Real Entertaining: A holiday feast with a layered approach

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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I suggested a lovely roast goose as the centerpiece for a stunning holiday dinner for six, with an even more impressive 25-layer dessert. But the powers that be had something else in mind.

"You remember that cassoulet with duck confit and lentils you made during inauguration weekend?" they asked.

Vague thoughts ran through my mind. I knew there had been sausage in it; braised lamb, too. Duck confit, obviously. I guess lentils were in it; they said as much. But there was something else in there. It was something Indian. But what?

"Of course. I remember it perfectly," I answered.

"Great! That'll be your December column."

Uh-oh.

The Larousse Gastronomique, the bible of French cookery, defines cassoulet as a dish traditionally composed of navy beans cooked in a glazed earthenware pot (cassole) with pork rinds, a garnish of meats that vary from region to region and a gratin topping of buttery bread crumbs. Thanks to Julia Child, it is generally thought to include garlic sausage, braised lamb, and duck or goose braised in clarified fat, its skin rendered and crisped (confit).

In other words, it's a bean stew with higher aspirations, more casual than a roast goose yet still suitably impressive for a holiday gathering of good friends. It works for New Year's Eve, New Year's Day or any cold-weather special occasion.

The emphasis is on special, because in this case, casual does not translate into fast and easy. Cassoulet is a sum of parts prepared separately and then brought together, if done well, harmoniously. Not surprisingly, its execution involves more than a few steps.

On the upside, most of the work can be done at least a day or two in advance. Buying prepared confit simplifies things, but making it yourself is not such a big deal. The legs can be braised and stored, submerged in the cooking fat, at least a week in advance.

The cassoulet I made was an interpretation of the traditional version. Remembering nearly a year later how I'd put it together posed a dilemma. I had to retrace my steps.

On the Thursday afternoon before inauguration weekend last January, The Post's Food editor asked if I wouldn't mind hosting a small Saturday dinner party for Charlestonian Nathalie Dupree, the disarmingly charming grande dame of Southern cooking, and her husband, author Jack Bass.


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