What was your most memorable food experience of 2014? That's a tough question, right? It is for me anyway. Here in Atlanta, we have access to some of the most amazing chefs and restaurants in the country, with influences from all around the world. Whatever you are craving, you will find it here, somewhere. But the most memorable dish from everything I had the pleasure of tasting this past year? How will I ever choose?!
Chef Kevin Gillespie's "Closed-on-Sunday" chicken sandwich (his heavenly version of the classic Chick-fil-A sandwich) sure did strike my fancy. Or was it the whole roasted fish with olives I devoured at St. Cecilia? (All that remained was a perfectly picked fish skeleton.) Ooooh, and that fried shrimp Po-Boy, dripping with fresh remoulade and crispy pickles from The Crawfish Shack was pretty spectacular, too. And you, Kimball House, I am in love with everything you stand for. Your fresh oyster selection and cocktails are superior and my time with you was certainly memorable. Alas, none of these made the cut for my most memorable dish. But, more on this in a bit.
I thought it'd be fun to ask a few local chefs and foodies I admire to answer this same question. Let's see if they had as hard of a time as I did, shall we?
Ben Portman, Founder and Executive Chef at PorKman's Table
"The most memorable thing I've eaten this year was a line-caught Mahi Mahi we caught while on a boat in Costa Rica. We grilled it on the boat with mangos picked that day, a simple salsa, and of course, some Lizano sauce. Super fresh and simple always wins."
Jen Hidinger, Spokesperson for The Giving Kitchen
"My most memorable dish this year was at BoccaLupo. I was sitting at the bar by myself on a Friday night and ordered the large Penne with fresh corn, summer tomato, and fresh veggies. I literally didn't look away from the bowl until it was gone. Something about being alone and in deep thought about what I was eating, and the fact that it was so damn good, kept me very happy." –Photo courtesy of Catrina Maxwell of CatMax Photography.
"I have been lucky enough to visit many great food cities this year. Chicago, NYC, Nashville, and many more. I've had many memorable dishes there. But Atlanta is home. No food city compares. And home is where the heart, or good food always is. Every dish I eat in Atlanta is memorable to me. But one that stands out this year was Beef Rolls. There's a new Taiwanese place that my best friend always takes me to eat. It's called TJ House. Their Beef Rolls are amazing. You get this thin, crispy onion pancake roll filled with slices of tasty beef, pickles, cilantro and kimchi slaw. It has crunch and texture and flavors of sweet, salty, spicy, vinegary and savory. Simply delicious!"
"I'm kinda known for my fried chicken and I have eaten some of the best. There's something so appealing about taking a bird, brining it, drenching it in flour, and frying it. There's a primal universality to it. Karl Worley of the Biscuit Love food truck in Nashville makes the most amazing fried chicken. It's one of the top five best dishes I have ever eaten. Incredibly crisp, brined to perfection with a flawlessly balanced blend of spices...it's crave-worthy and to me the holy grail of fried chicken. Get in your car or grab a flight and get yourself to Nashville....you may find me there enjoying some "hot chicken" bliss."
Now that we're all starving, let's just keep going with that theme. As I was saying, I had a hard time deciding what made my belly truly at peace this past year. After many casual meals, fine dining experiences, and Buford Highway stops, what really hit my core was a delicious and comforting cassoulet made by my great friend, Rebecca. Rebecca is an ah-mazing cook, so it's no surprise she whipped up something so memorable. And as you may have expected, I'm going to tell you how she made it. In fact, I may or may not have asked her to make it again just for this blog post.
Now, this is no Fancy–Pants–I–Flew–to–France cassoulet, but Rebecca certainly strives for perfection here with authentic methods and ingredients. But let's get real here, people. Ain't nobody got time to make homemade duck confit. Rebecca may swap out a few things here and there, but no real meat lover could walk away from this bowl of heaven.
Before we get to the recipe, just look at all this gorgeous meat. Nomnomnom. You already know this dish is going to pack some serious flavor.
Here's some other stuff you'll need. Now I'm not going to go all Pioneer Woman on you and show you 32 images. Like I said earlier. Ain't nobody got time for that.
Here is Rebecca chopping onions and carrots. You know, in case no one knows what chopped up veggies look like. Wow, look at those knife skills. Wait, are you left-handed, Rebecca?
Hey, Santa, in case you're reading this, I'd like one of those giant Dutch ovens. Also in blue, please.
Okay, let's get started. Now this may say "quick," but you're still going to need a little time for this one. Plan ahead, grab a good friend (and maybe a glass of wine), and give this one a try.
Rebecca's "Quick" Cassoulet
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook time: 3 hours
1.5 pounds pancetta, whole
2 ham hocks
1 lb spicy pork sausage in casings, cut into thirds
2 lbs boneless pork spare ribs, cut into one inch pieces
4 duck leg quarters
7 ounces duck fat, at room temperature (Rebecca found this at The Fresh Market)
12 ounces can of whole plum tomatoes
1 pound dried cannellini beans
2 large carrots, diced
2 yellow onions, diced
15-20 garlic cloves, smashed
16 ounces enriched chicken stock
1.5 cup dry white wine
fresh thyme, 6 sprigs
fresh oregano, small handful
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4-6 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
1. Soak beans overnight. Drain.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large cast iron Dutch Oven (or large heavy-bottomed pot) over medium high heat. Once the oil is heated, add half of the chopped onion, half of the smashed garlic, and half of the diced carrots. Sauté until soft, about 8-10 minutes.
3. Add drained beans, ham hock, and pancetta to the pot with the vegetables. Add 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Barely cover pot contents with warm water. Cover with lid, leaving a little room for some steam to escape. Simmer 1 to 1.5 hours or until beans are soft.
4. After the beans are soft, let cool slightly and drain entire pot into a fine mesh colander. Remove the hunk of pancetta and ham hocks, and dice the meaty portions, omitting as much fat as possible. Reserve ham bones.
5. In the same pot used to for the beans, heat 2 more tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Add diced pancetta and sauté until lightly browned. Remove pancetta pieces with a slotted spoon and transfer to large plate. Lightly sprinkle pork shoulder pieces with salt and pepper and add to hot pan. Brown all sides of pork, then transfer to plate. Lightly salt and pepper duck quarters, browning all sides, then transfer to plate. Lastly, brown sausages and remove from pan. (It may be necessary to add a little more olive oil when browning meats).
6. Heat oven to 300 degrees.
7. Add a smidge more olive oil to the pot used to brown the meat, heating over medium high heat. Sauté the remaining onion, garlic and carrots until soft. Add tomato paste and stir for two minutes. Add white wine and reduce by half, scraping brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add tomatoes and their juices, breaking the tomatoes apart with the back of a spoon. Add all of the meats, beans, chicken stock, duck fat, and remaining vegetables, layering as you go. Toss in bay leaves, 3-4 sprigs of thyme, and a small handful of fresh oregano (no need to chop.) Return the ham bones to the pot and give it all a stir.
8. Cover and cook in 300 degree oven for 2-3 hours until meat is falling apart. Check halfway through cooking, adding more chicken stock if needed. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Pull the duck meat from its bones and return meat to pot. Discard bones, ham hocks, bay leaves, and thyme sprigs before serving.
Garnish with remaining thyme leaves. Serve with a light salad and crusty bread. #happybelly