Prunes that have soaked in Armagnac for six months, minimum. The blood of a freshly killed hare. Nine pounds of fresh fava beans, husked and peeled. A 6-inch-thick bed of pine needles. One dish alone -- a cassoulet -- required trips to two gourmet shops, three butchers, a farmers market and a produce wholesaler. It put 72.5 miles on my car and cost $91.13. Another dish -- salt-cured pork belly with fresh fava bean ragout -- took four days to prepare. Welcome to cooking with Paula Wolfert, which is about as far from “30 Minutes With Rachael Ray” as you can get. But once you’ve experienced it, there’s no going back.
When the revised edition of Wolfert’s 1983 classic “The Cooking of Southwest France” (John Wiley & Sons, $37.50) came out two months ago, I couldn’t wait to start cooking.
I began with eclade de moules, a legendary dish from the Charentes region of France, along the Bay of Biscay. Traditionally, it’s made by packing mussels tightly onto a wooden plank laid out on the ground of a handy forest clearing, covering them with half a foot of pine needles and lighting the needles on fire. When the flames die down, the ashes are brushed away and the mussels eaten with “ash-blackened fingertips.”
Trying this at home seemed problematic, particularly since I live in a downtown loft, not in a pine forest.
But Wolfert’s resourcefulness is catching.
It was just past Christmas. I had a gently desiccating, untreated pine tree within feet of my kitchen. So I wedged the mussels into a cast-iron pot per Wolfert’s instructions, got out my handsaw and began pruning. By the time I’d hacked up my whole tree, I was having so much fun I almost forgot why I was deforesting my living room. I had piles of pine needles, more than enough to fill the pot on my stove. I steamed the mussels as the ornaments rolled unmoored across the floor.
The dish was more medicinal than I’d hoped -- clearly not the sublime evocation of the forests of Charentes that Wolfert had described. Perhaps it was because in her indoor method the pine needles are steamed rather than torched. I’ll try this again next year, but outside, on my Weber grill. That way I can ignite those needles.
Exotic becomes familiar
TWENTY-THREE years ago, when Wolfert published the first edition of the book, few people outside of that region had heard of -- much less tasted or cooked -- things like cassoulet and garbure. The ingredients she listed in the introduction (duck confit, cepes, black truffles, foie gras) seemed terribly exotic. They still seem exotic, of course, but we’re more accustomed to them now; then, they seemed almost magical.
Eating Wolfert’s food was magical too -- as was being shown how to cook it at home. But finding the ingredients? Unless your best friend spent her summers on a farm in Dordogne shacked up with a customs official, forget about it. And even if you got your hands on the Bayonne ham and verjus, it could take days -- days! -- to make a single dish from one of Wolfert’s recipes. And those were the easy ones.
Thus began the Cult of Paula, a secret handshake society for extreme cooks. These were not your weekend gourmets, but people who carved up ducks for fun, owned bacon presses, deveined and poached their own foie gras and thought nothing of spending three hours in traffic just to find Tarbais beans.
When Wolfert’s book went out of print, it seemed almost fitting. Valuable things, particularly esoteric ones, become more so because of their rarity. Think black pearls. Or vintage Peralta Caballero skateboards. Food people would lend their copies of James Beard or Julia Child, but they kept this book in locked drawers or hidden under pillows. One friend even kept hers with the unpublished manuscript of her first novel -- in the freezer in case the house burned down.
So the November reissue of Wolfert’s classic created no small buzz. Not only could you actually get the book now, but it wasn’t stained by demi-glace; moreover, it was updated for modern times. Members of the foodie website eGullet, who had been enlisted to test Wolfert’s recipes, were positively effusive, gushing at electronic length about the glories of every ingredient, every method, every dish.
A lot has happened since 1983. Truffles from Oregon! Confit at your local Whole Foods! Foie gras FedEx’d from D’Artagnan! To this end, the revised edition discusses new sources for food that’s not only available now in America, but even produced here.
There are new techniques to accommodate health consciousness and advanced kitchen gadgets (like the sous-vide machine); coverage of a new region (the Auvergne) not included in the original; and 60 new recipes, either from another of her out-of-print books (“World of Food,” 1988) or newly pried from the hands of the secretive Gascony matriarchs.
Wolfert’s recipes are not concoctions she invented in her Sonoma kitchen. They’re culled from years of fieldwork in Southwest France, updated for those of us without shotguns or root cellars, but otherwise straight from the local cooks themselves.
This is the charm, the importance -- and the difficulty -- of Wolfert’s books. She’s a cultural anthropologist for regional cooking, whether it be the rustic cuisine of the south of France, or the food of Morocco or the Mediterranean, all regions she’s explored with depth and eloquence in previous books.
But not everyone is temperamentally suited to cutting up wild rabbits and draining their blood for use in sauces, or surfing the Internet and forking over big dough for fresh Boletus edulis (porcini or cepes). Extreme cooking, like whitewater kayaking and out-of-bounds snowboarding, is only for a small segment of the population.
For the ingredients, though much easier to find than they were 20 years ago, still require a kind of elaborate treasure hunt -- and one that often ends up on the Internet. And they’re often prohibitively expensive. Tarbais beans, for example, are available for retail in only one store in Los Angeles (Nicole’s, in South Pasadena). You have to ask for them -- they’re so special that they’re kept hidden in a box in the back room -- and they go for $10.99 a pound. For dried beans!
And the time involved can be quite astonishing, especially as Wolfert’s recipes are filled with temporal fault lines and crevasses: batters that need to sit for an hour or two, fruit that needs to soak overnight -- or for six months -- pork belly that needs to brine for three days, then braise, then roast, then refrigerate, then chill, weighted down with that kitchen tool that very few of us have burning a hole in our utensil drawer, the bacon press.
But the challenge is part of the fun of Wolfert’s recipes. There’s a Maginot line between recreational cooks and people who buy blow torches for their creme brulees -- and any cookbook that nonchalantly calls for pig knuckles and forest fires (as a cooking method, that is) is worth its weight in duck confit.
A cook’s largesse
COOKING my way through the rest of Wolfert’s book wasn’t nearly as much fun as steaming my Christmas tree, but it came close. A week and a half and 14 recipes later I was exhausted, my friends were spoiled rotten, and the contents of my refrigerator could have fed -- easily, exquisitely -- the French Foreign Legion.
The food was glorious: interesting, complex, deeply satisfying. But it was certainly not for the uninitiated -- and many of the recipes were often vague or problematic.
The recipe for poached chicken breast, Auvergne style, for example, doesn’t tell you what kind of cabbage to use, or how exactly to wrap up the chicken. I assumed it should be Savoy -- that’s what the photo showed, and so that’s what I used. When cooked as long as the recipe demanded, Michel Bras’ stuffed onions charred black in the oven. And both the creamy bean soup with croutons and crispy ventreche and the duck leg ragout with green olives and eggplant needed quite a bit of water added to them at one point during cooking to get them right.
The pureed soup was more like mortar than soup before the additional water; and the ragout was going the way of the blackened onions.
The recipe for casserole of moulard duck with potatoes was also highly problematic, firstly because I had to substitute Muscovy for the moulard (which, for Southern California cooks, is only available online), and secondly because if you follow the recipe, you end up with duck carpaccio.
These were problems that could be easily solved by the patient -- and knowledgeable -- home cook. But they were frustrating. Even given the normal vagaries of cooking (differing climate, pans and products, oddly calibrated ovens) one can’t help but conclude that maybe it wasn’t a good idea for Wolfert to rely on her fans on eGullet to test the recipes.
The book does include problem-free triumphs. The pork belly with fresh fava ragout came off without a hitch, as did the chicken thighs with Pineau des Charentes. Both were fantastic, multilayered, beautiful dishes. And flambeing a third of a bottle of the hard-to-find fortified Pineau, at almost $30 a bottle, was a kick, though fiscally painful.
Then there’s the cassoulet, the true test of inclusion into the secret handshake society. The recipe is for Andre Daguin’s “original” cassoulet -- “original” because, as Wolfert tells us, favas predated the white Tarbais beans more commonly used in the dish. Of course I had to try it.
I enlisted the Test Kitchen to help shuck. And shuck. And shuck. Nous avons shuckines. Then I went home and cooked. And cooked. Seven hours after the shucking had stopped, the cassoulet was ready.
The windows beyond my kitchen were dark; I could hear the traffic from the people heading home to eat ordinary dinners. I lifted the lid of the pot I had to spend $210 plus tax on in order to properly cook the dish. I ate my dinner at the stove, slowly. It’s surprisingly difficult to eat when you’re smiling.
In the end, it was worth it.