I was cocky. I'd nearly finished cooking school, I could make a genoise and a decent hollandaise. But, in much the way an amateur juggler who has mastered the basic three-ball cascade assumes she's ready for four, I was overconfident. In juggling, difficulty increases exponentially as you add objects. Maybe the same holds true in cooking, especially if one of the objects is duck confit.
I undertook cassoulet, that most beloved and controversial of meaty French bean stews. It took days, soaking beans, slowly simmering duck in its own fat, chopping, skimming and monitoring. Eventually, I opened the door to my dinner guests, feeling shaky and disheveled, all of my worldly possessions gleaming in a thin coating of duck fat.
Eighteen years later and I'm wiser. This time, I'll cheat. Thank goodness for the Internet, an all-inclusive cassoulet kit and overnight mail.
In The Cooking of Southwest France, cookbook author Paula Wolfert wrote, "Cassoulet is one of those dishes over which there is endless drama. Like bouillabaisse in Marseilles, paella in Spain, chili in Texas, it is a dish for which there are innumerable recipes and about which discussions quickly turn fierce."
Prosper Montagne, the author of the first Larousse Gastronomique, allowed that there were only three authentic recipes for this hearty winter dish from the Languedoc region in southwest France. Toulouse's version packs in mutton, duck confit, a local sausage and breast of pork; the town of Castelnaudary's dish instead features bacon skin, fresh pork, sausages and pork shank. That from Carcassonne has red partridge and sometimes mutton leg.
The basic idea is white kidney-shaped beans called tarbais, simmered for hours in an earthen dish called a "cassole" with a pile of different meats so the beans get creamy, the broth rich beyond belief and the top browned and crusty.
D'Artagnan, the New Jersey-based fine food company, has been offering a cassoulet kit for 15 years, according to Lily Hodge, director of public relations. It costs $83.99 plus shipping and feeds 12 and saves the headache of looking for specialty ingredients. Even in a bad economy, the price seemed reasonable for a dinner party. And it did feed 12, maybe more.
Plus Martha Stewart approves: Not long ago she had D'Artagnan founder Ariane Daguin on the her show to walk viewers through the process.
It's not an "add water, and presto" situation. There's still work to be done, but the hard parts (the pesky confit, the tracking down of exotic ingredients) are taken care of. A huge Styrofoam container, unpacked onto my kitchen counter, yielded numerous Cryovaced component parts (the beans and the meats) with details like parsley, onions and carrots left to my local grocer. An overnight bean soak, a bit of meat searing and parboiling, then the whole thing was assembled. A drizzle of molten duck fat over the top (queasy-making, but essential), then oven time. Two hours and 20 minutes later, I was opening the door to guests, my house fragrant, this cheater's brow sweat-free.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/ dining.