Adventures in the Languedoc

25 07 2011

This post is not about food.  Mostly.  At least most of my vacation pictures don’t feature food, in a vast departure from my normal routine of photographing my meals and pretty much nothing else.  Not that we didn’t eat well during our week in the Languedoc.  Our first stop was Montpellier, where we stayed with a colleague of Nick’s.  He took us to Les Estivales, a weekly food-and-wine event in downtown Montpellier.  A glass and three 10cl pours of wine cost just four euros, and there were food stands up and down the main drag, selling everything from paella to aligot.  The three of us indulged in mussels, calamari, some skinny little sausages that looked like SlimJims but tasted way better, some tuna-filled African “empanadas” whose proper name I have forgotten, a trio of vegetable-laden tartines, and probably a few more things that got lost somewhere between the third and fourth tastes of wine.  The next day we lunched at a café on the beach, and after sunning ourselves most of the afternoon (don’t forget your sunscreen, kids!) we stopped to pick up an array of seafood and vegetables which we grilled on our host’s balcony.

The next day Nick and I headed south.  We stopped in Béziers for lunch, and were pleasantly surprised by Le P’tit Semard, a cute little restaurant featuring fresh seasonal products from Béziers’ main market, conveniently located across the street.  I say we were pleasantly surprised because when you arrive in an unfamiliar French town at 2pm on a Sunday, the chances of you finding something to eat, period, are slim.  That it would also be a worthwhile meal is almost too much to hope for, but we got lucky this time.

Beautiful, colorful stained glass in Béziers

After lunch we decided to take a stroll through the town, and stopped to take a look at the Madeleine church, originally built in the 10th century.  The architecture was definitely different from the Gothic style with its sturdy stone walls, square construction, and few small windows.  But these windows had some amazing colors.  Outside we read some of the history of the church, which was mostly horrible and bloody.  At one point, there was a massacre, the leader of which was quoted as saying, “Kill them all.  God will know his own.”

Beziers

Under semi-threatening skies we took the bridge out of town with the top down on our convertible (did I mention that we rented a convertible?  We did, and it was awesome.) but put it back up before hitting the main road, not wanting to get caught in a sudden rainstorm.

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Regional French Cuisine: Languedoc: Cassoulet

30 11 2009

It starts out so innocently...

Cassoulet.  Anthony Bourdain has been known to refer to it as “the single heaviest dish in the French repertoire.”  I can’t say I disagree with him.  (Although tartiflette certainly gives it a run for its money.)  Like so many other classic dishes, there are many who claim to having invented cassoulet.  The three towns most adamant about their version being the “true” cassoulet are Castelnaudry, Carcassonne, and Toulouse.  Depending on who you ask, the meats used in the dish are pork (skin, belly, and/or sausage), duck or goose confit, and mutton.

Three fat sausages, sitting in the pan...

Everyone agrees that the dish contains white beans, and that it is named for a special cooking vessel, the cassole, which is shaped in such a way as to increase the amount of delicious crust that forms on top.  After consulting a handful of recipes, notably those from Paula Wolfert and Bourdain and Ruhlman, I drew up an outline of how I would be going about the cassoulet.

I inadvertently sent Nick on a wild goose chase for Toulouse sausages, which were nowhere to be found on Sunday morning.  Finally he just asked a butcher for a sausage he could put in cassoulet, and came home with three beautiful, handmade links and a few thick slices of pork belly.

While the beans simmered in a mixture of veal stock and water with an oignon piqué and some thyme, I trimmed the pork belly and threw the skin and bony bits in with the beans.  The rest I chopped into lardons which I started cooking over low heat in a good layer of duck fat.  When they were nice and crisp, I moved them to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain and began browning the sausages.  After that, the duck confit went in to crisp the skin (for snacking purposes) and to warm through (to make the shredding step easier).  Then, I drained off most of the fat, reserving it for later, and added some diced onions and carrots to the pot to pick up the fond that had formed.  The vegetables softened and the bottom of the pot now clean, several cloves of garlic jumped in to join the party.  Meanwhile, I drained the tender-but-not-yet-fully-cooked beans, reserving that liquid as well.  The vegetables and the crisped lardons went in with the beans, and I was finally ready to start assembling.

Easy as 1-2-3
1. Beans, Sausage, 2. Beans, Duck Confit, 3. More Beans

First a layer of fat, then beans, then hunks of sausage, followed by more beans, the shredded duck confit, and the rest of the beans to top it off.  Between each layer I sprinkled salt and drizzled a bit more fat.  At the end, I ladled the bean cooking liquid into the very full Dutch oven until I could see the level was just below the top of the beans.  And into the oven my cassoulet went.

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Treasures of the Languedoc

25 11 2009

Sepia tone makes everything look classy.

I couldn’t possibly do Languedoc month without talking about the wine.  There is as much, if not more, acreage in the Languedoc devoted to the growing of grapes and production of wine as in Bordeaux.  Some of my very favorite French wines are from the Languedoc, including Fitou (rare, but if you find a bottle, pick it up, you won’t be sorry), Corbières, and Minervois.  The wines of the region generally use a similar blend of grapes as is used in the Rhône valley, heavy on the Syrah, Mouvèdre, Carignane, and Grenache.  The reds are fruity yet bold, with enough structure to make them worth lingering over, and usually very food-friendly, as well.  The best part?  They’re also some of the least expensive French wines!  Chalk it up to a lack of name recognition, but you really get a lot of bang for your buck when buying wines from the Languedoc.

Another important product of the Languedoc is rice.  The majority of rice grown in France is along the coast of the Languedoc, particularly in the marshy Camargue near the Rhône river delta.  Camargue is also an important source of France’s salt.

Sel Gros de Camargue

I usually use sel gros de Camargue in my cooking, its crystals being roughly the same size as Kosher salt.  It is slightly moist though, which gives me a feeling of indulgence – the stuff feels a lot more expensive than it is (around 1 euro a kilo).  Of course, where there’s salt, there’s fleur de sel.

Fancy finishing salt

Fleur de sel is the crunchy, extra-white “flowers” that form on the top of the regular sea salt crystals under the right conditions.  It’s a great finishing salt – try sprinkling it over a steak or salad just before serving, or even on bread with butter if you don’t have the butter with the salt crystals built in.

And now for an update on the duck confit.  Last week, I rinsed and dried the duck legs while I melted all the duck fat in the house.  There was a minor duck fat-related tragedy when I opened one of my three (!) jars and discovered that mold had sprouted inside.  I set it aside, and to make up for the missing fat – I wanted to make sure the legs would be amply covered in fat as they cooked – I added a bit of lard.  The smell of the garlicky duck as the confit did its thing for three hours was insanely good.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make one giant batch of this to save all winter – I wouldn’t mind filling my house with that smell every month.  Or every week, for that matter.

Duck legs, post-confiting

Now the confit, legs, fat, and all, is resting in the bottom of my fridge, waiting for the Thanksgiving hoopla to be over so I can turn it into cassoulet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Trotter Gear and Duck Confit

17 11 2009

As part of my continuing infatuation with Fergus Henderson, I have made and cooked with his Trotter Gear recipe from Beyond Nose to Tail.  And I wrote all about it for the fabulous Nose to Tail at Home.  Here’s a little something to whet your appetite…

Chicken and Bacon Pie... er, sort of.

How did I get from pig’s feet to this tasty meat pie?  You’ll have to click over to my guest post to find out.

* * * * *

Speaking of preserved meats, I believe I mentioned that it was my goal to make cassoulet for Languedoc month.  I left out the part where I planned to make my own duck confit.  Well, the process has begun.  Using an amalgam of recipes from Robuchon and Ruhlman (what’s with the five-hour difference in cooking time, guys?), I have rubbed three duck legs with a mortar-and-pestled mixture of coarse sea salt, black peppercorns, bay leaves, cloves, and garlic.

Neither R nor R told me to do this, but it seemed like a good idea.

Now I have to wait two days to cover the legs in more duck fat and cook them ever so slowly until they just about fall apart.  It’s going to be tough, but the kitchen now smells like garlic and bay, and that’s never a bad thing.

Soak it up, little duckies

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Regional French Cheeses: Languedoc: Cathare

13 11 2009

It is my pleasure to announce the French region where we here at Croque-Camille will be spending November: the Languedoc!  This is another one (like Bourgogne) that I’ve been looking forward to almost all year.  My original plan has written “November – cassoulet.”  Of course I had to do a little digging to figure out which region, exactly, cassoulet exemplifies, so here we are in the Languedoc.

The Languedoc is a fairly large region that comprises a lot of the Southwestern part of France.  It stretches from the Spanish/Catalan border all the way to the Rhône river – the old capital was Toulouse, the new one Montpellier.  The region gets its name from the language used there prior to the French Revolution: Occitan.  Occitan is a romance language whose use was most widespread in the medieval period.  It was distinguished from dialects further North by the way they said “yes.”  In Occitan, they say “oc,” while in old French, they said “oi,” which became the present-day “oui.”  Get it?  Langue d’oc.  (Thank you, class in medieval French literature.  Who knew I’d ever need that tidbit again?)

Now, it just so happens that I correspond regularly in the blogosphere with an amateur cheese expert (oxymoron?  Nah.) who lives in the Languedoc.  I wrote to her for advice on regional cheeses, and among her suggestions was Cathare, a goat’s cheese embellished with an Occitan Cross, the symbol of the region.

Holy ashed cheese, Batman!

Cathare is a raw-milk cheese, aged only a couple of weeks (sorry Americans – it’s unavailable in the US due to silly regulatory laws).  The rind is thin and wrinkly, with ash coating only the top of the slim wheel.  The cheese just inside the completely edible rind is smooth and gooey, while the inside is just a bit firmer and drier.  The cheese definitely has that goaty tang with a hint of chalkiness, but the flavor is full and rich.  The ash contributes no grittiness, as is always my (generally unfounded) fear.  It would be nicely complimented by a dry yet fruity white wine.

It should come as no surprise that I am sending this in to La Fête du Fromage Chez Loulou.  As always, look for the roundup on the 15th – there’s always something new!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.








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