Last Sunday I decided it was time to roast the pork hocks that my dad gave me. He cures them himself, and includes not only the hocks, but also the feet. There's not a lot of meat on these things, but I am content to chew on the slow cooked tendons, and my kids are delighted to have unlimited access to 'skin'.
I suspected I'd have leftovers, and thought about making some sort of a dish with beans and whatever pig parts I had to work with. It turned out to be two feet and virtually no meat, but I decided it would still add some flavour.
I began thinking that I could make a riff on some sort of Cajun dish, like Red Beans and Rice de Guise. I had the recipe in front of me and started assembling similar but not exact ingredients. I didn't have sausage, but I had a wedge of my dad's smoked bacon, basically a hunk of pork belly, salted and smoked. I didn't have fresh herbs like tarragon, but I had salted herbs. I didn't have porcini mushrooms, but I did have dried mixed mushrooms. I found some homemade beef stock in the freezer as well.
For vegetables, I had half a fennel bulb, a tired orange sweet pepper, onions and celery. I snipped some rosemary off one of the plant that lives under a grow light all winter, and grabbed a fresh bay leaf from its neighbour. The beans I had on hand were Romano, sort of in between red and white beans. My initial plan was to chop the bacon, fry it, throw the vegetables into the fat, and then build the bean dish from there.
Looking at my collection of ingredients, I had a flash of inspiration. I realized that I had all the makings for a cassoulet, especially if I added a small container of duck meat that was in the freezer since the last time I cooked a duck, waiting for an opportunity just like this.
Cassoulet, in the recipes I've read, tends to take days to prepare, starting with confit duck legs and linking your own sausage. When I saw my own collection of ingredients, however, I began to wonder if this isn't where the dish began: in a French farmhouse kitchen on a day when the femme had various scraps of cooked and raw meat, not enough for a meal on their own, but combined and mixed with some dried beans, enough for a satisfying dinner.
I pulled out my birthday gift from my husband, the last porcelain enamelled cast iron pan he'll ever buy me, or so he promises. The drawers where I keep my pots can't handle any more weight! The pot is a shallow Dutch oven, perfect for braising, and while my first thought was that I didn't really need it, since I have a good number of cast iron frying pans and a Dutch oven already, I have put it to use several times since he gave it to me.
Instead of cutting up the bacon, I threw it in and simmered it as a pork belly. Between it, the duck and the pigs feet, I'd have a rich sauce for the beans. I sautéed the vegetables, and then added the meats, chopped mushrooms and their soaking broth, and the beef stock. I topped it up with water, and set it to simmer.
It bubbled all afternoon. Since I needed to run out to a meeting at one point, I experimented with putting it in the oven. I realized the beans weren't going to cook that way, since I hadn't even stacked them before throwing them in the broth. I put it back on the stove and left it on low. The results, a few hours later, were a sticky, savoury stew, studded with the occasional bone from the pig feet and duck pieces. I instructed my husband to pick up some French bread on the way home.
To add a bit of green to the meal, I sautéed some kale in garlic, and topped my stew with it. When I ladled it into bowls for my family, I had no expectations that my kids would enjoy it. They're lukewarm on stews most of the time.
Little did I know that the way to their hearts was through their French roots. D started scooping his stew onto his bread, like the ultimate beans on toast. G took a bite and said, "I want more of this." I reminded him that his bowl still had quite a bit of stew in it. He followed his brother's lead, and topped his bread with the mixture as well. He ate it all, and asked for a second helping.
My husband bubbled over with gratitude. "You used the pot I gave you to make cassoulet?? On a weekday?? Where did you even get this duck?!?" I sat across the table, with smug satisfaction, and watched him savour every bite.
The entire experience was completely gratifying. I loved having such beautiful ingredients to work with. I loved having enough experience to look at what I had to work with and see what it could become. I loved that my family enjoyed their dinner so much.
I know that not all of my readers will have access to pigs feet or smoked pork belly, or left over roast duck, and even fewer would have access to them all on the same day. This post isn't about sharing a recipe that you can recreate. It's more about the long term benefits of making scratch cooking and good quality ingredients a priority, because with time and experience, you too will be able to transform a few scraps of meat and leftovers and some tired vegetable into something both comforting and transcendent. Look into your fridge with an attitude of inquiry—you'll be amazed at what you can create.