Confusion at the Farmer's Market

henry june12 farmersmarket post.jpg

Photo by clatiek/Flickr CC

The flight from Buenos Aires to Washington, if you're lucky enough to get on one of the non-stops, takes about ten hours, and is always a red-eye, meaning you arrive in town around 7 a.m.

While some would go home and head straight to bed (I know my wife did), I saw myself with a unique opportunity: the farmer's market at Dupont Circle would be opening in a few hours, and since I rarely find myself awake this early on a Sunday, I could actually be there when the opening bell rings at 9 am, first in line.

When I did arrive, it was all a little bewildering, never mind the jet lag: here, some prized ramps, over there, softshell crabs. I sampled cheeses, breads, some hot-house tomatoes (I'll wait for the real deal in August, thanks), and vibrant microgreens. I admired the fresh-cut flowers, the breads from Bonaparte that were already drawing a crowd well before opening; I eyed the turnips, radishes and fresh garlic. I hadn't been to a proper farmers market in Argentina --the city really only has one, and produce is not its strong point (but it's still worth experiencing, which I'll be writing about later.)

I keep forgetting that what separates many of the chefs from the amateurs is the ability to see in the options at the market which three or four ingredients will really go together.

I've long thought that it's hard to screw up the market-to-table approach. If you take well-made and well-sourced, local, seasonal ingredients, it isn't difficult to make great food. But I also keep forgetting that what separates many of the chefs from the amateurs is the ability to see in the numerous options at the market what three or four ingredients will really go together. There's a certain talent there, and I envy it.

So I was a bit relieved when amid this indecision I passed by Eco Friendly Foods and saw one of my favorite ingredients to work with, the forgiving pork belly. Then I thought back to the ramps. And then I saw a nice little cut of osso bucco. And it was decided: I will make one of my favorite dishes, Bastard's Cassoulet.

I call it Bastard's Cassoulet because I make my cassoulet the completely wrong way, at least by traditional standards. That is, I don't bother with the "seven hours plus two days soaking and resting" way of making cassoulet that has been the standard since the 14th century. I cook nearly all the ingredients separately, then add them together right at the end. Also, unlike one of my heroes, Frank Ruta, I don't really measure when cooking, so keep in mind that the recipe below is more of an outline open to interpretation and experimentation.

Here's the recipe I went with that week, but it's perfectly malleable. The basic components are: beans, braised meats, stock, cider, plenty of onion and shallots, and sausages (mirepoix is also nice).

Recipe: Bastard's Cassoulet

• Some dry beans, soaked overnight and then cooked (Navy and Great Northerns are good, I like to use at least two different varieties)
    • Lots of carmelized onions and shallots
    • Cider-braised pork belly (Or Osso Bucco, or Duck Confit, or all of the above); reserve the braising liquid
    • A variety of sausages, sauteed (some with some heat, others with more herbs or spices; duck sausage is especially good, and if you want some smokiness add smoked duck or some other smoker meat)--deglaze the pan with some cider or white vermouth and reserve
    • Apple Cider
    • Plenty of fresh thyme

Take all of your cooked ingredients and add them together. Add the reserved braising liquid (strain the fat), sausage drippings, marrow and fresh thyme and cook about ten minutes or so on medium-low heat.

With a good crusty bread (I prefer the recipe here), you have the perfect dish for a cold day come the fall.