It’s Friday Night Dinner time! This is still very exciting for me. We skip over S1:E2 because, although it has some priceless Emily moments, there is no dinner at her home, alas. Oh, I can’t just skip over it. It’s one of my favorite episodes in the whole series with some classic scenes (think opening credits). Emily does make mention of the new ritual when she says, “Dinner, Friday night. No spurs, please.” (Shameless plug: check out my rendition of the outfit referenced, as well as my experience at the ATX Television Festival here.) Just watch, or rewatch, the episode. It’s so good!
On to S1:E3, which opens– bang!– right in the middle of a Friday Night Dinner. Plates are being cleared, but Emily slays me with one line: “Mira does make a perfect cassoulet.” A…. what? My food vocabulary is decent and I’ve heard the term, but you couldn’t have asked me to describe it. Hopefully it’s a fancy word for casserole. I’m good at casseroles. Invite me to a potluck any day and I can bring you a casserole. No? Pinterest says no. Well, I suppose if “casserole” is a one-dish meal, then cassoulet is technically a casserole. I selected this recipe for Traditional French Cassoulet. Of course, if it’s French, it must be rather involved, with at least one ingredient that I’ve never cooked with before. Essentially, it’s a bean stew with a butt-load of braised meat that slow cooks in a Dutch oven for about six hours. (SIX HOURS! Not a typo. This is August in Texas, y’all. My a/c unit is going to hate me.)
The week is shaping up to be a busy one for me, and I’m nervous about this meal, so I go out and buy the ingredients before I chicken out. Not too crazy. I did have to ask the butcher where to locate the salt pork. Now, that is one unappetizing slab of meat. Smells like bacon, but I sure hope it hides itself in the finished cassoulet. I didn’t even look for duck fat; it was optional anyway. And there were no dried cannellini beans (white kidney beans), so I opted for dried red kidney beans. In hindsight, I probably should have substituted with great northern beans or navy beans to be closer to the original recipe, but the kidney beans gave it the look and flavor of a Cajun red beans dish. Have you tried it? There’s a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Picayune, MS called Two Sisters that makes the best red beans and rice EVER. This cassoulet reminded me of that– high praise.
I waited until Chompers’ nap time, figuring that it would be done in time for dinner around 6 or 7. The prep time took longer than expected; all of the meat had to be seared in batches… and did I mention that it’s a LOT of meat? Smoke, too! Windows open, fan buzzing, I was shocked that baby boy slept through it. Then some stock simmering to soften the beans before adding all of the browned meat and cooking uncovered in the oven ALL afternoon. The goal, according to the recipe, is to create a thick, almost black crust on top, breaking it up and gently mixing everything every 30 minutes. I’m on board with this. One of my favorite lines on The Chew is when Carla Hall shouts, “There’s flavor in the brown!” So true.
It’s shaping up to be done more around 8pm, if the recipe is to be trusted (always a variable). I have nothing to judge this by, as I’ve never eaten cassoulet. Cooking blind, here, and hoping that 8 hours of work doesn’t go down the drain. I made a couple of mistakes that can be easily rectified next time. #1: ADD WATER! Each time you check it, you are supposed to add water as needed to cover the beans. I did this, but couldn’t tell that it wasn’t enough until it was served. As a result, it was a bit dry and the beans near the bottom were mushed together like refried beans. #2: Little did I know that when I snuck some out of the pot around 6pm for Chompers’ dinner, it was probably perfectly done then. The next 90 minutes that it cooked added to the drying out and resulted in an “almost black” crust that was significantly darker than the recipe’s picture. That crust confused, me, too. I took the instructions to mean that at each 30 minute check, it would have developed a crust over the top that you break up with a spoon and gently shake into the mixture. I never really saw that crust. The chicken skin got yummily crusty, to be sure, but other than that, it wasn’t like I imagined. But when I served up the cassoulet, I found it! Somehow, my version’s crust ended up on the bottom of the pan. Probably an inch thick, no joke. Leave it to me to make an upside-down cassoulet. That pot will be fun to wash. (And since I worked 24+ hours on a crazy busy weekend, it was still soaking in the sink for me on Monday. Awesome.) The best part of the cassoulet was the garlic sausage. The slow cooking gave it the texture of mashed Spam. (Unless you’re from Hawaii, that may not be an appetizing comparison.) It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Recipe notes: lots more water, and a full stir instead of a “gentle shake” every 30 minutes to keep the beans from sticking to the bottom. Have you made this dish before? Please give me some tips, because it was really yummy, and I’d love to make it better. Maybe I can ask Mira/Sarah.
Why are there two Friday Night Dinners in one episode? Well, it really doesn’t add up chronologically, (Friday dinner, golf with Grandpa on Sunday, when does the wedding at the inn happen… on a weeknight? Odd. How long did they save the wedding cake before bringing it to the next Friday dinner?), but that’s the good thing about fiction. If it works artistically, it’s up to the viewer to suspend reality and appreciate the effect. The effect here is that we see Emily suggest that Rory and Richard spend a day together, Lorelai balks, Rory enjoys herself, Lorelai gets jealous of this new bond and lashes out, they return to Friday night dinner and Emily gloats. It’s beautiful, and even includes a crazily immature fight about who has bigger boobs. It’s an interesting dynamic to see Rory develop relationships with her grandparents, and Lorelai viscerally react to it. My husband the counselor would say that she is suddenly on the outside of the triangle– and it’s an uncomfortable place for someone who likes being the center of attention.
The episode is framed not only by Friday Night Dinner, but specifically dessert. The first dinner shows a large, possibly coconut frosted cake with chocolate dripping down the sides. Looks amazing, but oh, Emily! Do you plan for me to make a cake every week? You’re killing me, smalls. Imagine my excitement, then, when we get to the second dinner and hear this brilliant exchange:
E: You brought us used dessert?
L: It’s not used. It’s left over.
E: How nice. I’ll just put it in the kitchen next to my half-empty box of Cheer.
USED DESSERT! I’M SAVED! I have half of last week’s chocolate cake in the freezer. Seriously, this week would have buried me if I had had to bake another cake. Might as well take advantage of this gift and serve used dessert.(If you consider yourself a cook or a baker, please don’t hate me after looking at this photo. Instead, pity me, and my family who depends on me for sustenance. Pity us, then come and cook for us!)
I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that although I’ve watched the series countless times over the years, I haven’t looked ahead at future dinners and therefore have no idea from week to week what I’ll be cooking, or for how long I’ll be doing this. We may be in for a crazy ride. Do try the cassoulet, but wait until winter. I can picture how comforting this dish would be, slowly warming the house and filling it with a heavenly aroma on a chilly day. Serve it with some crusty bread, a light salad, a robust wine, and some dazzlingly witty conversation, and you have the makings of a bona fide Gilmore family dinner.
Until next Friday, cheers!