The idea of a secret ingredient is a funny one. I think it’s based on a modern American notion of shortcuts; the idea that instead of working hard to be successful, you can win the lottery or appear on a reality show or read the Cliff’s Notes and still pass your A.P. English exam (I did that actually: sorry, Hester Prynne). This American obsession with getting everywhere as quickly as possible, to FastPass your way to accomplishment, doesn’t translate well to cooking. Which is why, I think, so many Americans don’t cook. They’d rather fast food it, or frozen dinner it, than stand over a stove. And when they do stand over the stove, they want “quick tips” and “30 minute meals” and the magical, secret ingredient that’ll propel their dinner to greatness. But the truth is no one ingredient can propel your dinner to greatness; greatness comes with patience and practice, over time.
– We were at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (see here) and, as stated in that post, we were on our last day of shooting, at the Mario Batali Jamie Oliver dinner at Danny Devito’s restaurant. My director and I, exhausted from all the interviews we’d done, decided we’d just enjoy this dinner and not make it a “work” event. But then, at the end of the meal, I said: “Let’s just go into the kitchen to make sure we’re not missing anyone” and so he obliged, pushing through the throngs of people (it was a madhouse in there) and once in the kitchen, who should we find but Mario, Jamie, Giada DiLaurentis, Dave Pasternack and, of course, Sir Anthony Bourdain. Earlier on the trip, I’d reached out to Bourdain for an interview and he’d kindly refused and so, respecting that, I kept him out of things when we shot this video with Mario and Jamie. After that, I said to him: “See, I respected your desire not to do this show” and he said, “I appreciate that.” It was my director Matthew, though, who said: “Just so you know, we wanted you to come on our show and bash the Food Network… we wanted you to say whatever it is you had to say.” At that Bourdain smiled and said, “All right, let’s go” putting his arm around me and assenting to the interview you saw linked to in the post below.
– As for the bleeped bits, I’m happy to share (and this is from the extended video, which you should watch to see the whole thing in its entirety):
* on Next Food Network star: “it’s sort of like watching German anal porn, I can’t turn away… it’s horrifying, but I’m learning something about Germany while I’m watching it.”
* on Sandra Lee: “She should be taken to Guantanamo and waterboarded.”
* any final words: “Watch Travel Channel…it’s so much better than Food Network.”
[The bleeping makes it seem worse than it is–well except for that Guantanamo bit–but those were the parts the higher-ups took exception to.]
As for my own take on Food Network (in case you’re interested), I think it’s important to keep things in perspective. I’m a perfect example of someone who knew nothing about food, who grew up eating processed foods–jarred tomato sauces, TGI Friday’s dinners, frozen pizzas–who only thought to care about cooking as Food Network became popular. Really, it was a confluence of being a miserable law student and finding Food Network shows calming and comforting. True, the shows that won me over were shows that Bourdain would champion–Mario’s and Sarah Moulton’s–but what those shows were, really, were gateways into the food world. It’s not like anyone watching endless cycles of Food TV will suddenly become cultured and cultivated–even watching Bourdain’s show, you won’t suddenly become worldly and wise–it’s just an impetus to go out and learn more. The only real way to learn how to cook is to start cooking. That’s it. Standing in your kitchen, burning your roast beef and scorching your sauce, you are acquiring more knowledge than a year’s worth of even the greatest cooking shows can provide. The key is to get people cooking. Does Food Network do that? Yes, I’m pretty sure it does. And when some of those people who make Rachael Ray 30 minute meals start to say, “You know what? This is getting boring. I want to make something more complex and rewarding, something intricate and historical and important that takes more than 30 minutes” they can crack open Julia Child and make a cassoulet (as I did here). Thought of as a gateway to bigger and better things, Food Network is fine. And sometimes, as Bourdain points out, it’s better than fine: Barefoot Contessa recipes are often the best of their kind and I think Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef America, Good Eats, Nigella Bites, Next Food Network Star, and Tyler’s Ultimate are all excellent shows. Those are my two cents, take them as you will.
When Anthony Bourdain cooks with Michael Ruhlman on the Cleveland episode of “No Reservations,” he layers meat and beans together in a giant drum, tops the whole thing off with breadcrumbs and produces a dish most of us aren’t used to seeing on Food TV (and I say that as someone who now works for Food TV): a classic French cassoulet that’d put Julia Child to shame.
Cassoulet is a dish that just makes sense. Why does it make sense? You take fatty, flavorful meat, put it in a big pot with moisture-hungry beans and bake the whole thing until the beans are infused with all that fat and flavor and the meat is cooked. It’s not meant to be a fancy dish–this is the kind of food French people make at home–and it’s infinitely variable, as evidenced by the infinite cassoulet recipes you will find in my infinite cookbook collection, recipes that vary the type of meat, the type of bean, even the amount of time it takes to make the dish (Bourdain’s recipe, in his “Les Halles Cookbook,” calls for three days). I didn’t have three days to spare on Friday night when I set out to make my very first cassoulet. So I turned to an under-praised, underused book in my collection: Daniel Boulud’s “Daniel’s Dish: Entertaining at Home with a Four-Star Chef”.
It’s a great recipe for its simplicity (it’s called “Casual Cassoulet”) and yet the recipe has a serious flaw: it’s meant to be cooked in a 15-Qt Dutch Oven. I completely missed that part when I shopped for my ingredients, so I prepped enough food for a pot 3X bigger than the one I had. Therefore, the recipe that follows is my adaptation of Daniel’s recipe for Dutch Ovens of a more realistic size. Daniel’s recipe calls for lamb shoulder, but I left that out too: sausage + duck + bacon = plenty of meat for one dish, thank you very much.
Since winter’s almost over, this is the perfect dish to make on one of our last cold winter’s nights. I promise it’s easy and I promise the pay-off is big. And so, without further ado, Cassoulet in 10 Easy Steps.