Cassoulet – A Labor of Love

CassouletCassoulet is one of my favorite wintertime French dishes.  On the surface it doesn’t seem like anything too special, basically a white bean stew with some meat in it, slow cooked into a rich, hot, warm your bones dish.  I don’t think you simply “cook” or “make” cassoulet, it’s something you actually “build.”  In her French cooking opus, Julia Child offers a “Note on the Order of Battle.”  I don’t think assembling cassoulet is quite a battle but you definitely need a plan because the dish is not one of your quick- throw-together weeknight dinners.  In fact almost everyone recommends days to assemble it.  They’re not me though! 

But where to turn for guidance on this?  The cassoulet I know is one which has duck confit, sausages and some sort of meat.  Time to consult the library.  First I looked in my mom’s recipes.  Sure enough there’s a recipe.  But this one has a beef shank and pork shoulder in it and the sausages are knackwurst or bratwurst.  Hmm.  Julia Child says pork, lamb or mutton, and sausage cakes, with goose confit.  Anthony Bourdain says pork belly, pork rind, pork sausage, duck legs confit.  Confused yet?

It suddenly occurs to me cassoulet is one of those dishes which does not have a standard recipe.  Or rather it has a standard recipe for whatever area of France you are in, where the recipe passionately defended as the one and only way to cook cassoulet thus making all other cassoulet recipes incorrect and deserving of scorn and ridicule.

Well that’s ok then.  It means I really can’t go too wrong since I’ll be making it “a la Chicago Nord.”  From all my research (three very good sources!) cassoulet requires beans, a form (or two) of pork (belly, bacon, rind, shoulder), a sausage, and some form of confit.  Julia says in Toulouse it’s goose, but Bourdain uses duck, and my mom had chicken.  Like I said, plenty of gray area here for me to work with, which is good because I’ve been slowly making the necessary pieces over the past few months with my meat curing and sausage stuffing experiments and would have been gutted if my efforts were for naught.  (See my previous posts on making bacon, garlic sausage, duck confit.)  Ok so I guess it has taken me more than a day to assemble.

In the end I went with Julia’s basic method for the beans but without the pork loin and lamb.  In my opinion, cassoulet is really a dish which is all about the beans and infusing them with great flavor.  Julia really knows how to do this.  Her method takes a while but it’s totally worth it.  After the beans though I did my own thing.  Instead of a lamb stock I used some store-bought demi-glace and mixed it in with some of the duck stock I made plus a couple of cups of water.  Saved some time there.  Overall the entire production (soaking beans, cooking beans, assembling, baking) took about 4 to 4-1/2 hours, 70% of which is bean soaking/simmering time so it’s not that bad.  Trust me it’s worth it.

Side Roam: The vessel you use to cook the cassoulet in will make a difference in some of the amounts.  For example, I did not have the recommended large earthenware clay casserole which Julia instructs to use.  I used a big 8 quart stock pot as it is the biggest pan I have, so the surface area for the bread crumbs is smaller, thus making 2 C of bread crumbs way too much.  I ended up using a little more than 1 C which was plenty.  It also affected the cooking time.  I needed about 1 hr 20 mins instead of an hour to get the dish bubbling and the crust really brown and crusty. Like this:

Doesn't that look awesome?

Doesn’t that look awesome?

As always with cooking no recipe works the same for everyone and please improvise!  Just make sure you treat the beans with respect, they’re the foundation and key to a good cassoulet.  The following served 4 people very comfortably with plenty of leftovers for me.  You can easily serve 6-8 people with this.

Cassoulet (adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

  • 2  lb white beans (Great Northern)
  • 1 lb slab unsmoked  bacon (pancetta or ventriche are probably be even better)
  • 8 oz pork rind/salt pork (save that skin from the bacon!)
  • Sachet d’epice – 4 cloves of unpeeled garlic, 2 whole cloves, 2 bay leaves, ½ tsp thyme wrapped in cheesecloth
  • 1 C sliced onion
  • 4 Duck sausage (I did not make this particular sausage, saw it in the freezer at a store and threw it in our basket to further augment the dish)
  • 8 garlic sausage
  • 2 duck legs confit
  • Water, water everywhere for all the beans to drink! (Cheryl will roll eyes at that unrelated obscure reference to the best poem about an albatross)
  • 4 C stock (duck, pork, lamb, try to match your main protein)
  • 14 oz Demi-glace (2 small tubs, they sell the D’Artagnan ones in my grocery store)
  • 2 C bread crumbs
  • ¼ C duck fat

First step is to prepare the beans.  You can soak them overnight or do what I do and use the quick soak method.  Bring 4 ½ Qt water to a boil.  Add the beans.  Boil for 2 minutes, then remove from heat and cover.  Allow beans to soak for 1 hour.

In the meantime, place the pork rind/salt pork in a pan and cover with water.  Bring to boil, boil for 1 minute. Drain and rinse off the pork rind/salt pork.  Repeat.  Cut the pork rind into ¼ inch strips then cut into small triangles.  Return to pan, cover with water, simmer for 30 minutes.  Drain and reserve liquid.

After the beans have soaked for an hour add the 1 lb of bacon, 1 C sliced onions, the pork rind, and the sachet d’epice to the beans.  If you need more liquid to keep the beans submerged add some of the reserved pork rind liquid.

Simmer slowly over low heat for 90 minutes or until beans are just tender.

Remove bacon, allow to cool, and slice into ¼” chunks.  Remove sachet d’epice and discard.

Drain the beans reserving the liquid.

In a large pot add 4 C of duck stock, 14 oz demi-glace, and 2 C water.  Bring to simmer.  Add the drained beans.  Continue to simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow beans to “steep” for 10 minutes.

Drain beans (again) and reserve liquid (again, almost there, I promise).

In a large casserole (or large pot like me if that’s all you have), arrange a layer of beans on the bottom.   Spread the bacon chunks on top of the layer of beans.

Arrange another layer of beans then top with sausages.

Arrange another layer of beans and top with duck confit.

Finish with a final layer of beans.  Pour the reserved duck stock/demi-glace into the pot so it comes up to just even with the beans.  If you need additional liquid use the reserved original bean cooking liquid (you still have that right?).  Top with the bread crumbs and drizzle with the duck fat.

*You can stop here and set aside for later or put in the refrigerator for the next day.

Pre-heat  the oven to 375°F.

On the stove, bring the casserole to a simmer.  When it is simmering place casserole into oven.

After 20 minutes check to see if a crust has formed.  Break a hole in the crust and baste with liquid from beneath.  Reduce oven temp to 350°F.  Repeat a couple of times.

Cook for 60-120 minutes, or until the crust has browned and the cassoulet is bubbling.  Serve piping hot with plenty of wine!  Oh and you’ll definitely need a digestif to “punch a hole” and help it all settle in your stomach after this.

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One comment

  1. G’day Gastronome! I happened onto this post while looking for info on espagnole. While Im not sure if I ultimately found the info I was after I enjoyed this diversion as I reflected on my own laborious efforts with cassoulet.
    tomandtony.com/2012/06/23/cassoulet-5/
    Cheers!

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