So this package you mailed to the Etats Unis December 19? Then it is only 4 days late. It's a long way. Don't worry!"

She smiled and I said, "Merci et au revoir, Madame". So please, in the ticking minutes of late deliveries and anxious mistrust of all involved, take a deep breath, think how many long weeks it took to throw, dry, glaze and fire the cassole pot, and think about who you will invite to help you make and eat that great cassoulet. When the cassole arrives. In a Long French Moment, thanks.

And to keep your cassoulet appetites whet and inspired, see what Riana is doing in her Slow Kitchen here at Garlic Breath!

January 13, 2009

A day in the life... ten things to do before making leftovers for dinner.

1. fix a broody hen
During the great Gascon communication blackout of the New Year- no phones, no internet, no blogging, and no telepathy since Dec 19, I fell into a rhythm of work and rest that has taken hold as a pattern as distinct as the soft llama wool sweater that I am finally trying to knit, one row at a time. Knit, knit, and knit some more. Really, I did miss your daily emails, the sorting and sifting of unbidden mail, and the friendly chats just to make sure that you are really still there.

2 & 3. prune the cherry trees and sand & varnish 1/4 of the wheelhouse

But a funny thing happened when I wasn't writing it all down as I was trying to do it. Rather than seeming to drift from one task to the next, occasionally interrupted by 'urgent' messages, and justifying my right brain daily life with my left brain fictional life I found a sort of peaceful path of least resistance to the never ending chores and tasks that mark this French life.

4. rake the boulodrome in the park

It was only after I decided to write about and photograph 'my afternoon' that I 'stumbled on' (Google 'left brain/right brain') this simple test. Sure enough- right brain all the way- 60% except for that highly verbal left brain. Hmm, make's sense from this perspective. This is what my test results said:

Dominant Random Processing. Random processing is a method used by the right hemisphere for processing information. The information that is received is processed without priority. A right-brained person will usually jump from one task to another due to the random processing by their dominant right hemisphere. Random processing is, of course, the opposite of sequential processing therefore making it difficult for right-brained individuals to choose to learn in sequence.

5. & 6. trim the bay laurel and walk Bacon

No surprises there! Then:
You show a strong ability at random processing. You are good at completing tasks in an unspecified order, and don't waste time creating lists when they aren't needed. You are also able to make "leaps of logic" and make discoveries a sequential thinker could never dream of making.

7. feed the birds

When students and guests arrive here at Camont, we cook and shop and cook until that is all that seems to matter. But as you can see today, this random processing of a day in the life of a French Kitchen led to little to eat of note. In fact, leftovers are the goal tonight: some spicy beans, an open tin of sardines, a hardboiled egg and some salad greens. The sweet finish to my dinner and day is knowing just how wonderfully diverse my life and days really are. No office commute, no time card, no ...paycheck. But I do have the daily University of Camont to attend-- learning about broody hens, soil chemistry, lunar cycles and historical nautical design.

8. move the ash pile

You can take your own right brain/left brain test here, but looking at these pictures is proof enough for me that I like it mixed up and in no particular order. I am getting things done in my own Kate fashion.

9. & 10. chop some wood and give thanks.

Just another day in the life of...

January 10, 2009

Frosty Wishes for a New Year

In 20 years I have never seen the canal outside my wheelhouse frozen.

Yesterday I awoke to a silent frosty flat surface, floating leaves frozen in place. The gentle hum of water flowing beneath the hull silent. A grabbed the closest thing at hand, an apple, and heaved it onto the ice to see what happened. It bounced, skidded and then pinged across the canal coming to rest 50 feet away. Frozen. Half-an inch thick.

The kingfishers are curious. The little grebes are hiding. The moorhens are walking on the banks. I, too, wonder how long this will last and when will 'global warming' please start?

So until my internet connection is repaired (10 days to two weeks) I remain quiet, cold and thoughtful- reading, knitting and ...playing cards.

1956 Canal du Midi- Toulouse

Here's to all good things in a brand New Year.