Winter weather has settled into Melbourne, and although I am a Michigander who prides myself on being able to handle the cold, the chill in this town is dreadful. It's a damp cold that sticks with you all day; it's reminiscent of winter air in Ireland.
This comes as a shock to most people I talk to back in the states. It's easy to imagine Australia as a one big beachy coast where everyone spends their days swimming, drinking smoothies and cold beers, but the reality is we are very far south. In other words, our friends in Queensland may well be enjoying a morning surf and an açai bowl, but we are sitting much closer to Antarctica, freezing our butts off from June to August.
In my defense, I do not think I've lost my thick winter skin all together - in addition to the bone-chilling winds that come off the water, a lot of buildings are poorly heated, if heated at all. Many old homes (like Dave's folk's at the farm) are built with bluestone fires that are still essential for warming the house. When this is the case, there is not much else that will do but some full-bodied red wine, a hot casserole, and good company.
A favorite recipe for chilly evenings is cassoulet, a classic French dish which I've enjoyed many times on my travels through the south of France. Some friends and I made this version the other night, which is adapted from The Gaurdian's take on Elizabeth David's recipe. As far as winter meals go, this dish, which keeps heat radiating from the oven for hours, is simply perfect. It is also quite suitable for a summer supper; just allow the cassoulet to cool slightly and serve it outdoors with some Provence rosé.
800 grams dried haricot beans, soaked in water overnight
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 head garlic (unpeeled)
5 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 pork knuckle, skin on (or ham hock, but ideally unsmoked)
2 confit duck legs + duck fat
500 grams pork belly
4 Toulouse sausages
1 tablespoon sun-dried tomato paste or regular tomato paste
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
Add drained beans to a large dutch oven or heavy stockpot. Add enough fresh cold water until it covers the beans by about an inch. Add the onion halves, head of garlic, thyme, bay leaf and pork knuckle. Bring to a boil; reduce, cover and simmer until beans are tender, about 2 hours.
Meanwhile, add a heaping spoonful of duck fat to a large frying pan. Once melted, fry duck breasts, pork belly, and sausages, working in batches, until brown and crispy. Set aside to cool, reserving pan and cooking fat.
Remove onion and herbs from beans and discard. Remove pork knuckle and garlic; set aside to cool. Drain beans, reserving cooking liquid.
Strip meat from pork knuckle, discarding skin, and cut into large pieces, along with duck, pork belly and sausages.
In same dutch oven, heat another spoonful of duck fat over medium-low heat. Return beans to pan. Squeeze in garlic cloves. Add tomato paste, all meat, and enough of the cooking liquid from the beans to just cover everything; stir well to combine, and keep over low heat.
Meanwhile, in the frying pan with the meat fat over high heat, fry breadcrumbs until golden, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over cassoulet and transfer to oven to bake for 2 hours, uncovered. Serve immediately with crusty bread and a simple green salad.