“Go to your freezer. How much and what kind of fish and game do you have left in there from the previous summer and fall getting freezer burn? Write it down and subtract it as penance from your bag limit this summer and fall.” – Jim Harrison, Sports Afield, 1994
Subtly shortening days are a nice reminder that relief from this summer heat will be here soon enough. But there is plenty to busy yourself with right now: rewax your vests and jackets, clean and organize your gear, and plan trips for this fall. Last season’s rewards can also still be enjoyed. To find out how, we connected with Chef Chris Hastings, noted outdoorsman, James Beard Award recipient, and proprietor of Birmingham’s Hot & Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird restaurants.
“There’s no better time to enjoy the game in your freezer than right now. And a great way to combine all of those flavors is in a cassoulet.” A classic dish originating in Southwest France, cassoulets are typically a slow-cooked bean stew that combines sausage with confit of duck. Drawing on rich layers of flavor from the meat, white beans, briney stock, and herby bread crumbs, Chef Hastings’ cassoulet will bring memories of your hunts roaring back. “My recipe calls for quail, but this dish is a great catchall for many cuts of meat: bone-in chicken, pork, sausages of all varieties, and of course, game.”
Cassoulets are typically thought of as an autumn or winter meal, but the preparation lends itself to ingredients that are in season right now in late summer: “It’s a great time to substitute white beans with fresh field peas. You can also brighten your cassoulet with the acid from fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes. And the herbs from your garden should be in their prime.”
Below is Chef Hasting’s recipe from The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook, A Celebration of Food, Family & Traditions with a few modifications and updates. Enjoy!
Wild Game Cassoulet
This cassoulet combines a spicy ham hock broth, braised white beans, and duck confit, all of which can be made well in advance.
Chef Hastings’ Note: The confit process is an age-old preservation method that predates refrigeration. The method involves salting and curing the meat through a long, slow, thorough cooking in its own rendered fat and then storing the meat in fat to keep it from oxidizing.
This recipe is the perfect use of wild duck leg and thigh quarters. Too many hunters keep the breast and discard the best part of the animal. The leg and thigh are filled with a deep, rich flavor that a confit helps sing.
4 (8-ounce) duck leg quarters (thigh and drumstick attached)
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 large garlic cloves, smashed and unpeeled
6 fresh thyme sprigs
1 (5-inch) fresh rosemary sprig
4 cups rendered (melted) duck fat
Season the duck legs liberally on all sides with kosher salt. Place the duck legs in a container in an even layer, cover, and refrigerate for 1.5 hours.
Preheat oven to 250˚F.
Rinse the seasoned duck legs under cold, running water, wiping off as much of the salt as possible. Pat the legs dry with paper towels. Arrange the duck legs, garlic, thyme, and rosemary in a 6-quart saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Cover the mixture with the duck fat and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once the fat begins to simmer, cover the saucepan and place in the oven. Braise the legs for 2-2.25 hours or until the meat is meltingly tender. At this point, the duck confit can be used immediately or cooled and stored as described below.
Carefully transfer the legs and the liquid fat to a clean container and cool in an ice water bath, stirring occasionally. Remove the garlic, thyme, and rosemary from the braising liquid and store the duck legs covered in the fat in the refrigerator for use as needed. Duck confit will keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks (as long as it’s stored covered in the braising fat). To reheat and serve as a standalone dish, crisp in a lightly oiled pan.
Serves approximately four.
Spicy Ham Hock Broth
Chef Hastings’ Note: We cure our own ham hocks in our restaurants. They are meaty and flavorful. And the cure we use tends to lend a salty quality to the hocks, so this broth recipe doesn’t contain any added salt. If you’re using store bought ham hocks, the broth may need to be reduced for extra flavor and there won’t be as much meat to pull off of the bones. Taste the broth and adjust for seasoning after it’s been strained.
2 tablespoons peanut oil
3 smoked ham hocks, about 3 1/4 pounds
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered
2 small celery stalks, chopped (3/4 cup)
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped (3/4 cup)
4 Roma tomatoes, quartered and chopped (3 cups)
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
6 black peppercorns
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 dried Arbol chili, broken in half
12 cups water
Place the oil in a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium heat. Add the ham hocks and cook until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Add the remaining ingredients and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and allow the hocks to boil gently until the liquid has reduced by half, about 2 hours. Skim any fat that rises to the top off of the broth while simmering.
Once the mixture has reduced, remove the ham hocks and set aside to cool. Pick the meat off the ham hock bones and reserve the meat for another use. Strain the broth through a fine-meshed strainer and use immediately or chill until ready to use. The broth will keep refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. Makes about six cups.
Braised White Beans
Chef Hastings’ Note: This recipe calls for Great Northern beans, but any white bean will work. In summer, swap white beans for fresh field peas for a wonderful, seasonal dish straight from the farmers’ market. We routinely use Mayocoba (Peruvian) beans in our restaurants. They are larger in size, with a thin skin and meaty interior that holds its shape and absorbs flavors well. Find them online or in your local Hispanic grocery store.
1 cup dried Great Northern bean
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1/2 pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups Spicy Ham Hock Broth
1 smoked ham hock
2 slices thick-cut apple-smoked bacon, roughly diced
1 bay leaf
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
6 fresh thyme sprigs
11/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
Place beans in a medium pot and add enough water to cover the top of the beans. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, cover, and turn off the heat. Allow the beans to steep for 10 minutes. Uncover, drain the beans, and rinse well under cold running water. Set the beans aside to cool slightly.
Heat the peanut oil in a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium heat. Add the pork shoulder cubes and cook until all of the sides are well browned, about 8 minutes. Add the blanched beans and the remaining ingredients (ham hock broth through onion) to the Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer the beans until tender, stirring occasionally, about 1.5 hours. The beans will still have a significant amount of liquid when cooked.
Remove the bean mixture from the heat. Remove ham hocks and set aside until cool enough to touch. Pull the meat off the ham hocks and discard bones. Return ham hock meat to the beans. Shred the pork shoulder cubes in the beans. Remove and discard the bay leaf and thyme. The beans can be served warm or cooled and stored covered in their broth in the refrigerator for up to four days. Makes about 6 cups.
Herbed Bread Crumbs
Chef Hastings’ Note: We use fresh bread for our crumbs instead of the commonly used day-old bread. The added moisture in fresh bread crumbs stands up better during the long bake time of cassoulet.
1 (8-ounce) fresh French baguette, torn into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1½ teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon minced garlic
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
Place bread in a food processor and pulse until bread is a uniform crumb consistency; transfer crumbs to a large mixing bowl. Add the herbs, zest, and spices, then mix well. Drizzle melted butter over the crumbs and toss to evenly coat. Use immediately or refrigerate until ready to use. Makes about 6.5 cups.
Wild Game Cassoulet
Chef Hastings’ Notes: This recipe calls for quail, but any game bird will do—pheasant, grouse, chukar, wild turkey. Bring them all on. Add smoked venison sausage to make a complete field-to-table dish.
If you have whole quail instead of the halved pieces called for in this recipe, they make a wonderful addition. Simply dry-age the quail in your refrigerator, then season their cavities liberally with thyme and broil them for a few minutes before serving atop the cassoulet.
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 cups roughly chopped yellow onions
3 cups halved and roughly chopped leeks (white part only)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, divided
2 cups peeled and roughly chopped carrots
1 ¼ cups chopped celery
2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
4 (6-ounce) semi-boneless quail, halved
8 cups Braised White Beans
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¾ - pound smoked sausage, cut into eight 2-inch pieces
1 ½ cups cooked and picked ham hock meat
6 Duck Confit drumsticks or thighs
4 cups Herbed Bread Crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the butter, onions, and leeks and sauté for 5 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of the thyme, carrots, and celery and sauté for 5 more minutes. Season the vegetables with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Remove the vegetables from the heat and cool slightly.
Add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil to a large skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Season both sides of the quail with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Add the quail to the hot oil and brown on each side for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool slightly.
Combine the braised white beans and the sautéed vegetables in a large bowl. Add the remaining teaspoon of the chopped thyme, the sage, parsley and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and mix well.
Arrange 1/2 of the bean mixture in the bottom of a large (12-inch) cast iron skillet. Divide the browned quail meat, sausage, ham hock meat, and duck confit into six equal portions. Arrange the portions evenly over the braised beans in the skillet. Top with the remaining bean mixture. Sprinkle the herbed bread crumbs evenly over the bean mixture.
Bake the cassoulet at 350ºF for 45 to 50 minutes or until the bread crumbs are browned and the cassoulet is heated through and bubbly. Serves 6 to 8.