It has been a few weeks since my last blog and I have been building up to this one for some time. I decided to embrace the cuisine of South West France where I live and attempt some of the traditional recipes from this area. The weather here has changed, its colder, wetter and definitely Autumnal. This time of year lends itself perfectly to some of the ingredients that these recipes celebrate and so I happily embarked upon my week of comforting rustic French country dishes.
Now I cannot claim to have invented these recipes myself. They have been around for hundreds of years, cooked in homes by generations of Farmers wives, passed down through their families. There are scores of recipes available to follow for these dishes, online or in many of the cookbooks celebrating French cuisine with plenty of variations. Consequentially, I think there is some scope for you to discover your own method and ingredients list to produce your ultimate version of a classic whilst staying true to its roots.
The first dish I prepared this week was a Garbure; a hearty peasants soup or stew depending on how you view it. It is a meal in a bowl, incredibly satisfying and nourishing, perfect on a cold day. Packed full of beans, vegetables and meats, it has a wonderful flavour and every mouthful offers you more treats to be discovered. As I have said, there are countless variations of the recipe of this dish with different vegetables or meats which can be added. In some recipes, the meat is removed first and the dish is served in two courses, first the broth served over bread and then the meats. But I prefer to serve it all in one delicious bowl and I have settled on my own preferred combination of ingredients over the years that I have been making it. For the benefit of my blog, I decided to go the extra mile and soak my Haricot beans over night for my Garbure rather than just using a tin of ready made beans which I would normally do. I must admit though that I felt that there was very little difference in the end result and therefore, I can unashamedly recommend that a tin of beans works very well in this soup and certainly saves you having to remember to put your beans in water the night before you want to make it. This soup is big, and therefore you need a big pot as by the time you have added all the ingredients, you will have a lot of soup! I pack my Garbure full with Haricot beans, bacon lardons, Bayonne ham, leeks, carrots, onion, potatoes, cabbage, broad beans, green beans, garlic and of course, Confit of duck. I read somewhere that a good Garbure should be so hearty that you can serve it with your spoon standing up in it! I know mine happily complies with that statement.
Next I tackled the Gascon Salad. This salad can be found on the menus of countless restaurants in this area; often a simple version may be part of a Menu Du Jour or more elaborate versions that can contain whole legs of Confit of Duck and slices of Foie Gras. Before we moved to France, my Mother in Law would make us a Gascon Salad when we came to visit her here and it became a dish I associated with our time in France . Now I make this salad when we have friends to stay and I feel it represents the ingredients and cuisine of this region in a nutshell. There is an element of bravery required by some new to this dish as it contains Gesiers basically in English, Gizzards of Duck. Certainly an unusual ingredient to us Brits, but not one to be afraid of in my opinion, not as scary as some cuts of offal I would say. Gesiers are very popular here and if you taste them, you will immediately see why. They are rich and ducky and have a firm texture. I describe them to the uninitiated as being a bit like meaty chunks of ducky goodness, now what is scary about that? I dont follow a recipe for my Gascon salad, I just layer it with all the best bits that I have seen added here over the years. Being a salad, it is lovely served in the Summer with a glass of cold Rose wine, but I think it also works in the colder months as it is crammed with warm chunks of meat making it scrumptious and substantial. I like to add shredded bits of Confit of Duck alongside the Gesiers and also some slices of Foie Gras on crispy toasts as a decadent extra. This salad for me, represents the heart of Gascon cuisine and is a brilliant celebration of their most versatile ingredient, the duck.
Finally on my Gascon food adventure, I swallowed my fears and attempted the notorious Cassoulet. I admit I have always wanted to cook this dish yet I was always daunted by the idea that it takes three days to make. I perused numerous recipes in books and on-line where I found so many different versions of this dish it seemed a little overwhelming as to where to start. I settled on following the recipe from Ripailles by Stephane Reynaud which I thought brilliant in its simplicity Cassoulet in just two steps! This dish does take a long time to make but it is not necessarily labour intensive, just slow. And something that tastes this good is surely worth the wait. So I invited some family over for Saturday night and set about making this dish. This time I feel that you must use dry haricot beans and soak them over night. The essence of this dish is the beans and all the flavours they absorb in the cooking; tinned beans just wont suck up all the flavours or give you the creamy texture you want in the end. Once the beans are soaked, they are cooked for a couple of hours in a pot with some vegetables, garlic, bacon and pork I used slices of pork belly, and an onion studded with a clove. The aromas that permeate the kitchen fill you with anticipation of a mouth watering dish. Then you add Toulouse sausages to the pot and cook for a further hour with some tomato puree. In an oven dish, place the various cuts of Confit of duck, I used legs and wings, and pour over the beans and sausages. Top with breadcrumbs and pop it all in the oven for the last 20 minutes. This dish is utterly delicious, incredible filling and wonderfully wholesome. It evokes scenes of big tables and familys sharing bowls of bubbling stew, just as would have been the case in my very own house over the decades it has stood here. So, sharing my Cassoulet with my family, I feel as though I have paid a fitting homage to the Farmers wives who cooked in this house before me. Bon appétit my friends.