Sunday, February 7, 2010

Day 328 - Pan-Seared Scallops with Fennel Puree and Cassoulet

I was very excited when my incredibly accomplished friend, Emily, invited me to be a part of a small group of people with whom she wanted to watch her new HBO movie Temple Grandin, which she executive produced. The film centers around an actual woman named Temple Grandin (played brilliantly by Claire Danes) who is famous not only for revolutionizing cattle slaughterhouse design but also for being autistic. I was so touched by Emily's invitation that I offered to host a dinner party around the movie-watching, and she accepted.

My guests tonight are Emily and her husband Andy, and Emily's (and my) Northwestern University classmates: James, of the Duck Breast and Bolognese dinners, and newbie Beverly, with her husband Philippe.

Note: Philippe is French, and I'm making Cassoulet. What am I, crazy?

Pan-Seared Scallops (p. 260)

How easy is this? Very!

And quick too. It's a little messy, what with very hot oil involved, but it's over really quickly. Just be prepared to turn on the fan for a minute or two.

All you have to do is cut the scallops in half (to make two thinner circles, not half-moons), salt both sides, get oil very hot, throw the scallops in the pan for not even a minute, flip them over for another 30 seconds, drain on paper towels, and Voilà! Delicious hors d'oeuvres in seconds!

My first batch didn't stick at all, but I think the pan got a little residue-y and the second batch was a little tricky to flip. Still, there were no scallop casualties.

I should take a moment to mention something I've learned from this Cooking School experience. I've learned that if I want to have six perfect portions of scallops, I should plan on making eight. One of the raw scallops might be split (as one of my was) or one of the scallops might stick to the pan and tear.

If I don't care what my food looks like, I won't overbuy, but if I care about the presentation, I now make extra.

I was just talking to my friend David about how steamed scallops can taste icky. And I'm also remembering how the Chinese scallops were my least favorite of all the Black Bean Sauce variations.

But these scallops are perfect! They really don't need any seasoning other than salt to shine. Seared is definitely the way to go!

That's Emily, James, and Andy, from left to right.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Fennel Puree (p. 310)

How easy is this? Not very.

The fennel gets trimmed and chopped, then simmered in a milk bath, then pureed, then strained, then strained again, then reheated. And all this for 3/4 C of puree. Humph.

That said, it tastes pretty great. And it tastes great with the scallops, which is Martha's serving suggestion. (She serves one scallop half on each plate, but I served two.)

I do want to say that I got a little confused by this recipe, but having reread it, I now see that it's totally clear.

Here's the confusing paragraph, verbatim, which comes after having pureed the cooked fennel:

"Transfer to a fine sieve set over a large bowl or liquid measuring cup and press with a rubber spatula to extract as much puree as possible. Discard remaining solids and rinse sieve thoroughly. Return puree to the sieve and set over a bowl to drain for 1 1/2 hours longer."

First of all, when I use my finest sieve for jobs like this, it never works out. I always try, but then inevitably nothing pushes through, and then I have to swap it out for a less fine sieve. You'd think I'd learn my lesson, but no.

So I'm on my second sieve, I've pushed the puree through the sieve with my spatula, and now I have a slightly more refined puree (very few solids left in the sieve). Then I wash the sieve and put the puree back in it.

For some reason, I've got it in my head that I'm going to have to push this puree through again. But after letting it sit for an hour, it's clear that the only thing coming through that sieve is liquid, no puree. That's when I realize that Sieve Part 1 is for keeping solids out, and Sieve Part 2 is for getting liquids out.

Yes, I now realize it says "drain," but for some reason, I missed it before.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Cassoulet (p. 403)

I can't believe I'm finally making Cassoulet. It's been a punch line for me for the past 11 months, often inserted as an example of some terribly complicated
, arcane dish (e.g. "It was tricky, but it was no Cassoulet.")

One of the reasons I've waited so long is that I needed to have made duck confit to proceed. But with that task completed, I was anxious to give this a try.

I've never made Cassoulet. I've never even eaten Cassoulet. I was so perplexed by it that I called Martha on her radio show to ask what I should serve with Cassoulet. (Her answer was: a green salad and a citrus-flavored dessert.)

I'm not going to lie- there were a few curveballs in the recipe. But if you're reading this and contemplating making Cassoulet, I can at least save you from some of those confusions/potholes.

It all begins with an overnight soaking of navy beans. (Well, it really all began with the duck confit last week, but you already knew that.) Next is the assembling of a bouquet garni, i.e. herbs and vegetables tied up in a little cheesecloth package. Then, some fatback (or pork belly, which is what I used) is cooked to render the fat in which to cook the pork shoulder pieces.

Here's the first divergence - Martha says that the pork pieces should brown in about 5 minutes. After about 10 minutes, mine were cooked but still not brown, so I moved on. FYI, at this point, she says to pour off all but 1/4 cup of fat. I didn't even have that much in the pan.

Now comes the cooking of the beans, with various added ingredients: onion (unpeeled?? and halved with one clove stuck in), canned tomatoes, the bouquet garni, a ham hock (in my case, three small pieces of ham hock - same weight), and a carrot, halved. Martha says 8 cups of water will cover the ingredients by 2 inches, but I needed more like 12.

She also specifically states that the beans should be cooked in an 8 quart pot and the casserole should cook in an 8 quart Dutch oven. I actually bought an 8 quart Dutch oven specifically for this purpose. And I'm here to tell you that I think I would have been fine doing this in my 5.5 quart Dutch Oven. Both the beans and the final casserole didn't come anywhere near the top of either vessel, so if you only have a 5.5 to 7 quart pot, I think you'll still be OK.

Once the beans are tender, you remove the onion, carrot, bouquet garni, and the ham hocks, from which you remove the meat and dice to put back in.

Next, you rub the Dutch oven with garlic halves. I didn't think this would make much of an impact, but I really could taste it in the end. Interesting flavoring technique.

Then you layer half the bean mixture in the bottom of the Dutch oven, place the duck confit and French garlic sausage on top, and then cover with the rest of the beans.

Side bar: When Martha and I were chitty-chatting about this meal, she recommended a great place for me to get this sausage (aka saucisson a l'ail), Salumeria Biellese, which just happens to be two blocks away from my apartment! I went over there to pick up the sausage, and I mentioned that Martha sent me. I'm so glad I started a conversation with the guy behind the counter, because he offered up some info without which I would have been sunk. He said I should leave the sausage out (i.e. unrefrigerated) overnight, and then before using, put it in cold water, bring to a boil, and let simmer for a half an hour. I was confused, and I explained that I was making cassoulet, so the sausage would cook in that, but he said if I didn't simmer the sausage, it would fall apart in the cassoulet. I nodded and thought, Whatever, and figured I would make a judgment call in the morning.

Well, when I cut into the sausage, I realized why he made this suggestion. The sausage was uncooked! I thought I was buying a cooked sausage... So I cut the one pound sausage in half and followed his instructions. When the half hour was up, I looked at the cooked sausage and I thought, hmmm, that looks a lot smaller than what I started with. When I weighed it, it was only 4 ounces! And I needed 8 ounces! Yikes! I quickly cooked the other half, and it all worked out fine. But clearly, the lesson is, you will need one pound of raw sausage to get a half pound of cooked.

Martha doesn't really deal with this in the recipe at all. She says to cut the sausage into 1/2 inch thick half moons, so I'm assuming she means cooked sausage as uncooked sausage would never be able to hold that shape. But you should know that if you buy this sausage raw, which I guess is how it's typically sold, then you should plan some extra time into your preparation, and double the weight.

Once the cassoulet is assembled, it goes in the oven for hours and hours. I started mine at 300° with the convection fan going, but there was no bubbling after a half an hour (which there should be) so I switched the fan off and raised the temperature to 325° and I got a nice steady bubbling around the sides. I only had to add liquid once, as the level barely dropped the whole time.

Finally, I added the buttered bread crumbs.

Another side bar: What does Martha mean when she says "Fresh Bread Crumbs?" Does she mean not dried, i.e. take some fresh bread and make crumbs in the food processor and use that? She probably does. I actually let my bread crumbs dry overnight, but I think I may have gotten this one wrong. Ah well.

For the last hour in the oven, the bread crumbs brown and the stew finishes cooking.

I had started my cassoulet a little early, and then we ate a little later than I expected, so my cassoulet was done about 45 minutes before we were ready to eat it. I didn't want to cover it, because I didn't want it to get soggy, so I decided to turn off the oven and leave it in there... without checking to see what was going on underneath all those breadcrumbs.

Alas, the cassoulet was totally dry. I have to say, I really liked it anyway. Even Philippe said that though it was definitely drier than the cassoulet he'd eaten in France, he enjoyed this consistency.
(Maybe he was just being polite. That's him, pictured to the right with Beverly.)

I take full responsibility for having dried this out. I should have checked to see how dry it was when I shut off the oven. However, I will say that it would have been nice to be offered some ideas of how to stall the serving of this dish. I mean, it's in the oven for 3 to 3.5 hours. It's impossible to know at 3:30PM precisely what time everyone will be ready for the entree.

Flavor-wise, I really didn't know what to expect. I was concerned that there was no seasoning whatsoever, not a speck of salt added anywhere along the way. Yet this was a plenty salty dish! Must have been a combination of the ham hocks and the sausage. The flavors are really unique, and the overall effect is homey, comforty, and hearty. I sort of felt like I was eating gourmet Franks and Beans.

I probably won't make this again - as much as I enjoyed eating it and relished the experience of having made it, there are a hundred other things I prefer to eat that are easier to pull off. Still, it was fun pretending I was French for a couple of days.

Jeff: C (major points off for drying it out, but major points added for the rest of the efforts)
Martha: B
(we could have used more info about the sausage and also some tips for stalling the serving of it)

I should mention that Emily's film was sensational, truly compelling and quite moving. I'm so proud of Emily, who in addition to being a very successful personal manager, is also a wife and mother of two teen-aged sons (one just started his freshman year at Northwestern, the other is autistic), and a major mover/
shaker around raising money and awareness for autism issues. She accomplishes more in a week than I do in a year.

After watching the movie, we ate my beautiful Lemon Curd Tart, elements culled from several other recipes in the book. It looks great, but I'll own up to some mistakes made along the way. (The little tart baby was made with the extra ingredients.)

First of all, I should have used the optional gelatin when making the Lemon Curd. Even though I served it cold, the lemon curd was oozing out of the slices.

Second, I should have let this get to room temperature before I served it. The crust was too hard and it didn't taste nearly as good when I served it as it did an hour later. (Although can you imagine how oozy the lemon curd would have been? Oy.)

Until we eat again....

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