In late September, when we are surrounded by the bounty of our local farms, there’s a hoarding instinct that surfaces in many of us. It’s the time when books on canning and preserving are pulled out and dusted off, and even if the recipes aren’t used this year, there is an almost instinctual urge to “put down” the fruit and vegetables that are so prolific in the markets.
One of the tastiest of all meat dishes results from this urge to preserve: confit. This process originated centuries ago as a method of keeping meats (usually goose, duck, and pork) available for winter feasts without any refrigeration. Essentially, it is meat, salted, poached in its own fat, and then placed into a container and covered in the fat. The combination of salting and encasing the meat in the fat both preserves and seals the meat, which can be kept for up to six months. It also results in a rich, intense flavour that provides a mouth-watering backbone to many hearty dishes.
But as wonderful-tasting as duck confit is, doesn’t all that fat clog up our arteries? Maybe not. Out of 100,000 middle aged Frenchmen, 145 will die of heart attacks (315 North Americans), but in Toulouse, the capital of duck fat-, foie gras-, confit-eating France, only 80 will succumb to heart disease. Some studies are suggesting the fat of web-footed birds is actually beneficial to health, and one published journal maintains that duck fat is chemically closer to olive oil than to butter or lard.
Very rare in Canada until relatively recently, duck confit is finding its way onto the menus of many fine restaurants. Locally, it makes frequent appearances on the ever-changing menu at Fonthill’s Zest, and is a staple at About Thyme Bistro in Vineland. In the south of France, every butcher shop has a tray of duck legs encased in fat on display. They are often simply fried to heat the meat and crisp the skin and served with potatoes and vegetables, or shredded into a salad. But the highest expression of duck confit, and surely one of world’s greatest comfort foods, is cassoulet.
A savoury stew of beans, garlic, pork, duck confit, garlic, onions, sausage (and did I mention garlic?), cassoulet had its origins in the southwest of France, the village of Castelnaudary having the best claim over Carcassonne and Toulouse as its place of origin. It is traditionally prepared in a large clay bowl called a cassole and slow roasted in the town’s communal bread oven. Visitors to this favoured region of France know that a meal of cassoulet warms the heart, fills the stomach, delights the taste buds, and banishes all thoughts of more food for about 24 hours! To say that it is a filling dish is to understate. A famous sign in a Toulouse shoemaker’s window explained “Closed on account of cassoulet.” There are as many recipes for cassoulet as there are cooks who prepare it, and in Languedoc, violent arguments may result about the inclusion of lamb or tomatoes or bread crumbs to cassoulet.
If there is sufficient outcry from devoted readers, I may be persuaded to reveal my own closely-guarded, award-winning recipe for Cassoulet de Castelnaudary in a future column!
Immerse six or eight duck legs (thigh attached) completely in pickling salt flavoured with fresh thyme and rosemary and place in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, wash the salt from the legs and dry them, bring the duck fat to a simmer, and completely immerse the duck legs. Cover and poach in the oven for about 1 ½ to 2 hours at 275 degrees F. until the bone twists easily from the meat. Sterilize wide mouthed jars and use tongs to place the legs in the jars and fill with the hot duck fat to within an inch of the top, making sure the legs are completely covered to a depth of at least half an inch. Top the jars with a ½ inch layer of melted lard. (The denser lard acts as a more complete seal.) Screw on the lids and refrigerate. Use within six months.