Sunday, February 22, 2009

A not-so-light but ever-so-good Cassoulet.

Sam and I have a new red pot. It is made of cast iron and enamel, and it matches our red tea kettle and our red spatulas. Naturally, the new red dutch oven deserved a special inaugural cooking, so we made cassoulet.

A cassoulet is, essentially, a really fancy French chili made with the very best ingredients. Now I am sure I just made some fabulouse dead French chef roll over in their grave for saying that, but it is true. A cassoulet is very simply a huge pot of meat and beans, cooked together to form a thick broth and a melding of flavors. It is delicious. Like, really really delicious. The kind of delicious that makes you feel guilty with every bite, but simultaneously sends you back to the kitchen for seconds, and perhaps thirds.

It is good. Melt in your mouth good. Meat falling tenderly from the bone good. I will go so far to say that this cassoulet is even eat-leftovers-out-of-the-pot-cold-in-the-glow-of-the-fridge-light-late-at-night-when-you-know-you-shouldn't-because-you-already-brushed-your-teeth good. And as we all know, that is about as good as it gets.

And what makes it so good, you may ask? First, it's made with the finest ingredients, including bacon, lamb, and duck. Second, it utilized each ingredient for its full flavor value. And yes, when I say full flavor value I am talking about the flavor of fat. To draw out these flavors, first you cook bacon
until crispy in your enamel pot. Then, remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and brown your lamb cubes in the bacon drippings. Then, remove the lamb and render the fat from your duck breasts in the lamb drippings. Then, naturally, fry your diced onion in the duck fat. Lastly, add in all of the cooked meats, plus sausage, and cook on a low temp under chicken broth for several hours. For a last step you fold in tender and earthy white beans, I suppose to provide some fiber and a counterpoint to the rich flavor of all the fats. All in all, you are left with the most delightful fancy French chili, er, cassoulet you have ever tasted.

Cassoulet

from Cooking Light magazine, January 2009

This classic is the definition of heartiness. It's got creamy beans, luscious duck, spicy sausage, and plenty of garlic, all in a one-pot meal. It cooks for a long time, but a batch made over the weekend will last for days without complaints. Cassoulet serves a large gathering, and leftovers reheat well. Spicy precooked Italian sausage or Polish kielbasa are a close match to the lively garlic sausage from southwestern France traditionally used in this dish. Cassoulet can be prepared two days ahead and refrigerated. Top with breadcrumbs and finish in the oven before serving.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 6 (8-ounce) duck leg quarters
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 4 thick-cut bacon slices, sliced crosswise into (1/2-inch-thick) strips
  • 1 (3/4-pound) boneless leg of lamb, trimmed and cut into (1-inch) cubes
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup no-salt-added tomato puree
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 (15-ounce) cans organic Great Northern beans, drained
  • 8 ounces cooked spicy Italian sausage, diagonally sliced
  • 1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs

Preparation

1. Rub salt evenly over duck; cover and refrigerate 30 minutes.

2. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add bacon to pan; cook 7 minutes or until crisp, stirring occasionally. Remove bacon from pan using a slotted spoon; set aside. Increase heat to medium-high. Add lamb to drippings in pan; cook 8 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. Remove lamb from pan, and set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 300°.

4. Rinse duck with cold water; pat dry with paper towels. Add half of duck, skin side down, to pan; cook over medium heat 15 minutes or until golden brown. Turn duck over, and cook 10 minutes or until browned and fat under skin is melted. Remove duck from pan. Repeat procedure with remaining duck, reserving 1 tablespoon duck fat; set duck aside. Add onion and pepper to pan; cook 7 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Stir in tomato puree and garlic; cook 1 minute. Return lamb to pan. Nestle duck into lamb mixture; add broth and 2 cups water. Cover and bake at 300° for 2 1/2 hours or until lamb and duck are very tender. Remove duck from pan; let stand until tepid. Remove skin from duck; discard. Cut duck legs in half through the joint. Return duck to lamb mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning, if desired.

5. Increase oven temperature to 375°.

6. Stir 2 cans of beans into lamb mixture. Add bacon, sausage, and duck; top mixture with remaining 2 cans of beans. Sprinkle breadcrumbs evenly over top. Cover and cook 1 hour and 10 minutes. Uncover and cook an additional 20 minutes or until browned and bubbly.

Wine note: Traditionally, a rustic red from the south of France—a wine with the requisite meatiness and earthiness to mirror the duck and beans—is served with cassoulet. The Cooking Light recipe editor Karen MacNeil loves the Perrin & Fils Gigondas "La Gille" 2005 (Gigondas, France), $28, which is seductively earthy and has wonderful flavors of cherry jam.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hey Cupcake!

If there is anything that can make a cupcake taste even better, it's ordering it from the window of an airstream trailer, then eating it curbside on South Congress (in Austin), all while watching the hip, beautiful people walk by. Mmmmm, mmmmmmm, it's good.

We purchased two cupcakes the last time we were in Austin - a chocolate cupcake with pink butter cream frosting, and a red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting (using the buy one get one free coupon). Both were everything a cupcake should be - moist, sweet, cakey, and precariously balancing a hefty tophat of frosting. Plus, for a small fee, the friendly server injected my cupcake with a substantial squirt of real whipped cream. Hostess cupcakes, you are put to shame!

I am infatuated with this trailer food movement. Austin boasts several airstream trailer eateries that I adore, including a creperie and a snow cone stand. The best part of the airstream setup in each instance is the simplicity of the location. I can't sugarcoat this, Hey Cupcake! inhabits what otherwise is just a dirt lot on the corner of a busy street. At night and after the close of business, the place looks more like the illicit camp of squatting hillbillies than a reputable dining establishment. But during the daylight, the long line stretching around the lot overshadow the ambiance of the local and hint at the delicacies within. The atmosphere is casual, just order your cupcake and squat on the curb for a quick indulgence.

And thanks to the wonder of email marketing, I just got word that Hey Cupcake! is pre-ordering Valentine's Day sweets. You can be my valentine if you bring me a red velvet with cream cheese frosting and sprinkles (but you will never be as sweet as my true Valentine, featured below as he fits an entire cupcake into his mouth).


Monday, February 2, 2009

Asymmetrical Folds Skirt: Pattern Review

Well, would you look at me? I FINALLY finished sewing another garment. This one was, for the most part, a piece of cake. I started the project over Christmas break when I had two weeks off from work, and I completed almost all of it on my own. However, the button holes proved tricky on my vintage machines and I had to wait and call in the assistance of the Alamo Stitchin' Post to put the finishing touches on it last weekend. But now this beauty is finished and ready for wearing. My parents are coming at the end of the month and I think I will take them out for a night on the town in this little green lovely. Don't forget to peak at the lining in the photos below.

Asymmetrical Folds Skirt: Pattern Review

Pattern Description:

The pattern comes from the inaugural issue of Stitch magazine, a new publication from Quilting Arts that is "A special issue devoted to the creative possibilities of sewing wearables, home d├ęcor, accessories, and gifts." The skirt is featured on the cover, and from page 39 in the magazine "Add a modern twist to the classic wrap skirt by working all the angles. Asymmetrical folds that button down the side, the shaped hem, and contrast lining guarantee you'll be a standout in any crowd."

In more descriptive words, the skirt is a take on the basic wrap with more decorative closure, including a four-buttons detail securing the outer wrap to the base of the skirt along the thigh. Each buttonhole is made near the edge of the skirt, through folds of doubled over fabric. Part of the lining thus shows with each fold, and the hem is raised asymmetrically into a gentle arc as a result of the doubling-up of layers on the edge. Think of the asymmetrical folds and buttons as large scale ruching, as they achieve a flattering gather and drape of fabric across the midsection.

Pattern Sizing:
The skirt comes in five sizes XS (26 3/4 inch waist) to XL (38 1/2 inch waist). I found the sizing to run very large, which almost never happens. I made a muslin and added several extra inches on each pattern piece to accommodate my wide waist (My own waist measurement is significantly greater than the pattern's XL). However I ended up taking off almost all of the additional inches to keep the seams in line with my hips and the wrap closure where it should on the outer thigh. I think the pattern runs very big. I recommend at least doing a rough guess tissue fitting to measure your size before you cut fabric.

Did it look like the photo/drawing on the pattern envelope once you were done sewing it?
Absolutely. Down to the last stitch.

Were the instructions easy to follow?
The skirt is simple, as were the instructions. The most difficult part of the instructions is tracing the skirt pattern from the enclosed multi-pattern insert. This was my first time tracing a pattern from a magazine insert, and holy moly, finding the appropriate markings on the insert felt like brain surgery.

What did you particularly like or dislike about the pattern?
Likes: I just love the drape and style of the skirt. The pretty Grecian-style drapes along the mid section camouflage a poochy, and the asymmetry creates a nice visual line down to the calf. The cut is flattering for all shapes and sizes. I like that the pattern was a piece of cake to cut and sew, with only three major elements plus facings. I lined my entire skirt in a rose print, rather than only adding facings, so I also love having the secret pleasure of a pretty lining peaking through. What fun!

Dislikes:
I hated tracing the pattern from the magazine foldout, but luckily a simple A-line wrap uses very few pieces and is a simple shape. Even with the pain of tracing, I adore the fact that the pattern came with the magazine at such a responsible price, so I can't complain too much.

Fabric Used:
I strayed into synthetics for this project, something I almost never do, but I loved the color, pattern, and texture of my materials. The outside of the skirt is a deep green polyester velvet. The inside is a synthetic "silky" bold rose print that is less slippery than rayon or silk, but still very soft for a lining.

This was my first time working with either material, and the velvet proved challenging 1) because it slipped everywhere as I sewed, so I had to pin baste the heck out of it to keep a 1/2 seam allowance from slipping to a 1/16 seam allowance, 2) because it also made a very thick base for buttonholes when doubled over in the folds (see closeup photo). I actually had to take my skirt to a local shop to have the buttonholes made on a brand new Husqvarna Viking machine. Even then it took several hours of practice to find a machine that could stitch through the thick, slippery folds. Nonetheless, I have been craving a velvet skirt and I am pleased with the final product.

Pattern Alterations or any design changes you made:
An important heads up – the pattern pieces for the skirt facing and interfacing are shorter than the actual skirt, but they should be the same. Make sure you measure and make adjustments before cutting out the facing pieces. A formal correction is available on the Stitch website at http://quiltingarts.com/stitch/corrections/winter08.html.

With that said, I lined the entire skirt rather than only lining the facing area. I liked the rose print silky fabric so much, and wanted to keep the entire skirt very formal. Velvet and synthetic "silk" have so much drape that I feared the lining would flop about if not anchored to the entire skirt, so I opted for full lining. Plus, it is just so lavish and fun to have a skirt with an inside that looks as beautiful as the outside. Now I don't mind if my wrap flies up a bit or slides apart a bit as I walk or sit, in fact I welcome a bit of the lining to show more!

As mentioned in the sizing section, I also attempted to size up the skirt to meet my measurements by adding a few inches to each piece, but found it too big, so I sized back down to the XL as designed. The XL ended up fitting perfectly.

Would you sew it again? Would you recommend it to others?
Yes, and I had better sew it again. I spent at least five hours tracing the pattern from the magazine insert, resizing, adjusting, sewing the muslin, and retracing the final pattern. The actual skirt only took about an hour and a half to sew, including hemming (not including the button holes, but that a whole other story). In order to make my efforts worth the time, I BETTER sew it again!

I actually look forward to sewing this in a crisper cotton with a solid facing or lining. The cover of Stitch magazine features a grey cotton/silk blend skirt with bright yellow facing, and the color just pops. It is beautiful. This skirt needs a bold lining to highlight the design details. I am wondering if a pattern would also be fun. I have some Alexander Henry yellow and green bird fabric I have been itching to use, so it might become my new summer wrap.

Conclusion:
This is a fun and simple skirt with more personality than your average wrap. I think it works for work, dress up, and play depending on fabric. Best yet, it is a great project for beginners that offers more style than the average beginner project.


Photos courtesy of my wonderful husband. He knows how to make me look good. :) Thanks Sam!