dsc04092 from The Cooking of Southwest France, pp. 286-87.

For reasons I have yet to understand, I have only warmed up to Paula Wolfert’s cookbooks recently. Hers and Claudia Rodin’s recipes have always been interesting to read but not exciting enough to make. Now that the quality of the meat I buy is incomparably better than the meat I bought when I first started reading their books, I’m beginning to get the point. And it should have been obvious all along. Everything depends on the quality of the ingredients. A recipe that calls for few ingredients places a great burden on the quality of the provisions and the execution of the steps involved.

Wolfert’s exploration of southwest France, a region I’m particularly fond of, struck me yesterday as the perfect response to the climate outside. The weather continues to be drab, dank, and cold. This bean stew will warm up the house. I made the stew over the course of the day and invited some friends over to share it and some wine. A salad was all that was additionally necessary. By the end of the meal, we agreed that this one is a keeper.

For those who stop reading when they reach an ingredient they know they’ll never find, let me warn you that the recipe calls for goose or duck fat or, alternatively, pork fat. Bacon, in other words, would work just fine. But, really, get a hold of some goose fat. It keeps a really long time once it’s opened. Just shove to the back of your fridge and save it for omelets and recipes like this one.

Paula’s steps seemed a little convoluted, but I think I understand why she’s designed it thus.

Here’s her original…

Begin 1 day in advance.

2 cups small red beans or red kidney beans

1 cup full-bodied red wine, such as Côtes-du-Rhône

1 large onions, halved and stuck with 2 cloves, plus 1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 cinnamon stick

1 large carrot, chopped, plus 1/2 pound carrots, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

2 Tbsp rendered goose, duck, or pork fat

1 lb boneless pork butt or shoulder, cut into 4 or 5 pieces

1/4 lb pancetta

5 peeled garlic cloves: 4 left whole and 1 finely chopped

4 sprigs of parsley plus 1 Tblsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 imported bay leaf

1/4 tsp thyme leaves

2 Tblsp butter

Pinch of sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 Tblsp Armagnac or brandy

1 Tblsp walnut or olive oil

1 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar

1. A day in advance, place the beans in a colander and rinse well under cold running water. Drain the beans and place in a large bowl. Add water to cover by at least 2 inches and let soak overnight.

2. Early the following day, rinse and drain the beans. Place them in a 5-quart flameproof earthenware or enameled cast-iron casserole with the wine and enough water to cover by 1 inch.

3. When the beans reach the boil, skim thoroughly; add the onion stuck with cloves and the cinnamon stick. Reduce the heat and simmer while preparing the vegetables and pork in Steps 5 and 6.

4. In a large skillet, brown the chopped carrots and onions in the fat over moderately high heat, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the pieces of pork and sauté, turning, until browned on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the contents of the skillet to the beans.

5. In a food processor, combine the pancetta with 4 cloves of the garlic, the parsley sprigs, bay leaf, and thyme. Gring to a puree. Add to the casserole.

6. Cook the beans, covered, over very low heat or in a preheated 275 F oven for 2 1/2 hours. After 2 1/2 hours, uncover the beans and cook until the liquid is thick, about 1 1/2 hours.

7. Meanwhile, in a heavy medium saucepan, cook the sliced carrots with 1 tablespoon of the butter, covered, over moderately low heat for 5 minutes. Uncover, add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, and swirl over moderately high heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the carrots take on a little color. Sprinkle with a pince of sugar. Mix the carrots into the beans in the casserole. Season with salt and pepper. (The recipe can be prepared to this point at least 4 hours in advance.)

8. About 1 hour before serving, preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake the beans uncovered until the tops glaze slightly, 20 to 25 minutes. Gently stir from bottom to top to keep the surface moist. Bake until a light crust forms on the surface, about 30 minutes.

9. Sprinkle the Armagnac on top and let stand until ready to serve. Serve hot, with a light sprinkling of the walnut oil and vinegar and a dusting of the chopped parsley and garlic.

Note to the cook: To avoid drying out and breaking the beans, be sure that they are always covered with the cooking liquid or enrobed in the sauce. If necessary, add boiling water. Cooking beans in wine keeps them from turning mushy. They need longer cooking but are able to absorb more flavor.

Now, when I went to make it, I did it like this…

The red beans I bought and was in the end happy with were described in my food co-op as “red chili beans.” They’re smaller than kidney beans.

Paula makes a point of bringing the beans to a slow boil before adding the clove-studded onion and cinnamon. She doesn’t explain why, but it’s the reasons Thomas Keller gives for bringing chicken slowly to a boil before adding the aromatics in his chicken broth recipe. If the water comes to a boil too quickly, too much of the scum from the beans will fold right back into the water. So, the more you skim off the scum, the cleaner the taste of the beans will be. And it’s a lot easier skimming off scum without floating bits of onion and carrot than with. So, make a point of skimming well.

In Step 4, Paula directs me to sauté the onions and carrots first in the fat and then add the pork to it. I wasn’t happy with this. Browning the meat with the already sauteed vegetables was a recipe for burned vegetables. Since she calls for 2 tablespoons of fat, I’d divide it up and sauté the vegetables in one tablespoon, toss them in the beans, and then brown the pork in the second tablespoon. Then add the pork to the beans.

The puree of pancetta, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf in Step 5 turned out to be the usual fine mince that food processors produce, not a puree. Before I pulsed, I wondered if the fat in the pancetta would turn it at least into a paste, but nope. Just a really fine mince. No matter. Into the beans and pork it went.

Steps 6 and 7 went according to plan.

I’m not sure I understand the rationale for Step 8, because I already had a pretty nice glaze over the surface of the stew.

I must confess that in the flurry of activity surrounding preparing the table I forgot Step 9. But when I reheat the beans tomorrow for dinner, I’ll add a touch of red vinegar, a splash of brandy, and a sprinkle of walnut oil. I can’t believe I forgot Step 9.

The next time I make this…

I’m going to remember Step 9! This stew was absolutely luscious, deep in flavor (the goose fat!), tender to the nth degree.

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