As Minnesota fall progresses into late fall, which where I am from in Kentucky is basically winter, mushroom hunting wanes and wild game hunting reigns. To keep up with the seasons, I have pivoted my emphasis to wild foraged plants and mushrooms to wild harvested game. A good one to start with, for 2022, is a classic duck recipe from the hinterland of France: duck cassoulet. Peasants used to cook this meal (or something akin to it) at the end of the harvesting season or into winter when they needed a rich, meal that used foods they still had on hand: dried beans, root vegetables or dried mushrooms, cured meats, wild game. Quick caveat for this first post wild game post of 2022: these duck legs are store bought farm raised ducks, not wild harvested--but this recipe could easily be used with any harvested duck as well.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This recipe is not quick. Beans must be soaked over night. If you plan on serving this for supper in the evening, you need to get started on prepping ingredients and cooking over the stove by late morning. The pot will be cooking in and out of the oven all afternoon.
Serves four, with leftovers.
4 duck legs (or chicken legs and thighs, if no duck is available will work), salted and peppered (optional)
2 brats or sausage of whatever variety you prefer (preferably raw, but smoked will work too)
1 lb of pork belly, cubed
1 lb of mushrooms, either fresh or dried and rehydrated
1 lb bag of dried great northern beans or cannellini beans, soaked in a bowl overnight
1 large yellow onion finely diced
1 large carrot finely diced
1 stalk of celery finely diced
4 cloves of garlic smashed and minced
2 quarts of beef stock
Bay leaves, thyme, ground cloves, smoked paprika, fennel seeds
Italian breadcrumbs (optional)
A few packets of gelatin or about 3 oz of agar agar or xanthum gum
A nice crusty loaf to serve with
Step One: Brown the Duck Legs
Place large dutch oven over medium to high heat. Once pan is getting hot, position the duck legs, with the skin side down, into the pan. The skin should start crackling and popping and releasing lots of liquid gold (duck fat) into the pan. After about 6 or 7 minutes, or once a light golden brown, flip. Cook for a couple minutes on other side and set legs aside.
Step Two: Brown the Pork Belly
Drop the pork belly into the hot dutch oven and cook in the duck fat at bottom of pan. The pork will again release a lot of fat into the pan. Salt pork well as it is cooking. Keep cooking and stirring pork belly until it has golden crispy edging on all sides. Set aside. At this point, if there is a lot of fat in the pan, remove some and set aside for later. Make sure you leave behind a small amount, however.
Step Three: Brown the Brats
Place your brats or sausage into the pan. Cook on medium to low heat in the hot pan until the sausage is brown on as much surface area as possible. Set aside and slice into disks. If these are a little under cooked in the center, that's okay, as they will go back into the pot and cook for several more hours.
Step Four: Brown the Shrooms
If there's not much fat left in the pan, add some. Drop in mushrooms and season with salt, pepper and a pinch of thyme. Sautee the mushrooms until they reach a nice golden coloration on all sides and begin to get some crispness to their edges. Set mushrooms aside.
At this point, preheat oven to 300F.
Step Five: Lightly Saute the Veggies
Again, if necessary, add some more fat to the pan. Dump all the minced veggies into the pan. On low to medium heat, lightly saute until they begin to soften. Add some salt and pepper to the veggies as well as any other herbs or spices you might prefer. I recommend a 1/2 tsp of ground cloves, smoked paprika, and maybe a pinch of some fennel seeds. Once soft and beginning to turn a light golden on the edges, move on to step six.
Add beef stock to dutch oven. Strain beans (the ones that were soaking in water should be tender) and stir into the stock and veggies. Add pork belly, sausage slices and half the mushrooms, reserving half the mushrooms for putting on top of the cassoulet. Stir these ingredients all together. Add a few bay leaves. Finally, take a packet of gelatin (or agar agar or xanthum gum could work too) and sprinkle lightly over the entire top surface of the liquid in the pot forming a thin film over the stew. Put into the oven with the lid on the dutch oven.
At this point you are 90% of the way there in terms of effort. It's really just a matter of removing the stew from the oven every forty five minutes, gently pressing the skim on top of the stew down with the bottom of a spoon to allow more liquid on top, and sprinkling more gelatin or whatever substitute on the new liquid. This method builds up a thick crust.
Within about an hour of serving, if you want to add breadcrumbs to the crust on top, go for it. Next, sprinkle the mushrooms over the crust ideally placed such that they are exposed to the open hot air in the oven (not underneath a duck thigh). Last, gently place each of the four duck legs over the stew. Turn oven temp down to 250F, then without waiting for the oven to cool, put the stew back in the oven (no lid) and cook for another 45 minutes. Pull stew out and check temperature on the duck legs. You want 165F in the thickest part. If there and you have that crispy crust on top of the stew as well as crispy duck legs, you're ready to serve! Pull out of the oven and let rest for a few minutes uncovered.
Serve in large pasta bowls with a hunk of bread torn from a nice crusty loaf on the side. Enjoy!