January 2011 Archives


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In the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons happen at the opposite time of the year as they do up here in the Northern. And so Christmas is a summer holiday down there. In Australia and New Zealand, a traditional Christmas dessert is the light-and-airy Pavlova--a sort of fruit-topped meringue.

The Pavlova was invented in Australia or New Zealand in the 1920s to honor a visiting Russian ballerina. Exactly which country is, evidently, a matter of some contention. But since our Christmas Pavlova was being baked by a New Zealander, we all firmly accepted his avowal that recent research has shown that it was totally New Zealand.

Steven made the "Pav" at our house, to avoid having to transport the delicate final product. And also we have an electric beater. And like any meringue, there's a lot of beating. As we were getting up in the tens of minutes of electric beating of egg whites, we were marveling at the work that must have gone into making one of these in the days of hand beating. (Though, we were using pasteurized-in-the-shell eggs, which there seems to be some contention as to whether they whip up as easily as normal eggs.)

Here's the recipe we followed, though we totally forgot the cornstarch. Oh well.


Christmas Cassoulet

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A cassoulet is a French country dish that is, basically, a baked meat and bean stew. I've usually encountered it in a 'fancy' context, where the meats are duck confit, pork belly, and sausages, but it doesn't have to be too precious. It's become our traditional Team Gerdes Christmas meal (where "traditional" means "three years in a row now") and it's just fancy enough to feel special for the occasion, but then hearty enough to serve as leftovers throughout the holiday week.

Three years ago when I first started thinking that I wanted to do a Christmas cassoulet, Erica mentioned that there was a recipe in Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, which she had. There was, but even in Bourdain's "oh, c'mon, this stuff isn't that hard" style, the recipe was a bit intimidating. It's a three day recipe, for starters. Day one is just covering some duck legs in salt and sticking them in the fridge, but even that step means acquiring duck legs. But I decided that duck confit was an exciting challenge and so I set my plans.

Now, three winters ago, Top Chef was on and it was the one set in Chicago. Nearly every episode, the contestants would race into the fancy new Whole Foods on Halsted and walk out with all manner of exotic meats. So I got it my head that all I was going to have to do to get all my pieces and parts for the cassoulet was to stop by a Whole Foods. So two days before Christmas, in a snow storm, Erica and I stopped by one of the smallest Whole Foods in Chicagoland (the one up in Evanston that used to be a Wild Oats). When I asked at the butcher counter about duck, the woman scratched her head a bit and then disappeared into the back. She brought out a whole frozen duck. Well, it wasn't going to be ideal--I really just wanted four duck legs--but I asked how much it was. The woman had to consult with some colleagues to figure out which kind of duck this was, to punch in the right code on the scale. And then there it was: $96 for the duck. No thanks. This single ingredient of my Christmas dinner for two was not worth that.

So, I ended up going to Dominck's and getting chicken legs. And a slab of bacon instead of pork belly. And for the sausages, Dominick's house brand Italian sausages. And since I was already veering so far away from Anthony's directions, I went home and did my usual internet-search-to-combine-a-bunch-of-recipes and found a far-less-intimidating recipe at The Amateur Gourmet.

It took forever to cook, but we weren't going anywhere or having company over. And an attempt to brown the bread crumb topping under the broiler was disastrous. But the result was delicious. And I'd made a recipe that assumed that you were having 6 or 7 people over for dinner, so we ate for days off the one pot.

Cassoulet - serving suggestion

Last year, we had Erica's family visiting for Christmas and Christopher and Katie are both vegetarian. I found a really easy vegetarian cassoulet recipe at Smitten Kitchen. Super easy, in fact, because you don't even have to bake it--it's very much a stew with bread crumbs tossed on. Late in the process I divided the cassoulet into two pots and threw some sausage into one. It wasn't quite the same as the decadence of the year before, but it was a lot faster to make.

And then this year, Erica asked me if I was going to make a cassoulet again and I said I thought I'd tackle the fancier version again. And this year we have a new weapon in our arsenal--Gene's Sausage Shop. Now, there are a lot of good meat markets in Chicago, and even one right in my neighborhood. And I know that being intimidated is all on me. But there's just something so inviting about the big meat counter at Gene's that really gets me excited about getting ingredients I've never tried before. Gene's had duck breasts, but not duck legs, so I still didn't get to do duck confit (next year I'm going plan well in advance), but I got some chicken and some of their great looking sausages and, most excitingly for me, I bought my first slab of pork belly.


I love pork belly at restaurants, but for some reason it seemed to me to be some sort of exotic ingredient that a real person could never cook with. I mean, they never have it at Dominick's, right? But it's just a cut of meat. That happens to add an incredible rich pork flavor and delicious little globs of fat. This year's was the best cassoulet so far, and I'm looking forward to next Christmas already.


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This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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