Pheasant Cassoulet

Cassoulet is one of the French classics. Not much more than a glorified stew, you might compare it to bouillabaisse, boeuf bourguignon, or Lancashire hot-pot, if you want a British equivalent. But, as with all these dishes, what makes a classic is the place they have in gastronomic history, and their connections with certain regions of their home country. For cassoulet, this is the south of France. The lore and tradition that comes along with cassoulet is what you might expect as well. You read stories about shops in the south of France being closed for short periods of the day, putting signs on their doors: “closed on account of the cassoulet”, so that they could pop over to the local bakers to cook the breadcrumb topping. The ingredients are all local fare, using confit’d meat, garlic sausages, or beans grown locally. And there seem to be about as many ways to make cassoulet as there are people who make it.

At its core, cassoulet is a pairing of meat and beans, with a breadcrumb topping. But quite what that meat is, and the variety of beans, seems to be key to the recipe. Flageolet beans or Haricot beans were varieties grown locally, and it is noted in Elizabeth David’s French Provincal Cooking that “butter beans will not do”. A Toulouse cassoulet would use pork and sausages, the Languedoc variety pork, confit’d goose or duck, or, leaving the south of France, an Alsace version with mutton and potatoes. But for me, this one-pot stew was made with whatever you had locally or whatever meat you had preserved. So as long as you go with meat, beans and breadcrumbs, I should think you can call the dish a cassoulet.

I decided to make this version of the cassoulet not because I have strong feelings about different varieties of cassoulet, but because I had a couple of pheasants in the freezer. A friend gave me these pheasants from a shoot, so they had a wonderful gamey flavour, even if I couldn’t hang them in our flat for long enough (Mrs. Oxfood would not have been pleased). I love to stew game birds- often when roasted they dry out easily, and are very fiddly to eat with a knife and fork. But when stewed, the flavour releases across the whole stew, the meat softens, and falls right off the carcass. You don’t have to pluck the bird either- skinning it is much much quicker- so if you are prepping the bird yourself, there is a further incentive. Pheasant is wonderful at this time of year, and a hot meaty stew is just what you want with the current cold weather.

Pheasant Cassoulet

Pheasant Cassoulet

This recipe is adapted from one in Elizabeth David’s French Provincal Cooking. I used two pheasants here, which made a lot of cassoulet, but you can decrease the quantities if you want, to make a smaller amount.

2 pheasants
2 tins flageolet beans, rinsed
1 bulb garlic
2 packs Toulouse sausages
1 pack streaky bacon, chopped
1 bouquet garni
2 onions, each stuck with 4 cloves
breadcrumbs from about 4 slices of bread

1. Make the stew. Brown the pheasants, sausages, and bacon. Stick everything apart from the breadcrumbs in a large stewing pot. Cover with water, then allow to stew for several hours until the stew reaches a thick(ish) consistency. Keep adding a little more water if you need to.
2. Finish off the cassoulet. Pick the meat off the pheasants, remove the onion, garlic, and the bouquet garni (you might want to transfer to a smaller casserole dish at this point). Cover the stew with breadcrumbs, then return to the oven for 30 minutes until the breadcrumbs are brown.

The breadcrumb topping


Barbecue Ribs and Homemade Baked Beans

Barbecue ribs are hardly something new, and I’m not claiming to be doing something unique with them here. But they give me a chance to sing the praises of marinading and slow cooking. Ribs aren’t a cut of meat where you look at them beforehand, inspect them, and imagine they are a prime cut that you are going to get a lot of meat from, but when given time and attention, they can turn into a very worthy meal. If you are not a confident cook, food like ribs, which benefit greatly from marinading and slow cooking, are a great place to start, as they don’t require a lot of effort, you don’t need fancy equipment, and the results will impress if you are cooking for others. All that is required is to rub some spices into the meat the night before, put the meat in the oven at a low temperature, then wait. I’m sure even the least enthusiastic cooks could accomplish that.

Homemade baked beans always seemed the perfect complement to ribs. Almost like a bean hotpot, you get earthy, warm flavours, while bulking up the less-than-filling ribs. Canned baked beans, like Heinz and Branston, are so ingrained in the British culinary landscape- I think I remember QI suggesting that the British consumed over 90% of the world’s baked beans. We almost think of them as an ingredient in themselves- I might make sausages, wedges, and beans, and not give baked beans a second thought as part of the meal. But the homemade version is really worth trying, again very straightforward to make, and will impress guests (and your own stomach).

Barbecue Ribs

I’ve included a recipe for barbecue sauce here, which I have made a handful of times- it’s a real winner. You may not want to make as much sauce as the recipe provides, and this recipe will make a whole load of ribs, but quantities are easily halved. But if you don’t have time to make it, or the resolve, a store-bought sauce will do well too. Similarly, you can use a barbecue spice mix instead of making your own. All recipes here are adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s America.

Spice Rub:
1tsp fennel seeds
2tsp paprika
zest 1 orange
1tsp dried thyme
1tsp brown sugar
2 cloves garlic
Barbecue Sauce (makes 500ml):
1 onion
10 cloves garlic
2 chillies
10 sprigs fresh thyme
10 sprigs fresh rosemary
small bunch fresh coriander
10 bay leaves
1tsp cumin seeds
2tbsp fennel seeds
2tsp paprika
6 cloves
zest and juice of 2 oranges
200g soft brown sugar
6tbsp balsamic vinegar
200ml tomato ketchup
2tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2tsp English mustard
200ml apple juice
1tsp sea salt
1tsp ground black pepper
1 quantity barbecue rub
1 quantity barbecue sauce
500ml apple juice
4 racks pork ribs, approx 400g each

1. Make the spice rub. Place all of the spice rub ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
2. Make the barbecue sauce. Finely dice the onion, peel the garlic, and de-stalk and the chillies. Fry in a pan with olive oil until browned. Meanwhile, place the thyme, rosemary, coriander, bay, cumin, fennel, paprika and cloves into a blender and blend until smooth. Toss the spices in with the onion mix and add a little more oil, the orange zest and juice, and the brown sugar. Stir well and boil for a few minutes until the mixture becomes a little thicker. Add in the rest of the ingredients to the pan, and reduce until at the required consistency.
3. Marinade the ribs. The night before, dunk each rack of ribs into a bowl containing the apple juice. Coat the wet ribs with the spice rub- really rub it in to get the flavours into the meat.
4. Cook the ribs. Heat the oven to 130ºC and place the ribs in for around 3 hours. About an hour before you want to eat them, take the ribs out of the oven, coat the ribs in the barbecue sauce, then put back in the oven.

Baked Beans

Serves 6-8. Again, adapted from Jamie’s America.

4 onions
2tsp paprika
2-3 dried chillies
4x400g tins pinto or cannellini beans
2x400g tins chopped tomatoes
4 bay leaves
2tsp dark brown sugar
8 rashers streaky bacon
125g stale bread
100g grated cheddar
1tsp dried rosemary

1. Fry onions and bacon. Roughly dice the onion and fry in a pan with the paprika. Finely slice the chillies and add to the onion. In another pan, cut the bacon into small chunks and and fry until brown.
2. Make breadcrumb mix. In a blender, make breadcrumbs from the stale bread. Add the cheddar and rosemary and mix until homogeneous.
3. Bake the beans. Pre-heat oven to 180ºC. Put everything except the breadcrumb mix into a large casserole. Cook for around 1hr30, then sprinkle the breadcrumb mix on top. Return to the oven and cook for another 45 minutes.